James May drives the new Lada Niva

Jeremy Clarkson, who can do everything, once said that a real man never reads an instruction book.
Not sure I agree with this. I bet the Apollo astronauts read a few books of instructions for the Lunar Module, and is he going to call them all a bunch of pansies?
When it comes to cars, though, he may have a point. Even really complicated modern cars with built-in satnav and reconfigurable suspension are pretty logical, and in any case, the handbooks are so massive you'd need to take them on holiday with you.

Words: James May

This article was originally published in the January issue of Top Gear magazine

However, and at the risk of being branded a right poof, here is an extract from the owner's manual for the car I've just been driving.
"Pull up the door handle to open the door from the outside. The courtesy light comes on automatically when the door is opened." How about that? I'd have struggled to work that one out for myself. It goes on:
"The doors have locks, which can be engaged from outside using button 1, or from inside using button 4. From inside, the door can be opened by pulling the handle, irrespective of the lock button position."
This is amazing. And there's more:
"The doors have convenient arm rests. Rotate window winder to slide window down."

To anyone who still thinks communism was a good idea, I present to you the English translation of the slim but incredibly thorough volume that is the handbook for a Lada. Thing is, this is not something I picked up at an autojumble. I found it in the glovebox of a brand new car (although one that has been in production since 1977) and one that is - sort of - on sale in Britain.
It's the Niva, the Russian word for crop field.

Mark Key, posing as Niva Imports in a funny Russian hat, has charged himself with importing this fine icon of Soviet automotive excellence for the first time since the early Nineties. It's yours for a bit under £10,000 in red, white or blue, and comes with a two-year warranty that will be honoured providing you have the car serviced at a VAT-registered garage. Try getting that past your Merc dealer.
Currently, the Niva is only available in left-hand drive and as a four-seater or a van. The tooling for the RHD version still exists at the factory, apparently, but they will only get it out if you place an order for 500 or more. Mark has so far sold six.

A bit of a recap. The Niva, launched in 1977, was the first Lada not to be a mere knocked-off Italian saloon. While much of the underbonnet stuff remained Fiatski, the drive system and bodyshell were Lada's own glorious work. It gained a reputation for durability, achieved some success in off-road racing, and found favour with land-owning toffs and other people with no sense of irony.
Today's Niva has been updated in line with the times and now features fuel injection for the 1.7-litre petrol-only engine, modern instruments and "more aerodynamic front indicators". And that, I think, is it, although there is a nebulous claim that the seat upholstery has been improved.

In every other respect, the Niva is terrifyingly old-fashioned. There are two keys: one small one, and one really small one. The fluted exterior doorhandles are a bit like the ones from a Marina. Inside, there is a random scattering of rocker switches and rotary knobs, feeble little doorhandles, and fairly disgusting plastic trim. The gearstick is an inordinately long way away, which leads to some flappy wrist action during the familiarisation process.
Most evocative, though, is the unmistakable interior smell of the Eastern Bloc. No other political persuasion endowed its cars with quite such a distinctive whiff. To anyone who grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, it evokes those earnest types who advertised their allegiance to the Communist Workers' Party by driving around in a Lada, a Moskovich or an air-cooled Skoda. These people always looked like idiots, unless they had a Niva, because the Niva was somehow acceptable.

This may have been because it was actually quite good. But we'll deal with the on-road stuff first, where the Niva is rather unremarkable. The old-school gearchange is nicely mechanical and the 80bhp engine is reasonably willing and fizzy, although 0-60 takes some 17 seconds of searching for the gearstick. The windscreen wipers are a bit pony. It's fun in the way that driving an Austin Maxi is fun, but it's difficult to shake off the urge to wear a massive coat and speak in a silly Bond-villain accent. In fact the heater works well, but I suppose it would.

Off-road, the Niva starts to make sense as a no-nonsense utility tool kind of thing. It's a very simple car, and looks as though it could be stripped and put back together in an afternoon. It has permanent four-wheel drive and no locking hubcaps or any of that nonsense. There are separate levers for high/low range, and locking diffs à la old Land Rover, and no ABS or anything clever. It's completely mechanical and utterly understandable. You can buy a tow bar, a winch, a snorkel, a lift kit and so on, and you could spend a happy afternoon bolting them on yourself.

Here's an interesting thing. Recently, Mark, the importer, took his Niva to a driving day organised by a specialist magazine called something like Off-Road [a very rude word] and, despite initial scepticism, it humbled bigger and more elaborate stuff.
This doesn't entirely surprise me. It's light, for a start, at 1,210kg, which is over half a ton lighter than the most basic Defender 90. The tyres - Lada's own, branded Niva and doubtless highly specialised and expensive - are narrow and high in profile. We know, from experience with things like the Suzuki Jimny and my Samurai from the Bolivian special, that this makes sense, and that big and heavy off-roaders quickly suffer from some law of diminishing capability as more technology leads to more weight and then more systems to deal with it.

Consider this. Some of the pictures you see here were taken from the back of a massive Nissan Pathfinder, and while that lumbered around histrionically in the mud of our farm tracks, the Niva skipped around like a randy goat. It's easy to drive and as capable as most people would want.
So, as a piece of farm or estate equipment that you buy once and then keep for ever and which gradually becomes part of your landscape, it might just make sense. Left-hand drive would not be an issue, and its genuinely utilitarian hose-down interior would be welcomed by people who actually drive off-road. It's absolutely fit for purpose, in the way few things are.

Me? Well, I live in Hammersmith, and some of the roads are a bit choppy, but not as bad as all that. But I can't help admiring the Niva. It sits there with its blunt Bolshevik bodywork on its plain steel green or grey wheels (depending on which side you're standing, in the case of this example), and it looks just brilliant.
What it has is undeniable charm. Acres of it.

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