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The Lada Niva: Soviet Russia’s Gift to the Auto World

The Russians are a hardy bunch, and are often forced to endure some of the world’s toughest conditions. This might shed some light on what is perhaps their best contribution to the driving world: the Lada Niva. Designed to function in the harshest regions on earth, it has been providing soldiers, police officers, journalists, and adventurers with tough, reliable transportation for almost 40 years.

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was still very much alive, and under the grip of an entrenched bureaucracy. The Communists were horrible at economics, but they were accomplished scientists and engineers. When it became clear that the government (and those in its favor) needed a vehicle that could rival Western models in its capabilities, the brains at car making company Lada set themselves to the task of building such a machine.

PHOTOS: See More of the 1978 Lada Niva

The Lada Niva: Soviet Russia’s Gift to the Auto World

The Soviets looked to the Jeep CJ and Toyota FJ for their inspiration. They tested models in the frigid cold of the Ural Mountain Range and the blistering heat of the Uzbekistan desert. They revised their plans over and over to meet the whims of party bosses. The vehicle they finally decided on featured unibody construction, a hard shell cabin, and a 1600cc engine (about 1.6-liters). The Russians were so proud of their scrappy little ride that they showed it off at the Paris Motor Show in 1978. They named it the Niva, which is Russian for “wheat field.”

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The vehicle was a surprise hit for the USSR, with buyers worldwide taking an interest. It was especially popular in nations like Brazil, where its cheap cost, combined with its near-indestructibility, made it a perfect choice for that country’s rugged terrain and still-developing economy.

Lada Niva 3

The Niva survived the collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s, and over the years has adapted to changing customer demands in a true Capitalist fashion. In 1984, the builders added seat belts. In 1995, they switched to a 1700cc (around 1.7-liters) fuel injected engine built by GM. In the 2000s, it was outfitted with Bosch fuel injection, power steering, upgraded shock absorbers and more comfortable seats.

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Consumers can buy a brand-new Niva for around $16,500 today. It comes in several versions, including one with an available gun rack that’s aimed at hunters. Traction control, ABS, and airbags are not yet offered. However, the vehicle can climb a 58 degree slope and plow through three feet of snow, making it the ride of choice for Russian researchers in Antarctica. There it provides reliable transportation in a land with no paved roads, where the temps can drop as low as -65 F.

This just goes to show that, when it comes to what counts, the Russians got this one right. Whether that trend continues into their other endeavors remains to be seen.