It was one of the first mass production off-road vehicles to feature a unibody architecture, independent front suspension and coil suspension, and is a predecessor to current crossover SUVs which nearly all follow this format. Before it was introduced to the UK, it was referred to by some in the motoring press as the 'Russian Range Rover'.
The Niva (2121) was Lada's (VAZ/AvtoVAZ) first non-Fiat based model. Much of its mechanicals are carried over from the Fiat based Lada models, though the body, four-wheel drive system, and front suspension were designed by Lada. Production began in 1977 and continues today (as of 2010) with only minor changes to the engine, rear hatch design, and interior trim levels.
In basic form, the Niva has a carbureted 1.6-litre overhead cam four-cylinder petrol engine producing 54 kW (72 hp) and 126 N·m (93 ft·lbf), a four- or five-speed manual transmission, and full-time four-wheel drive. There are no locking hubs and the transfer case can be locked on the fly. The original Niva has a maximum speed of around 130 km/h (80 mph), and can cruise at 90 km/h (56 mph) while consuming petrol at 8.25 L/100 km (34.2 mpg-imp; 28.5 mpg-US). Its towing capacity is rated for up to 860 kg (1900 lb).
A 1.7-litre petrol engine was introduced later in production, as was fuel injection supplied by General Motors. Around this time the rear hatch was revised to have a lower opening. In some markets a 1.9L Peugeot diesel powered Niva was sold.
Coil springs are located at each of the four wheels, and suspension is independent in front, whereas the rear axle is a 5 link live-type, with ratios between 3.90 and 4.30 depending on the model and market. Ground clearance is good at 235 mm (9.25 in) and water 510 mm (20 in) deep can be negotiated.
The brakes (disc front, drum rear) are servo-assisted dual-circuit style and the clutch is hydraulic. The turning circle, at 36.25' is adequate, while thecentre of gravity is exceptional. Cargo space is 0.48 m³ (17 ft³), or 1.33 m³ (47 ft³) with the rear seats folded down. A spare tyre is located in the engine bay under the bonnet, and as with all Ladas, a 21 piece toolkit is also supplied for do-it-yourself roadside repairs. The latter feature is considered a useful and practical feature by off-road fans.
During the 1980s local Lada importers in various markets made their own upgrades to help compete with more modern SUVs. In the UK the Cossackmodel featured large body decals, roof rails, running boards, 15" alloy wheels, and on some versions a sunroof, steel bullbars, spotlights, a rear-mounted spare tyre and semi-bucket seats. Other markets' importers made similar upgrades and many were also called Cossack.
In 1995, Lada UK introduced a face-lifted version of the Niva Cossack and renamed the basic model as the Hussar. Whereas the Hussar had the original 1977 trim, the new UK Cossack featured a new Rover-designed grille and other body kit items, and gained soft nudge-bars at the front in deference to public opinion against bullbars. Both models received the same new 1.7-litre engine and a new deeper tailgate which extended the rear opening to the level of the bumper - a vast improvement over the original model's high lip. Official Niva imports to the UK ceased in 1997 due to the importers having difficulty in sourcing the GM fuel injection unit required to satisfy ever-tightening UK emissions regulations.
Users of Niva
In Russia and Europe the Niva has been used as an ambulance, a military vehicle, and by various police forces (eg Slovakia) and utility companies (eg Manx Electricity Board).
Transmanche-Link, the commercial consortium that built the Channel Tunnel between England and France, used a fleet of 45 Nivas to aid in the enormous project. Each Niva accumulated in excess of 70,000 kilometres (43,000 mi) off-road during its employment, and after construction had been completed in 1993, the fleet was sold off to a local dealer.
In Brazil, the Niva was the best-selling off-road vehicle during the early 1990s. In fact, the Niva was so cheap that even with the 85% importation value tax, it was less expensive than Brazilian cars such as the Envemo or Gurgel. It sold so much more than the Gurgel Carajás, that Gurgel discontinued production in January 1991. The Niva was the first imported 4X4 in the Brazilian market, following then-Brazilian president Fernando Collor's decision to permit the importation of foreign vehicles in 1990. In the Brazilian market, a used 1991 Niva in good condition costs about R$6,000. Competition and higher importation value taxes forced the Niva to be retired from the Brazilian market. Even so, thousands of Nivas remain in use in Brazil.
Nivas have been driven on land, up mountains, through mud, and underwater.
In 2008, in a "Communist Cars" special of Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson stated that the drive was so smooth off road that he was once able to use the cigarette lighter to light a cigarette. He then added with irony that he could not show the viewer this was possible as they "don't live in a free country". Both he and James May appeared to fall for the Niva and almost decided that the Soviets did in fact make a good car.