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Used Car Review: 2003 Lada Niva 4×4

Kamil Kaluski November 8, 2011 Cars You Should Know, Used Car Reviews 28 Comments

Some say that this is a revolutionary 4×4 vehicle. Developed in the 1970s, it was the one of the first, if not the first, to feature a unibody design and a coil-sprung independent front suspension. The design, which was based on the Lada passenger car, which itself was based on an old Fiat, was developed and put into production on the request of the government which claimed that there was a need for comfortable countryside car.

Starting with the basic Fiat chassis, the wheelbase was shortened and a two-speed full-time four-wheel-drive system installed. The vehicle was raised, but retained the rear live-axle, and all vulnerable components were neatly hidden. This was supposed to be the Russian Range Rover, whereas the UAZ 469 (more on that later) was the answer to the military Land Rovers and Jeeps of the era.

Image source - Auto Express

The word Niva means “crop field” (or something like that) in Russian and that is where the Niva was design to be driven; dirt roads, forest roads, small streams, sandy roads, and snow. The Niva is therefore missing things often seen on U.S.-spec off-roaders, such as extensive skid plates, big bumpers, rock-sliders, and big tires. There is actually nothing big about the Niva; it weighs in at about 2600lbs, has 86” wheelbase, and at 147” it is shorter than a Miata.

Originally the Niva was “sold” only to high-ranking government officials but it slowly made it its way down the list to forest workers and the like. In the early ‘80s first exports of the Niva reached Germany, where they were instantly pimped-out by the off-road crowd. Unfortunately better made and more refined small Japanese off-roaders, such as the Suzuki Samurai, limited Niva’s popularity.

Few interesting facts about the Niva:

  • The parking lights and turn indicators were intentionally placed above the headlights to maximize their visibility after the vehicle has been driven through mud or snow.
  • The Niva was the first vehicle on North Pole, way before Clarkson’s HiLux got there. Except the Niva was dropped from a helicopter on a parachute.
  • The Niva was the two-time world record holder for being a vehicle which climbed to the highest altitude. First at Mt. Everest base camp at 5200 meters (17060 feet), and again in the Himalayas at 5726 meters (18786 feet). Current record stands at 6080 meters (19947 feet) and is held by a modified VW Toureg.
  • The Niva competed in the grueling Paris-Dakar Rally, or as it is known today, Dakar Rally, which takes place in South America (thanks terrorists!). The Niva finished 3rd overall in 1981, 2nd overall in 1982 and 1983, and 4th in 1986. One of the drivers was Jacky Ickx.

Lada Niva at the Paris-Dakar Rally

The Niva is still built today, relatively unchanged from its 1977 introductory year. The taillights are different, the engine gained 100cc and fuel injection, and the interior was slightly upgraded with newer fabrics, headrests, and seatbelts. It is also available as a 4-door, on a stretched wheelbase. The pictured car is 2003 model year with approximately 50,000 miles. It is equipped with a fuel-injected 1.7-liter gasoline engine, 5-speed manual (the only choice) transmission, and all the standard features including locking front, center, and rear differentials. After-market additions included a radio, brush guard, auxiliary lights, running boards, and a hitch.

The owner told me that is has been very reliable, requiring only basic maintenance, which is anything but basic by modern day standards. There are some annoying issues, mostly associated with the quality of the interior pieces, such as a window crank falling off and various rattles. This particular Niva also happens to have an appetite for various light bulbs.

The driver’s seat is nicely elevated and offers no support. Visibility is great all around but the side mirrors are tiny. The ignition switch is located on the left side of the steering column, odd as I don’t remember the Niva ever competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Interestingly the rear hatch release is located behind the driver’s seat, on the middle of the B-pillar, and the spare tire in located in the engine compartment. Turn the key and three solid wah-wah-wahs of the starter motor will bring the engine to life. Little rough at first but she settles down.

