Neither my two friends or I had ever driven a classic Lada before, but we corrected that mistake by spending long hours behind the wheel of Jalopnik’s almost bone stock 1982 Lada 1200S to tell you what’s it like to hit the road with Russia’s finest vehicle, 44 years after its public debut.
We bought a classic Lada for reasons — awesome reasons that will be made very clear soon — and although I already explained how far the VAZ 2101 really is from being a cheap Fiat 124 copycat created by evil communists, driving the Lada that started it all revealed much more than we expected.
Although its true that I bought the car for $569, since then I put new tires on it, plus my expert mechanic replaced pretty much everything that could potentially fail, including filters, fluids, belts, the brake pads, the rear shocks, both the water and the fuel pumps and a few other bits here and there.
While Lada parts remain on the cheap side, this treatment turned Jalopnik’s orange wonder into a solid car, but since we didn’t do any performance upgrades, it also brought it much closer to the condition it rolled off the assembly line in 1982.
In fact, our Lada is so original that the glass still shows the OM Cyrillic stamps all around, its lamp covers proudly present their CCCP origins and the glovebox was full of its papers kept there since the early eighties. Considering that a low milage, totally stock 1200S can cost north of $6,000, I think we got a good deal.
In our quest to show you what’s a standard Lada like in 2015, I asked two of my friends who drove it to share their thoughts before I give you my verdict on this rather ignored classic.
Roland likes to travel light and go where no man has gone before. He drives the 1.6 Seat Toledo that took us all the way to Albania last year, but when he spent all of his money on backpacking in Cuba and eating all sorts of boiled horse guts in Mongolia, he used to have a Suzuki Swift that could only be opened through the trunk.
Of our Lada, he thought:
“It’s a nice car to be in, expect when you’re driving for long. The driver’s seat is not bad, but it doesn’t go back far enough, which leaves me with two options: either my ass starts to go numb, or my left foot.
Either way, it’s not ideal for the spine. I’m also missing an armrest, as the door handle is positioned way too low to act as one. The lack of headrests is not an issue though. The pedal positioning and the way the switches work are bit weird, and those few warning lights on the instrument panel are impossible to read at daylight. There are no cupholders or any other storage compartment you can at least put a phone in at the front, and while the glovebox is huge, it opens the wrong way around. The windows also don’t go all the way down, which is annoying.
Despite that, the Lada is surprisingly spacious inside, it has a huge trunk and the ventilation is perfect. The mirrors and the safety belts are useless, but the engine pulls nicely. The gearbox is amazing, shame it’s a four-speed because an extra gear would go a long way here. I also like that the door opener is a solid metal piece. The Lada even gets the public’s love wherever it goes. Overall, it deserves the thumbs up!”
Our second expert, Balázs, studied engineering and knows how to take apart a BMW E21, only to be unable to drive it for at least a year.
His first car was a Lada Samara, so when he saw how nice our 2101-3 is, he could’t wait to jump inside. He approved the purchase, and said:
“I find it amazing that something that was designed by the Italians in the sixties and assembled by the Russians almost 20 years later can work so well today. It’s absolutely livable and I like the fact that all the switches and dials follow a different logic than in any modern car. I think the styling is spot on, I love the huge greenhouse.
The rear seats are good but the front ones could be improved. The gearbox is as accurate as any of the best manuals, the cabin is airy and provides great visibility all around without becoming an oven, even on a hot summer day. It fits three guys and their complete luggage plus the camera gear, and although the 1.2 engine’s power is enough in most cases thanks to its low-end torque, it’s very slow uphill with this much added weight due to the fact that you don’t get more power with more revs. In fact, it doesn’t seem to like to rev at all, so I believe the Soviets must have simplified something because Italian-designed engines don’t behave like this.
The whole car is logical, it takes five minutes to understand and even easier to work on if you can ignore a few annoying details. It’s completely different than a western car built in 1982, but you get attached to it because it’s way better than the numbers would suggest.”
As for me, by now, I understand completely why this car meant the world to those millions who had very limited options and still had to wait a few years to get their cars. More then forty years after the Italians and the Russians agreed that it was ready, the VAZ 2101 remains a basic but still pretty well engineered car you can love for a variety of reasons.
The Russians might have been pretty bad at putting together these cars back in the day, and that might be why the world has turned their back on them, but tuned right and maintained properly, even this 60 horsepower 1200S has a cruising speed of 110 km/h on the highway, a gearbox that’s a joy to use once the juice starts to run out uphill, sufficient braking power to compensate for the useless safety belts and a cabin you can actually have a nap in.
It’s steering sucks almost as much as a 1968 Dodge Charger’s, but the engine has an unmistakable sound and a very smooth power delivery, it rides beautifully on bumpy roads and its cabin is wrapped in vinyl and the worst wood imitation to keep things socialist enough. I see no reason why somebody shouldn’t take a well preserved Lada as a weekend car over any other oddball from the seventies. It looks just like a Fiat 124 without being near as fussy, and I felt no shame driving it.
In fact, I felt happy.
Photo credit: Máté Petrány/Jalopnik
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