Before I went to Iceland to review the Land Rover Discovery Sport, I had one goal in mind: drive a Lada. I’ve always been fascinated by the old Soviet-bloc cars, and I’ve hardly ever even seen one in person. I knew Iceland had some, and thanks to the good people at Geysir Car Rental, my inane dream was made an inane reality.
I should just take a minute here and really thank everyone at Geysir. They saw my plea for a Lada online, and they were so friendly and willing to give me one to try out for a couple of days, even without making me promise to plug them all over the place or anything. The manager himself handed me the keys and an amazing xeroxed handwritten page of notes about the Niva from a Russian client. Now, let’s just enjoy this ceremonial Handing Off Of The Keys photo:
A magical moment.
So, thanks, Geysir. Now let’s talk about this car. For those of you not familiar with the Lada Niva, some background is in order. The Niva is possibly the most successful Soviet-designed car when it comes to global sales. It was developed in the ‘70s in the Soviet Union as something like the equivalent of a Jeep Cherokee or a Range Rover — an off-road-capable vehicle that could also be used to drive with comfort and practicality in town.
A bit more specifically, they wanted something that rural farmers could use out in the field (that’s what niva means in Russian) as well as being easy to navigate and cheap to run in the city. And I can’t think of a car that’s more of a visual metaphor for its stated goal than the Niva: it looks like a 1st-gen Golf/Rabbit wearing big clunky hiking boots.
And that’s sort of exactly what it is — a practical city econobox with a 4x4 truck chassis. It turns out that this basic formula is actually a pretty great idea, which is why Nivas have sold so well (comparatively) all over the globe. There’s been others, sure — Suzuki Samurai and Jimny, those 4x4 versions of the Golf, and so on, but I think the Russians should get some credit for being the first to really see this idea through on a large scale.
As I’m thinking about my time in this car, and figuring out exactly how to best convey the experience to you, my beloved readers, I’m realizing there’s one huge issue that has to be addressed before anything else: this car was built in 2010, but there is no way in hell this is a 2010 car.
Here, look in the engine bay. Tell me when you think this car was made — 5 years ago, or 25?
I mean, some of that is Iceland’s harsh conditions, but come on. Still, I’m a sucker for a spare in the engine bay.
In fact, I think this Niva may be best thought of as a 1981 car that just happened to be built in 2010. My current theory is that at some point in the Soviet era, a time machine was developed, but internal infighting kept it from being actually deployed to do anything. After the Soviet Union collapsed, I think the VAZ/Lada factory found it, and decided to use it to transport cars built in nice, cheap 1981 and sell them for present-day money. That seems to be the most rational explanation here.
The exterior design is plenty dated, sure, but the time-warp quality really hits you when you fiddle with those fussy, archaic door handles and climb inside. Immediately you’re transported to a world of brittle, hard, boxy black plastics and gauge clusters that, like modern cars, feature a pair of LCD screens — only these screens are about 2 inches wide and can only display the digits 0-9, in seven trapezoidal segments.
The windows are wind-up, of course, the seats are cloth, the floors are rubber, and there’s visible screw heads everywhere you look. I kind of love it. I mean, I drove this immediately after I spent two days driving the 2015 Land Rover Discovery Sport, and it is absolutely astounding how rich and lavish modern car interiors are. By comparison, that bottom-of-the-line Land Rover felt like the domain of a sultan — and not some shitty sultan, either — one with a harem and some manner of vast mineral reserves at his call.
But this Niva, it’s such an incredible throwback to the Time Before We Gave A Shit that it’s dizzying. Nostalgia swirls around you with every new shitty control you touch. For example, does anyone remember how, in the days before LEDs and institutionalized giving a shit illuminated switches would have these little 12V lights in them that would make the switch hot to the touch and eventually melt the surrounding plastic? I forgot all about those, until I had to turn on the defogger in the Niva.
I bet they could market those as “finger-touch heated switches.”
And the heater — let’s talk about the heater for a second. It worked pretty well at its job of delivering hot air to the car, as you’d expect something born on the steppes of Russia. What it didn’t do so well was actually direct that hot air. The hot air just sort of seeped out of the dash from every seam and crack. Sure, the volume was a bit more at the parts that I think were supposed to be vents, but you could find the hot air just sort of mashing out of everywhere. It’s as though the HVAC team watched a baby really overfilling a diaper with poop, till it was oozing out leg holes and waistband, and decided, “yeah, let’s get the heat to flow out just like that.”
