The Lada Niva: Russia’s Forgotten Off-Road SUV

There are quite a few rugged off-road SUVs that never made it to the US. Like the Nissan Patrol, for example, or the Mitsubishi Pajero and Jeep. Nowadays, with the 25-year import rule, it’s possible for Americans to discover what they’ve been missing out on. But there’s one SUV that usually gets forgotten, even by off-roading enthusiasts and experts. Which is odd, considering it’s an especially hard-working and capable off-roader. But its origins in the depths of the Cold War may explain that. It’s the Lada Niva, and it’s one Russian export you shouldn’t dismiss.

What is the Lada Niva?

As UK publication The Independent describes, the 70s brought quite a lot of affordable off-road SUVs to the public eye. Mercedes had just released the first G-Wagen, and Toyota was about to reveal the replacement for the FJ40 Land Cruiser. But in 1977, as Hagerty explains, the Soviet Union managed to one-up the market outside the Berlin Wall.

1983 Lada Niva
1983 Lada Niva | Craigslist via Bring a Trailer

The Lada Niva was actually the world’s first unibody SUV—in a way, the Lada Niva is also the first crossover. It also skewed more towards the Suzuki Jimny than the Ford Bronco. The Niva was compact and simple and in some ways more advanced than some of its rivals. It came with 3 differentials, like the G-Wagen. It had coil springs all around, at a time when only the Range Rover had them. And its small size, low weight, and 4WD meant that, like the Jimny, it was remarkably adept at off-roading.

1981 Paris-Dakar Lada Niva
1981 Paris-Dakar Lada Niva | RM Sotheby’s

These SUVs were designed to go for long miles with little maintenance. This was a necessity in the Soviet Union, where even having a car would be considered a luxury. Road & Track reported that several French teams also raced Lada Nivas, fielding vehicles every year from 1981-1988. One Niva even finished 3rd in the 1981 Paris-Dakar, according to RM Sotheby’s.

I say, ‘was’ and ‘were,’ but I should probably say ‘is’ and ‘are.’ That’s because, rather like the 70-Series Land Cruiser, and unlike the Land Rover Defender, the Lada Niva is still in production.

It’s still in production

2019 Lada Niva 4x4 3-door
2019 Lada Niva 4×4 3-door | Lada

To be fair, the Lada Niva—now called the Lada 4×4, and made by Renault-owned AutoVAZ in Russia—has evolved a bit over the years. These changes include fuel injection, more powerful engines, and more refined transmissions.

2019 Lada Niva 4x4 Urban 5-door interior
2019 Lada Niva 4×4 Urban 5-door interior | Lada

But Jalopnik reports that the sixth-gen Lada Niva still offers the same rugged, durable design as all the Nivas before it. Only now, there’s a smidge more refinement. There are new sun visors, an upgraded climate-control system, better seats, and sound insulation, and even airbags equipped with emergency-response alerts. Oh, and cupholders.

The Lada Niva is now available in several trim levels (*insert decadent capitalist joke*). There’s the base 4×4 3-door, along with the more upscale 4×4 Urban and 5-door 4×4 About. There’s even a Power Wagon-esque trim, the 4×4 Bronto, with more ground clearance, reinforcements for the suspension and chassis, off-road tires, and even heated seats.

Can I import a Lada Niva?

Although the newest Lada Niva retains the boxy styling and somewhat questionable safety features, it would still be subject to US import laws. Meaning, bringing a 2020 Lada Niva to the States would require modifying it to comply with safety, lighting, and emissions regulations.

1989 Lada Niva Cabriolet
1989 Lada Niva Cabriolet | Bring a Trailer

That being said, the 25-year-and-older Nivas are free to import. Although finding a rust-free example, as well as spare parts, may be difficult. However, Autoweek recommends potentially looking to Canada as a source. A well-sorted Niva is remarkably cheap: a clean 1989 Cabriolet sold on Bring a Trailer for $5,300. That’s significantly cheaper than a G-Wagen Cabriolet. And buying one does mean getting into a rather exclusive off-roading club.