1996 Lada Niva: our shed

By: Steve Kealy, Photography by: Steve Kealy

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1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva
1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva
1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva 1996 Lada Niva

Is Steve's Lada Niva the best car in its field?

1996 Lada Niva: our shed
1996 Lada Niva


1996 Lada Niva


The Lada Niva was once described as a Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis – and it’s hard to know who should feel more aggrieved: Lada owners, Renault owners or Land Rover owners.

Marketed largely to rouble-strapped Russian bogans, this utilitarian 4x4 owes more to obsolete Fiat designs than either rust-prone Renaults or frequently-failing Land Rovers. As such, the rugged little Russki manages to combine obsolescence, rust-lust and unreliability in a uniquely well-rounded package. Thus it has a special appeal to garage masochists and those with an appreciation of noise, vibration and harshness.

After an eye-opening exposure to Niva-ness years ago (I used a tester to tug out a bogged Land Rover), I fancied a Niva as a paddock bomb for the family patch. Not one to avoid a bargain, a roadside $500 deal saw me drive home in "Stalin’s Revenge". Remarkably, everything worked, right down to the headlight wipers.

A five-speed manual box, transfer case and locking diffs get all the thrumming 54kW (really about 35) to the ground. Coil springs at all corners and minimal overhangs mean it will go pretty much anywhere. In low range it’s hilariously slow and proved a great learning tool for the family teenager. If she hit a gumtree, either the tree would fall over, or more likely, the Lada would sit still, digging four holes. She learned to deal with sloppy steering, complete loss of the clutch, and brakes that pull left Monday to Thursday and right on other days. Between the Lada and a string of rise-by-size dirt-bikes, she’s becoming a competent driver, racking up her on-road L-plate hours in more roadworthy vehicles.

Both side mirrors are long-gone tree-victims, the driver’s window winder doesn’t, and sundry scampering wildlife has gnawed on the rubber and plastic under the bonnet, including the clutch reservoir (what is it about brake fluid that’s so moreish?). Much as I’d like to to use the Lada on our rural roads, I fear its best days are behind it and anyway, VicRoads just doesn’t have a sense of humour.

One of my mates is married to a Russian; during a family barbie, she heard we had a Lada and asked if she could "go sit".

"Sure, the key’s in it. Take it for a drive if you like."

Some time later she hadn’t reappeared, so I popped out to see if she was having trouble starting it – and there she was, sitting in the passenger seat, lovingly stroking the dashboard with a wistful expression. A familiar feel of life back home on the permafrost, perhaps…

Nivas have driven to the North Pole, to Everest Base Camp and have claimed several podiums at the Paris-Dakar. So there.


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