How far have we really come in the automotive world?
Yes, you can choose an electric-powered, semi-autonomous, highly complex and intelligent car, but in reality most of the vehicles we drive haven’t fundamentally changed in the past half-century.
Case in point, our 2020 Suzuki Jimny and 1988 Lada Niva may be over three decades apart in construction, and a bit longer than that in development, but are they really that different?
Price and Specification
Priced from $25,990 (before options and on-road costs), the Jimny is one of the most cost-effective entry points to new-SUV ownership in Australia. Our car features a five-speed manual transmission and is finished in Chiffon Ivory with a contrasting black roof ($1295), one of six choices, with colour and transmission (there's a four-speed auto available) being the only decisions you need to make before rolling away in the cheery 4x4.
It might be basic, but it’s reasonably well featured with six airbags, a central touchscreen with native navigation and support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, power windows, climate control, and even automatic LED headlamps.
Under the bonnet is a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with 75kW and 130Nm available. This heads to the road via a selectable four-wheel-drive system with low-range gearing.
Back in 1988, the Lada Niva was already celebrating its tenth birthday, the previous decade yielding a grand total of zero changes made to the Russian 4x4’s platform. Sold locally between 1983 and 1998, our Fern Green Niva cost $13,490 at the time and was offered with no specific options.
Things are basic here, too, albeit quite impressive for the time, with a Pioneer AM/FM stereo and tape deck, headlamp washers and wipers (missing on our car), and even a very comprehensive tool kit neatly packed in a leather pouch under the bonnet. This sat alongside a hand-pump for the tyres, and even a crank handle should you need to start the car with a flat battery – and speaking from experience, you will.
Under all those goodies, and the spare tyre itself, is a 1.6-litre carburetted four-cylinder petrol engine offering 56kW and 118Nm, which runs to all four wheels all the time, along with the option of low-range and a central differential lock.
Both cars are coil-sprung on all corners, but the Niva was somewhat of a revelation at launch in being the first mass-produced four-wheel-drive to use a monocoque chassis and independent front suspension, which set the path for what we consider to be a ‘modern’ SUV today.
That said, it’s only right that the Jimny has a higher level of equipment, but the Niva gets a tick for being pretty well sorted for its time. Plus, those engine outputs aren’t as widely separated as they should be after 30-odd years, so it feels like an even split.
|2020 Suzuki Jimny||1988 Lada Niva|
|Colour||Chiffon Ivory||Fern Green|
|Price (MSRP)||$25,990||$13,490 (1988)|
|Options as tested||$1295||-|
|Warranty||5-year / unlimited-km||-|
Style and Packaging
It would be fair to say that if you don’t love the look of the Jimny, you are just plain wrong.
As the happiest, most anthropomorphic vehicle on the road, the Zuke makes people smile wherever you go. It is utilitarian and very functional, but a masterpiece of letting function drive form, and form driving character.
The Lada, too, has its fans, campaigning its no-compromise design that has barely changed in the model’s still current 42-year lifespan. Wide-set lamps, simple lines and another functional approach have created an icon that still doesn’t look uniquely old, especially next to the Jimny.
Our two off-roaders offer a similar footprint, with the Niva pipping the Jimny in terms of length (240mm longer – 3720mm v 3480mm) and width (35mm wider – 1680mm v 1645), but the Suzuki is taller by 80mm (1640mm v 1720mm). There’s an extra 10kg of bulk to the Jimny, too, with both machines sitting just over the magic tonne at 1065kg and 1075kg respectively.
In terms of packaging, something of an efficiency deficit has occurred over the past few decades, as the Niva feels huge inside compared to the Jimny.
The Suzuki’s comical 85L boot can barely fit a satchel, with both rear seats needing to be folded to make any of the space usable, and expanding to 377L to the window line or 850L if you fill every available inch. Access is good, though, with the rear door swinging away quite easily, even with the spare mounted to it.
Conversely, the Niva has a 300L boot under the hinged hatch, which is a very usable space despite the high loading lip. The rear bench folds as a single unit, but requires a bit of jiggling to remove the seatbelt locators in order to do so. When flipped forward, the Lada offers a maxxed-out 1330L of space.
Putting the rear seats back in place, the Jimny is tight, especially for taller adults. So tight, in fact, that a longer trip would be near-on impossible. The Niva’s rear space is much more commodious – apparently, a design brief was to be able to cart around four Russian adults in comfort.
