If you are looking to buy a small SUV this year, you have probably found the array of models from seemingly all manufacturers bewildering. And if your criterion for your new car includes good fuel economy, high-riding seating position and plenty of plastic cladding, makers from Mahindra to Mercedes-Benz will be jostling for your sale. But say you find no joy in modern cars: you like your steering heavy, panel gaps inconsistent and get adrenaline rushes wondering if the car will start the next morning. I'm pleased to inform you that a vehicle with all these traits is on sale right now (if you're happy to import it) and with a snow-plough as a dealer-fit accessory: find that on a Holden Trax!
This car is the Lada Niva, a handsome little tyke that has been on sale continuously since 1977 largely unchanged, and all the better for it. Cheap, capable and simple to fix, the Niva has struck a chord with buyers from the Colombian jungle to the Siberian tundra, and its compact dimensions and good visibility mean you can drive it in the city too, if you like a challenge. It would be a waste of ability to do so, because the mechanical side was clearly modelled on a mountain goat, with excellent approach and departure angles, full-time AWD and locking differentials all around.
A couple of years ago I was driving a 2WD HiLux with a tipper tray which was reliable, powerful and cheap to run and truly all the car one could need. But needs and wants rarely align, especially when it comes to buying cars on a budget, and the idea of swapping my HiLux for a 4x4 in a similar price range had me sifting through the dregs of online car classifieds. Leggy Land Rovers and tired Tritons made up most of the results and a Tata Telcoline added a little spice to a dull search, but nothing seemed to be worth the risk. If I was going to suffer seized bearings and snapped axles in my budget bogger, I wanted to at least be able to tell a story about it. Therefore, it was only sensible to run two cars at once, leading me to keep my HiLux and buy a Lada Niva for $300.
As an apprentice mechanic, I'm embarrassed to say that I paid little attention to the mechanical condition of my new purchase. I never checked the shoes of the drum brakes or the age of the skinny van tyres, but I did notice that the giant Soviet hammer and sickle sticker on the rear window. Clicking the chrome door handle open and sliding (literally) onto the shiny black vinyl driver's seat, squeezing my thighs under the Greyhound-worthy steering wheel, my hands found the most tactile dash-buttons of any car. Major control buttons for the heater and hazard lights (this button was shiny from use) have one centimetre of travel, and engage with a satisfying click.
Pull the choke, pump the throttle pedal and turn the key and the little Fiat-derived 1.6 roars into life and settles into a Tesla-esque silent idle. That's where the comparisons end with electric cars, or modern cars, or anything other than agricultural machinery, because the Niva makes no attempt to comfort you: this is no Russian Range Rover. The steering is heavy, the driving position is odd and the gearshift suggests Lada skimped on synchros. On the highway however the Niva is settled, with a wide frame on coil springs making it a far better companion than a Suzuki Sierra. Off road it comes alive - the Niva's abilities far exceeded my skills, with ground clearance being the only issue, nothing a lift kit and bigger tyres couldn't fix. But they cost money, and when you pay only $300 for a car, Scrooge-mode engages. Besides, a dying alternator and fuel-starvation issues were more deserving of time and money. Parts availability in Australia is poor, and prices of essential service parts makes you wish you had followed the herd, which is what I ended up doing when I sold the Niva on and stuck with my HiLux, which is annoyingly still reliable and cheap to run.
In a segment of the market where being edgy and different sells cars, the Lada Niva still holds more appeal than a city car on stilts, and is appreciably cheap for the hardware on offer. Just be prepared to press that lovely hazard lights button quite often.