The Lada Niva is brilliant and important | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

05th February 2021
Gary Axon

Lost amongst the anticipation, excitement and detail of Groupe Renault’s recent reveal of its courageous ‘Renaulution’ future strategy plan – aimed at switching the Group’s focus from the unprofitable chasing of sales volume to now achieving greater profit margins – was the news of an exciting new Lada. Yes, you did read that right, an exciting new Lada to replace one of the world’s oldest and longest-running passenger cars still in production.


As part of its ambitious new product offensive to kick-start Groupe Renault’s profitability growth, the Renaulution roll-out plan will see 24 new vehicles introduced across the Group’s key marques by 2025 and beyond, with the promise of a new electric 21st century Renault 5 grabbing most of the headlines to-date.

Other noteworthy new model actions as part of this offensive will include a joint initiative between Alpine and Lotus to combine their shared knowledge of lightweight performance vehicles to develop a new electric sportscar, plus a zero-emission Alpine hot hatch and SUV. Other initiatives will include the introduction of Renault’s new Mobilize electric personal mobility brand, plus its successful ‘low cost’ value Dacia launching the Bigster, a new range-topping SUV to provide an affordable entry C-segment model.

The Dacia Bigster will be underpinned by the Group’s Alliance CMF-B platform, which it will share with new Lada models through close links between the Russian manufacturer and Dacia under the wider Groupe Renault group umbrella. Known locally as AvtoVaz, Renault’s Russian Lada satellite is set to introduce four new models by 2025. Importantly, one of these Lada models will be a brand-new version of the legendary Niva, Russia’s much-loved and most robust 4x4 off-roader.

Conceived in the early 1970s and previewed in many eastern bloc magazines in the mid-1970s ahead of its eventual final introduction in 1977, the Lada Niva has remained in production, largely unchanged, ever since. Over the past 46 years the boxy Lada off-roader has built up a solid, cult reputation, thanks not only to its endearing style, but more importantly, its simplicity, honesty and extreme off-road capacities.


After much unexpected excitement and anticipation in the western world, Lada gradually began exporting its affordable new Niva in 1978, including the UK (in LHD form only initially to meet pent-up demand) with the model quickly finding a ready market of loyal buyers seeking a rugged low-cost 4x4. Its reputation was reinforced by the Niva frequently beating the considerably dearer four-wheel-drive establishment (Land Rover, Range Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser, etc.) in the tough, unforgiving annual Cop Drive police 4x4 off-road tests.

By late 1979, RHD examples had begun to arrive in the UK, with the Niva going on to enjoy steady demand with budget-conscious British farmers and country dwellers, right up until the car’s withdrawal from sale here in 1997 due to Lada’s inability to get its no-nonsense four-cylinder engines to meet the ever-tougher emission regulations. An enterprising Londoner briefly attempted to reintroduce the model to the UK around a decade ago in LHD-only form, but he struggled to get the Lada to comply with the latest tougher EU emission and safety rules, making British registration very challenging.

As the Niva was quietly carving out its niche in the UK (helped by some eye-catching local market specials such as the Cossack and Hussar), elsewhere around the world the rugged Lada was gaining cult status as a capable off-roader with Paris-Dakar class victories behind it. Numerous locally-adapted examples were made, including a cabriolet in France, a pick-up in Canada, plus a longer wheelbase five-door derivative offered in many markets. The Niva went under many names too, being called the Taiga in Germany (due to another local company already owning the name), the Job in Italy, the Bushman in Australia, plus bizarrely the Bognor Diva in Uruguay, where the model was also assembled in CKD form.

In its native Russia, the model was initially known as the VAZ-2121 ‘Niva’ until 1993, when Lada frustratingly lost the rights to the Niva model name, which was changed simply to ‘4x4’ due to General Motors (a short-term Lada partner and ‘new’ fuel-injected 1.7-litre petrol engine supplier) claiming the much-admired Niva name tag from its new Russia-only five-door Chevrolet Niva SUV model.


In 2020 Lada regained the rights to its original Niva name following the departure of GM/Chevrolet from Russia (the former Chevrolet being rebranded as the Lada Niva Travel), AvtoVaz now attaching ‘Legend’ to the aged off-roader’s nomenclature. Despite its 46-years on market presence though, today’s Lada Niva Legend still looks as fresh and appealing as it did when first released back in 1977.

The latest 2021 models are now shod with modern alloy wheels, have a USB ports and even cup holders, but apart from a few subtle alterations made to the rear of the car some years ago to enlarge the tailgate opening (achieved by mounting the rear lights upright from their original horizontal position) a brand new 2021 Niva looks near-identical to one of 1977 vintage.

So, shortly ahead of its 50th anniversary, the original Lada Niva is finally set to be replaced by an all-new model within the next few years, as strongly hinted at as part of January’s far-reaching Renaulution strategy. Lada first gave an inkling of a potential Niva rebirth in 2018 when it revealed its 4 x 4 Vision concept at the Moscow Motor Show, but nothing more was heard of this prototype post-exhibition. 

Now, being more strongly linked to Groupe Renault, Lada is as much a fully-fledged entity within the group as Renault, Dacia, Alpine and the new Mobilize brand, so a global comeback for Lada’s most revered model with an obvious retro style will be made possible by sharing a four-wheel-drive base with the modern new Dacia CMF-B platform. Although remaining tight-lipped so far, it is thought that the new Niva will be powered by a hybrid motor at the very least, or possibly even a plug-in hybrid using the Renault Captur's E-Tech technology. This would suit the next Niva well as the new Lada looks set to be released just as the new Euro 7 standard comes into force in early 2025.

With other retro-inspired off-road SUVs such as the latest Land Rover Defender, Ineos Grenadier, Ford Bronco and Suzuki Jimny currently en vogue, a Lada return to lucrative export markets with the all-new Niva would make a welcome addition to our tarmac roads and muddy fields as a real off-roader, rather than just another countless ‘wanna be’ 4x4 SUV or crossover that now litter our motorways and supermarket car parks, yet typically avoid heading off-road at all costs! I for one cannot wait to welcome the return of the Lada Niva to the slippery country lanes of this green and pleasant land.

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