Practicality wins, and the Niva takes the gong.
|2020 Suzuki Jimny||1988 Lada Niva|
|Mass (tare kg)||1075kg||1065kg|
|Boot space (min/max L)||85L / 377L||377L / 1330L|
|Wheels/tyres||15-inch – 195/80/15 Bridgestone||16-inch – 175/82/15 USSR|
Both cars conform to good principles of visibility around and out of the cabin. Big windows, an upright driving position, and minimal compromises in the A-, B- and C-pillar design mean you can see all around and out of the cars wherever you might be.
The materials used in the Suzuki are more modern than in the Lada, but there’s hardly a step-change in terms of hard-wearing plastics and chunky switchgear. Ignoring the Lada’s off-centre driving position, from a less-than-thoroughly engineered factory right-hand-drive production, the ergonomics are still a good standard.
The Jimny, too, makes it easy to access all core features and switches, although tapping elements on the touchscreen while on the move can be a bit fiddly.
Speaking of which, the touchscreen and plug-and-play nature of Apple CarPlay make this one of the most user-friendly systems in the game. I don’t think I even bothered with the native Suzuki radio or navigation functions, as the device-projection started quickly and worked effectively every time.
Looking to the Niva, I couldn’t find a good mix-tape to test out the Pioneer deck, but Gold-104 pumped tinnily from the front speakers just fine. Not quite the same, though.
Simply having the steering wheel in front of the driver’s seat is enough for the Jimny to take the win here, but the touchscreen seals the deal.
Despite the lower outputs from the ancient Fiat-sourced SOHC engine, the Niva’s gearing affords a 32.1:1 crawl ratio, which when combined with those purposeful off-road-pattern ‘Made in USSR’ 175/82R16 tyres gives the little Russian wagon a stack of capability in the rough stuff.
The cars were designed to travel the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, and with peak torque of 118Nm available from 3200rpm, the revvy little Niva had no issue navigating our mild off-road test section.
One rutted dip had the car spinning an opposite wheel momentarily, but a slight roll back and a more energetic push through saw us clear the obstacle with no worries. There’s impressive travel from the coil-spring suspension, and good articulation from the combination of double-wishbone independent front, and live solid-axle rear.
That said, you certainly know you are bouncing around off-road. You can feel the car move and bump underneath you, with plenty of clunks and thuds to round out the onomatopoeic serenade some 4,000,000-plus Nivas have been built to endure.
Conversely, the Jimny’s more cosseted cabin feels almost luxurious through the same section of track. Yes, it bumps and thuds as well, but what seemed like a brutal trail in the Lada is now an enjoyable bounce in the Suzuki.
Running on 195/80R15 Bridgestone Duellers means there is no overtly aggressive rubber design to claw through slicker surfaces, but the Jimny’s Allgrip-Pro four-wheel-drive system seems to make light work of our trail despite a slightly higher 36.23:1 crawl ratio.
I found the power-steering tune perhaps a little more twitchy than I’d like off-road; a scenario where the Lada’s partially disconnected system works well to give you minute adjustment without a feather touch. The solid axles and coil springs articulate well, but the Suzuki is much more prone to lifting a wheel through the same technical sections. It doesn’t slow the car up at all, and hints at a slightly less flexible amount of wheel travel.
We tested this in the video, where we subjected both cars to an RTI (Ramp Travel Index) test on a 10-degree ramp. An RTI test is a way of measuring and comparing suspension flex. You put the front left wheel on the ramp and drive forward until the rear tyre on the same side lifts the ground.
The index is calculated by measuring the distance travelled up the ramp, divided by the vehicle’s wheelbase – all multiplied by 1000. To add some context, we measured the RTI of a Ford Ranger Raptor, which travelled 2370mm up the ramp, and has a wheelbase of 3220mm, for an RTI of 736.
The Suzuki’s solid front axles offer a simple and robust off-road solution, and make suspension repairs and modifications a bit easier, but while effective, solid axles tend to be heavier and less flexible than independent set-ups.
On our ramp, the Jimny travelled 1630mm over a wheelbase of 2250mm for a result of 724. Lower than the Raptor, but not too far off – its shorter wheelbase and 37-degree approach and 49-degree departure angles helping the overall result.
The Niva with its 43-year-old independent double-wishbone set-up might not be as customisable as the Jimny, but the IFS design offers more controlled behaviour in broader conditions. There’s a slightly better approach angle than the Suzuki at 39 degrees, but a lower departure angle of 36 degrees.
On the ramp, the little Lada surprisingly managed 1820mm against a 2200mm wheelbase, which is better even than the Raptor, resulting in an RTI of 827.
