Russia’s PM Shows Off His Lada to Boost Domestic Car Industry
By Andy Bannister
Global 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.
The 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.
Ironically, 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.