Russia’s PM Shows Off His Lada to Boost Domestic Car Industry

By Andy Bannister

05.18.2009

lada-nivaGlobal leaders are usually associated with some of the world’s most expensive and luxurious cars, but the lack of a prestige badge hasn’t put off Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was happy this week to be spotted taking the wheel of his humble Lada Niva 4X4, a staple of that country’s motor industry for over 30 years.

The Prime Minister – who was previously Russian President – was seen by journalists driving his newly-acquired camouflage-coloured Niva at his residence on the Black Sea. Back in March, Mr Putin told workers at troubled AvtoVAZ, manufacturer of cars wearing the Lada brand, that he had bought one of their products.

Politicians being seen in a home-grown vehicle isn’t normally news, but the decidedly proletarian image of the Lada – especially in a country where the super-rich wouldn’t dream of being seen in a domestic product with its roots firmly in the Soviet era – does rather put Mr Putin in a class of his own.

VAZ started life assembling a sturdy, no-frills version of the Italian Fiat 124 sedan back in the early 1970s, and a car derived from that original Lada remains in production today, although the company has also graduated to a range of rather more modern hatchbacks such as the front-wheel-drive Kalina.

niva-off-roadThe Niva design favoured by Mr Putin was launched – as the Lada 2121 – as long ago as 1978, when the very unpleasant Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo held sway in Moscow and the Cold War was at its height. Unlike the Lada sedan, the Niva owed little to Fiat and was a proud product of design independence of the Soviet Union.

The world and especially Russia has been transformed since those days, yet the plucky Niva is going strong and is almost unchanged in appearance over 30 years later, save for a deeper and more practical tailgate.

Mechanically the car has been updated – it now has a 1700cc unit compared to its 1600cc it started life with – and the interior has been (slightly) improved, but a Cold Warrior would still feel at home in there.

Whilst Ladas have (often unfairly) been a joke to many western motorists over the years, one thing the Niva did and still does incredibly well is conquer some of the roughest off-road terrain, with a low centre of gravity and excellent ground clearance, combined with the short wheelbase.

If Mr Putin ventures into the Russian countryside in his it will probably run rings around the big, heavy German, Japanese and American 4X4s most of his wealthy compatriots drive.

Over the years the Niva has been exported to almost every corner of the globe, and is fondly remembered in many of them. Despite its great age and Lada’s rather poor reputation among consumers it is remarkably still available today in a few western markets – France and Germany, for example – where it is the cheapest “proper” 4X4 in existence.

chevrolet-nivaIronically, Lada’s Niva continues in production despite the launch of a more modern, less distinctive new Niva, which wears a Chevrolet badge. This totally updated model, which started life as the Lada 2123, is also made at Togliatti in Russia – home of the sprawling Lada plant – by a joint venture company called GM-Avtovaz.

While the Chevy has been a reasonable success, in view of GM’s current problems, the bets could be on Lada’s original outliving its replacement. And, in truth, the age of the design is almost irrelevant to many Russians. Given the notoriously poor roads and the sheer size of their country, a robust and easy-to-maintain vehicle is always going to find a market if it is affordable.

As for Mr Putin, while cynics might well dismiss his Niva-driving antics as a publicity stunt, he is an enormously influential figure in his homeland, whose burgeoning auto market has been hard hit in the last few months by the economic malaise.

AvtoVAZ, itself now partly owned by Renault, is far more dependent on home sales than almost any other car maker in the world, so urging Russians to support the home product could make a huge difference to the company.

Author: Andy Bannister

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11 Comments

  1. Dear President Obama,
    In light of this article, I would like you to consider purchasing the following vehicles in order to spur activity in our domestic market.

    Chysler 300 (I know you used to own one of these).
    Chysler Sebring
    any Jeep
    Dodge Ram
    Pontiac G8, G5, G3,
    Saturn Astra, Aura, Outlook, and Vue
    Hummer (Call Gov. Swartzeneggar to see how to squeeze mpg out of these)

  2. It ain’t pretty but it looks mighty sturdy.

    I know these have been sold in Canada and I would think we might see these here in America sometime.

  3. Have they ever crashed tested this thing like they do to Chinese imports?

  4. I loved these little things. The Niva was my first 4×4 and I had a good one – must’ve been made on a Wednesday. Sure the engine wasn’t great (as you’d expect of an Italian design which was then built by Russians) and the driveline was idiosyncratic (the rubber doughnut between the gearbox and transfer case that was meant to dampen driveline vibration and deal with odd connecting angles was a common ‘failure’) but the body was built like a tank. The thickest steel you’ve ever seen on a monocoque body!! Certainly didn’t make them safer….my guess is they would perform as well as a dropped tin of tomatoes in your average accident.

    If nothing else these things had character – some people could cope but many couldn’t.

  5. You’re right, they were sold in Canada. Maybe they still are.

    My relatives in Canada had one many years past.

  6. where in jamaica w.i can i buy the lada niva jeep for rough terrain drive and off road use in country side.

  7. I think japan cars are over priced and not well made it’s a shame.

  8. Wanna guess what will be the next car of the Russian PM?
    Visit http://www.gaz21.com
    We got a Volga (GAZ-21), we got a Niva (VAZ-2121), and…
    the next…
    is…
    Jeep Wrangler!

  9. How much would it cost to buy a Niva in Russia now?

  10. My favorite 4×4. Super Car.

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