Note the spare tire location. Image source: TopGear.uk

Transmission throws are long and the gates are vaguely defined, I wasn’t sure if I was in first or third. Once I got going there wasn’t much to it, it drove like any other car, perhaps in a slightly leisurely fashion. It all changed when I pulled into the middle of busy intersection, stopped and waited for traffic to clear so that I could make a left turn. Son of a… no power steering. It’s needless to say that there is no ABS, airbags, stability control, and all that other stuff but there are 3-point seatbelt for all four passengers, probably added in the late 90s.

On the highway it is smooth sailing, up until about 60mph at which point the engine falls out of its comfort zone. To be fair, the 2010 Wrangler I drove a while back behaved similarly at 80mph. In a pot-holed city, and on a dirt road which the Niva was designed for, I felt a little disappointed as the ride was rather bumpy. Most off-roaders are softly sprung to allow for better axle articulation but the Niva suspension felt surprisingly stiff, which should not discount its off-road abilities.

Funny, while at first I felt indifferent about the Niva, but the end of my time with it I was surprisingly smitten by it. It certainly has the kind of charm and personality which we tend to find in older cars, but you can still buy a new one for around $12,000. The Niva is simple, small, and affordable which happen to be the three traits commonly absent from new cars. I kind of want one.

  • For some reason I forgot to take better pictures of it, so I had to borrow some from the tubes of the inter webs. Sorry.

  • Devin

    I was hoping it'd be bad so I could shake my own infatuation with it. Apparently it isn't though, crud.

  • jeepjeff

    Lockers all around is pretty cool standard equipment. For the same model year (2003), you had to buy the Rubicon special edition Wrangler to get lockers. The best you could do on a Sport was a Dana 44 rear with an LSD, which was an option, even for the sport trim. It's still a burly setup—that's what's in mine—but I cannot lock up both my diffs, the transfer case is effectively the same as a locked center diff, though.

    ABS was designed for tarmac, so if you're running it as an offroader, you're better off without if you know what threshold braking is. (In fact, ABS can damage your vehicle on rocks, and it can increase your stopping distance in snow, but y'all knew that.)

    We the only thing I'd do to it is move the spare. It might be nice to have a little lift, possibly a bit of forced induction to give it a power bump. Looks like a nice little ride. Happiness is a short wheelbase.

    • Lift-kits, engine swaps (diesel baby!), spare tire racks, all available in the after-market world.

      • jeepjeff

        If there are diesels that would fit, that's the way to go, rather than forced induction. Low end torque is so much fun. I'm in 'merica, so diesels tend to be either rare or gigantic 6L+ V8s (Thank You, GM!), thus it didn't immediately occur to me. That thing would be awesome with a diesel.

        I'm going to keep my Jeep, but it sounds like a competent little 4×4.

        • I'm also in America, owned a CJ-7 and a 4-cyl TJ. Going to drive the '12 Wrangler later tonight. Cheers.

          • pj134

            Gentlemen, behold!

            • jeepjeff

              That's dope. My Dad has a Jetta TDI, those are sweet engines. I'm still annoyed that Chrysler never dropped a CRD into a Wrangler (at least, not in the US).

              • pj134

                Unless they want Jeep to die, Chrysler will have to start bringing over efficient diesels to boost their numbers for CAFE regulations.

                • jeepjeff

                  I will be excited. Please Chrysler, do not screw this up.

                • cheapthrills

                  Or they will continue putting the Jeep name on Dodge Calibers.

          • jeepjeff

            I guess, I meant that I was born here in the 80s, so by the time I was aware of cars, the whole "diesel bad" mindset had calcified for around a decade. The only diesels I knew about when I was growing up were big, rip-snorting, black cloud spewing V8 trucks. Diesels didn't come on my radar until within the last 10 years, and only as a rare oddity.

            My Dad bought his Jetta six or seven years ago, and he did it to run on biodiesel, so he could outsmug obnoxious hybrid owners and have a proper transmission.

