Field Of Shattered Dreams

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Some cars have names that evoke images of speed or power, like Carrera, Vanquish or Daytona. Then there are the land based animals: Cougar, Cobra, Mustang, Mustang Cobra. You have your birds too: the Falcon, the Eagle, the Skylark. There are names that take a bit of explanation, like Corvette, which were small speedboats (or speed-frigates) in the 15th century. And of course there are your odds and ends, like Javelin, Cherokee and Barracuda. All great names: all seemingly purpose-made for the car or truck they were affixed to. This car’s name is Crop Field.

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This is a 2010 VAZ 214 4X4. But, depending on where you live, it could be a VAZ-2121, a Taiga, a Bushman, or even a BA3-2121. My personal favorite is the HNBA, which makes it sound like the National Basketball Association has taken up a division dedicated to hamsters, but is actually the Russian word for field. This whatever-it’s-called is a Russian car, you see. Well, to be honest, this particular Russian has a penchant for flamenco dancing and tapas, because I found it in Madrid, directly across the street from where I stayed. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be calling it by its most popular name, the Lada Niva, because it’s a lot less frustrating to type than BA3-2121. The name “Lada” means nothing in Russian, and was chosen to represent its overlord company, AvtoVAZ, in Western nations because it is pronounced mostly the same in every language, has no known sexual connotations, and can be written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. “Niva” is the name of some river near the factory in Russia. Not the Volga.

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The history of the Niva is decidedly straightforward. It was the early 1970s, Russia was hot off losing the Space Race, and decided that they needed a rugged, go-anywhere car to rival the likes of America’s Jeep and Britain’s Land Rover. So in 1977 they came up with this, which I happen to like quite a lot. Don’t let that endorsement lead you astray, however, because the Niva, despite this one having been built in 2010, is a dreadfully old fashioned car. Here’s the thing: while it maybe have been considered modern in the late 70s (and even that’s a stretch), Lada never changed the design of the Niva. Even now, almost 40 years on, it still looks and drives the same as it did when it was released. The old geezer started out in life with a gasoline-powered 1.6 liter inline-four, which was course, noisy, and dirty. Later Nivas, like this one, feature a version of that engine that had been bored and stroked (not a sex thing) to 1.7 liters, with added GM-supplied fuel injection. This improved the Niva’s performance in many ways, in that it was still course, noisy, and dirty, but now it consumed slightly more fuel. The new engine featured 80 whole horsepower, which would rocket the Niva to 60 miles per hour in 17 seconds. That’s about how long it took you to read this paragraph. Another problem having to do with the engine is that they may not have installed it properly. There are many reports- enough to warrant a special section in the Lada Buyer’s Guide- of the Niva’s engine sub-frame being tacked into place instead of welded. So, the engine might fall out unexpectedly. Which is annoying.

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Not so annoying, however, if the car has rusted away before you get the chance to fix the broken sub-frame. Some other minor quibbles include the potential for cracked seat mounts, dodgy electrics, radiators that have a tendency to clog and pop a head gasket (a weird similarity to the 3rd generation Toyota Supra, interestingly enough), and brakes that have been known to not stop the car. Which kind of calls into question the meaning of the word “brake” when talking about the Lada Niva. The Niva was the first Lada to be an original design, instead of a rebadged (and worsened) old Fiat, and also the brand’s first and only truck (the engine is still, however, based on a Fiat unit). I use the word truck pretty lightly here, if I’m honest, because this vehicle is about the size of new Mini Cooper, if the new Mini Cooper offered almost ten inches of ground clearance. Which it doesn’t.

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I really wish I was able to get some interior shots of this car, because it really is a mess in there. And I don’t mean that whoever the owner is can’t keep organized, I mean that Lada doesn’t know how to design a logically laid-out interior. For example, the trunk release hatch, which is usually a button near the center console in most cars, is located behind the driver’s seat, requiring anyone interested in opening the trunk to exit the vehicle and fold the front seat down. Despite this annoyance, however, and the unreliability, and the noisy engine, and the terrible danger incurred every time one pilots this car, the Niva is undeniably tough. Off road, this little thing embarrasses Land Rovers and jacked-up Nissan Patrols all day long. Because it’s so light, and it has three locking differentials, the Niva is an off road sensation. And, because it’s so unashamedly simple in the face of overwhelming technological innovation, it’s very easy (and cheap) to fix when something inevitably goes wrong. Lada has created, quite by accident if you ask me, something truly special with the Niva. Something shabby, but capable. Something that could likely fall apart at any moment, but just as likely traverse the volcanic landscape of Iceland. It doesn’t make any sense at all. I would own one in a heartbeat, to the degree at which it’s probably a good thing they don’t sell it in America. Nostrovia, Niva. I hope you stick around for years to come.

Additional Thoughts

  • A fleet of 45 Nivas were used in the construction of the Channel Tunnel connecting England and France.
  • Russian President and occasional terrifying invading force Vladimir Putin is reported to currently own a camo-painted Niva. His car, however, features an engine from Opel. Which is a German company.
  • The Niva is one of the few cars to be found on all five continents, as Russia uses them at their Antarctic outposts.
  • You guys want to hear some Lada jokes? Yeah, so do I. These are from the actual Lada Niva forum:
    • What do you call a Lada at the top of a hill? A miracle.
    • How do you double the value of a Lada? Fill the petrol tank.
    • What occupies the last 16 pages of the Lada owner’s manual? Bus and train schedules.
    • And my personal favorite, from a newspaper clipping: “To the person who stole my Lada in minus 10 degrees of frost: Keep the car, but tell me how the hell you started it!”
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