Ergonomics was just a word that the designers of this car rolled their eyes at before shoving another control in an improbable place, like how the hazard light switch is exactly where you think the ignition key should go. Or how the indicator stalk is shorter and harder to reach than the high-beam switch stalk, so every time you go to turn you end up flashing your brights at someone. The rear hatch release is maybe the best example of this.
The hatch release is right behind the front seat, by the B-pillar in the left rear interior panel. Unless someone is actually sitting in the back seat, you have to get out of the car to pull it. It was clearly put there because that’s the easiest, straightest path for the release cable to follow to the hatch.
I like to imagine a scene where, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Lada hired Western automotive interior design experts to evaluate the Niva. One of these Ergonomic Experts approaches one of the Niva’s original designers, who’s working at a drafting table and smoking like a chimney. Here’s the scene:
Ergonomic Expert: Hi, Sasha. We were thinking that it’d be great if we could move this hatch release lever to somewhere where the driver can access it easily from the seat — a lot of cars have it down alongside the seat bottom on the left. What do you think?
(Without looking up, Sasha’s fist springs out, contacting the Ergonomic Expert’s face with a solid THUNK. In a fraction of a second, the act is over, and Sasha continues smoking and drawing, as though nothing happened. A solitary drop of blood falls from the Ergonomic Expert’s nose onto the floor.)
Ergonomic Expert: (awkward pause, strained swallowing sounds) Um, okay. Thanks for your input.
(Ergonomic Expert leaves.)
I’m pretty sure that’s the sort of interaction that’s kept the Niva exactly the fucking same for a solid 30 years.
It’s archaic. Woefully, wonderfully, irredeemably, painfully archaic. Which is probably why I like it so much. I love the no-bullshit design, I love the eminently practical lack of carpet and the rugged, hose-offable plastic load floor in the hatch, I love the perpetually surprised expression on the car’s face, the big round lights under the permanently raised eyebrows of the parking and indicator lights, and especially the gloriously half-assed quality of it all.
What’s wrong with me, exactly? Why was I delighted, and not horrified, to see this:
From what I can tell, that’s a really shitty spray-paint masking job to add in a little kick of underbody black to the rear wheel arch. Was that done at the factory? Is it there to hide some bit of rust? Is it, somehow, supposed to look like that? I have no idea.
But all that is just the fundamental essence of this car. Somehow, Lada has managed to make something that’s both shoddy and rugged, all at the same time. I don’t really fully understand how this is even possible, since you’d think those two qualities would cancel each other out. But, mind-bindingly, they don’t.
This car makes you feel that, simultaneously, you could pretty well tear it apart with your bare hands and it can somehow conquer any horrible road condition or rough terrain you can throw at it. How can that be? The Niva is a massive enigma, packed into a boxy white case.
I got to drive this Niva for about two days, over a pretty wide variety of terrain, from downtown Reykjavik to the big, open, lonely highway to Keflavik, to back roads so icy they were better suited to Zamboni travel, to rough, slushy, rocky, backroads that were really only roads in that they were places on the ground you could try to drive.
The Niva managed to do everything in pretty much the same coarse, noisy, yet capable way without any real trouble. Take the icy bits, for example. I was driving around a more industrial part of Reykjavik, looking for good places to take pictures of the car, when I stopped in a parking lot. I got out of the car, and promptly fell right on my ass because the pavement was a nice thick sheet of ice.
I didn’t notice how slick it was in the Niva at all, really, as it was able to drive over this ice with minimal trouble, and, I’ll be honest, I have no idea why. When I drove over ice so slick I couldn’t stand on it in the Discovery Sport, I knew it was at least in part thanks to the studded tires. This Niva didn’t have studded tires. Hell, it didn’t even seem to have particularly good tires at all, but somehow, improbably, it bullied that ice into relinquishing some sort of traction. Like so many things about the Niva, the more you scrutinize it, the less sense it makes.
On rough back roads, the Niva grips and grabs and climbs over whatever’s in its way. It has just about non-existent front and rear overhangs, and I’m told it’s very capable for true off-roading. I wasn’t sure which one of the two unmarked, accordi0n-booted levers put in in high or low range or locked or unlocked the diff, but I never hit a situation where I lost traction enough to even worry.