The Lada’s extra 25mm ground clearance and added suspension travel helps with this flexibility, and with this in mind, the Niva takes the off-road win.
|2020 Suzuki Jimny||1988 Lada Niva|
|Drive type||Part-time 4WD with low-range||Full-time 4WD with low-range and centre diff lock|
|Approach angle||37 degrees||39 degrees|
|Departure angle||49 degrees||36 degrees|
|Breakover angle||28 degrees||36 degrees|
|Ramp Travel Index (10-degree ramp)||724||827|
Fun fact, the Lada Niva’s name roughly translates to ‘Little Darling of the Field’. Nothing makes this seem more relevant than when you are ‘off’ that field and cruising on the blacktop. Hot tip, it’s not great.
Where to start?
The Niva’s engine was originally used in the Fiat 124 sedan of the 1960s, and despite a minor rework for its trans-Siberian application in the plucky 4x4, it’s basically the same. A single downdraft carburettor, manual choke, and lack of any electronic assistance of any kind make you find and use every single one of those 56kW on every drive.
It needs to be revved enthusiastically to maintain headway, with peak power needing 5400rpm, cheerily indicated by a reactor-4 style yellow zone on the tachometer. The five-speed gearbox is actually a four-speed unit with fifth as an overdrive, so you tend to row around the gears, with the hugely long lever, just to keep things ticking along at the speed limit.
Coil springs and independent suspension offer decent ride comfort at lower speeds, and even when touring, but a more forgiving set of tyres would improve the Niva’s long-distance manners out of sight.
There’s plenty of play in the steering, which works well off-road, but makes you feel very disconnected from the driving experience, not lessened in any way by the off-road tyres that don’t so much ‘walk’ around under the car as just go for a random stroll. There’s not a huge amount of confidence in the wet either, and that’s before you discover the brakes.
As in, the lack of them.
The hydraulic-boosted brakes have a manual front-to-rear distribution valve, which sounds super high-tech, but basically means you can end up with a line blockage and run all your stopping power through the front, or you know, not at all.
Plus, even when the braking system is working well, it doesn’t work well. My suggestion, plan ahead.
If you’re not totally sold on the Niva for your next cross-continental jaunt yet, there’s still the issue of noise. To be fair, the LEGO-brick tyres, whining transfer case, and wind whistling through the quarterlight window gaps all but drown out the engine and exhaust note. At speeds above 80km/h, the airy cabin is a boom-box of noisy, sensory delights mixed with the smell of hot coolant and fuel vapour.
Why have a time machine to experience the past, when you can just plod along in a Niva?
Jumping across to the Jimny, then, feels safe, secure and remarkably predictable, even though, in the context of other modern cars, it too has plenty of character on the road.
While you don’t need a choke or feel there is any suggestion the Suzuki won't fire up when and where you need it to, the 75kW output doesn’t feel all that different to the Lada. The gear ratios work well enough, but you need to downshift for hills to keep the little Zuke moving in the sweet zone.
The real progression, though, is in driver comfort. You can hear yourself think for a start, plus it stops every time you need it to, which might sound obvious, but is sweet mercy after spending time behind the Lada’s bus-sized steering wheel.
It still moves around on the road, the blocky sides susceptible to wind gusts, and the solid-axle set-up translating road imperfections and surface changes through wobbles and wiggles. But it is still comfortable and compliant enough, and most certainly a big step forward in road-going manners.
Jimny takes the win here.
|2020 Suzuki Jimny||1988 Lada Niva|
|Engine configuration||Four-cylinder petrol||Four-cylinder petrol – carburettor|
|Displacement||1.5L (1462cc)||1.6L (1570cc)|
|Power||75kW @ 6000rpm||56kW @ 5400rpm|
|Torque||130Nm @ 4000rpm||118Nm @ 3200rpm|
|Power to weight ratio||69.8kW/t||52.6kW/t|
|Fuel consumption (combined cycle)||6.4L/100km||12.4L/100km|
|Fuel tank size||40L||45L|
There is no denying that our pint-sized off-roaders share plenty of capability with their compromises as unique and iconic vehicles for their respective times. The old new-tech Niva broke new ground and set the tone for what would come when it arrived in the 1970s, but it just never progressed from that point. Whereas the new old-tech Jimny shows there are still some tricks left in the old dog in being a simple outlier in an increasingly advanced market.
The progression in technical ability and efficient packaging might have actually gone backwards over the past few decades, but the improvements in refinement, comfort and reliability are without question a step-change forward.
What has remained the same, though, is the key element underpinning both of these cars – fun.
Generations aside, the Lada Niva and Suzuki Jimny both make up for their shortcomings by offering sheer enjoyment and low-frills adventurous fun. Things may have changed, but the smiles remain the same.