            On top of that, my stepfather has a CRD Jeep Liberty. He bought it for the torque and burns 100% dinosaur oil in his.

            So, even though I have those family connections, the market focus on gasoline vehicles still causes me to forget to think, "hey, that would be bonkers with a diesel"! Instead my mind tends to jump right to a roots supercharger for low-end boost if I'm looking for that mountain-of-torque curve on a smaller engine. My other line of thinking is displacement (says the man with a 4.0).

            Speaking of which, have fun with the '12 Wrangler. From everything I've read, the torque curve on that engine should be ridiculous good fun (hallelujah for the death of the minivan engine). I can't wait for the report.

  • oldcarjunkie

    I've owned three Nivas – 1984, 1991, and 1996. Great vehicles especially with the FI engine. They were not based on a Fiat design. From scratch but used axles and engines from existing Lada cars but not the floorpans, etc. The engine photo above is the diesel.

    • Hmm, I did a lot of research on this and that's where it led me. Sorry.
      Yea, I did not get a pic of the engine of the Niva I was driving, this was borrowed from another site if for no other reason then to show the location of the spare tire.

      • oldcarjunkie

        Here is my old 1996 engine – GM TBI fuel injection – uses the same air cleaner housing as the carb.

        ; width="500" height="375" alt="1995 Lada Niva engine">

        • TurboBrick

          I remember what a weird combination that was when it came out, Ladas with American fuel injection. And now we have Alexander Ovechkin as the captain of the Washington Capitals.

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    Nice, an '03 model anything with ash tray and no cup holders!

  • Geometroman

    If they sold them new in the US, I would definitely buy one. It's got everything I like in a car (It's small and basic) and nothing I don't (airbags, crumple zones, ABS, huge size, power windows, etc.). The fact that it is rather third world in it's level of refinement only adds to it's charm as I tend to prefer simple, robust machines that are easily repaired by a bush mechanic instead of requiring a factory trained technician with a full compliment of vehicle-specific tools (like a KDF-Wagen).

    • Devin

      You really need a new one? It hasn't changed in decades, you could easily get a decent used one and if there's some newer equipment you prefer sub it in. The high end of the price range is $3k here in Canada.

  • I always wanted one of these.

    When Lada imported them to the UK they put together a spec package called "Cossack" that included graphics, rally wheels, carpets, seat covers, basically made for a machine that felt slightly less like it had driven straight from the Siberian tundra.

    And now I want one again. Again.

  • Excellent write up!!! Me and my Niva heartily approve!
    <img src=";

    Just out of curiosity…where was the one that you drove? Here in the 'States?

    • No, in Poland, along with the Polonez I wrote about earlier and other Commie cars. 🙂

  • Lotte

    Glad to hear that one is reliable, but I'm still not entirely convinced. How's quality control? Customer relations? Like Soviet ICBMs, most of them are probably capable and reliable, but I'm not entirely sure if mine would be a good one…probably have to know a friend of a friend at the factory like the other one, right?

    BTW, I love these used car reviews of cars I've never even heard of. Keep it up!

    • I have heard that the ones that were built before Communism fell were of a much better build quality. It's amazing how well something can be built by someone who has an AK-47 stuck into their back.

    • The answer is… I don't know.

      Thanks, I got a few more coming, just no time to write them. 🙁

  • facelvega

    Great review, and a vehicle about which it seems I actually subconsciously already wanted to read a review, so a good choice of topic. It's sad to think that judging from European prices, a brand new Niva would sell for about ten or eleven grand here, delivered. I would probably already have one.

  • locker_33

    respect for this car 😉

  • gtemnykh

    Might want to check your facts, the front and rear differentials are open units on a stock Niva. It’s a fulltime transfercase (another novel thing in the 70s), with one of those two stubby levers locking the center differential. The other stubby shifter is for high/Low range selection.