The Niva had no radio, which was probably just as well, since I’m not sure you’d have been able to hear it, anyway. The Niva may be the loudest, most cacophonous car I’ve ever been in. It’s not the usual sort of engine noise loud — though the Niva’s 1800cc 4-pot certainly is capable of making a good din, but it’s rather the accumulation of pretty much every part in the car, which seems to have been designed to make as much noise as possible.
Even at idle — from outside or inside the car — the car sounds like there’s a belt-driven Victorian valet-punishing baton factory under the hood. Every belt squeaks and emits an occasional shriek, pulleys periodically scrape, the valves clatter, transfer case gears vibrate, hoses drum, the whole thing sounds like a busy, dizzying chaos. It sounds like what I imagine a microphone would pick up if you shoved it in my grandfather’s mouth while he was eating minestrone soup.
At highway speeds of about 60-65 MPH, you have all the baseline engine sounds, plus a new concert of gears all through the spine of the car, and the persistent hum and throb of wind fighting hard against the garden-shed-like aerodynamics of the Niva’s shape. It’s so bad that at first I was sure the rear hatch was open or something, but, no, that’s just sort of how it sounds.
Driving the Niva in the city wasn’t bad at all — the relatively compact dimensions and high ride height are actually a pretty great combination for tighter city streets. Off-road, it’s bouncy but very capable feeling. On the smooth, open tarmac of the two-lane highway, though, the rough character starts to really show through, like trying to take an ape to a poetry reading.
The hydraulically-assisted steering is good on the rough, where you can really get a sense of the terrain you’re on, but on normal highway, it’s a bit ham-fisted. Also, it didn’t help that the alignment was so off on this Niva that the wheel had to stay tilted about 20° to the right to keep straight. The 80 or so HP engine is working pretty hard to go over 100 KPH/60 MPH even in 5th gear, but it will do it, loudly.
Oh, and on the highway, in between massive downpours, the wipers stopped working. Until the rain came back in force, when the extra moisture on the windshield acted as enough of a lubricant to let the beleaguered wiper motor actually move the rubber blades across the glass. I guess that’s sort of a rain-sensing wiper system?
I also had a bit of concern on the highway because in that hand-written set of instructions for the Niva, the guy mentions that the fuel tank is only 10.5 gallons or so, and he says “NEVER trust the fuel display!” As I remembered that I was halfway to Keflavik and surrounded by absolute nowhere. And I remembered it at all because I was wondering why the fuel indicator needle seemed to be moving backwards. Hm.
The Niva is very unrefined, sure, but it’s not exactly uncomfortable, either, and if the car actually was a 1981 model, it’d be forgivable. But this is a 2010 car, I have to keep reminding myself, and as such this level of rawness is glorious and astounding.
In spite 0f — or more likely because of — all these quirks and strange, ill-conceived design decisions, I found myself really loving the Niva. The Niva felt like your homely asshole friend who always manages to say the wrong thing at parties but who really has a heart of gold and you always, always know that when the shit gets real, he’s got your back.
And it wasn’t just me — when I was taking pictures of the Niva in Reykjavik several people stopped to ask me if I was selling the car. An old guy walked by me in the Niva and asked what year it was. I told him “2010, but you know, it’s a Lada,” and he gave me a knowing look and a warm laugh of understanding.
I felt good driving this car; I was happy to be seen in it, and the combination of the airy, open cabin, the strangely capable abilities, and the permeating half-assery of every little bit on the car gave you this intoxicating shrugged-shoulder sense of “fuck it! let’s go have fun!” The 2015 Discovery Sport, for all its advanced engineering, impeccable build quality, and serious off-road chops, for example, never gave me that feeling even once. And I love that feeling.
Maybe there’s just something about how driving something more minimal can just free you, to a degree. Being on a camping trip when a bear breaks into your Range Rover and freaks out and shits all over the inside is a tragedy. Being on a camping trip when a bear breaks into your Lada Niva and shits all over the inside is 5 minutes with a hose and a hell of a story to tell over and over again while drinking.
I’m really glad Matt talked me out of doing a numbered review for the Niva because, come on, in numbers this thing would be abysmal. And that really, really wouldn’t tell the whole story here. The Niva is an absolute relic — it’s incredible that you can still buy a car like this today, but it seems you still can — and for only about $9500.
Any attempt to really modernize or update the Niva, beyond the token-gesture facelifts they’re trying now, would absolutely ruin it. The Niva is what it is, it’s terrible and wonderful, archaic and adequate, shoddy and rugged. It’s confusing and ridiculous and practical and fantastic and I’d totally drive one.