When a modern car is compared to an esteemed forebear, the latter has usually been out of production for many years, the passage of time enhancing the elder vehicle's qualities and airbrushing its imperfections until it becomes a nearly inimitable benchmark. That can't be said about the Lada Niva, or the Lada 4x4 as it's also known. As recently as 2015 you could head to a chap in Sidcup, hand over £10,799, and drive off into the sunset in a 1.7-litre, left-hand drive import model. Nonetheless, the Niva is the yardstick by which all subsequent cheap off-roaders have come to be measured, and deservedly so.
You wait for one mention of the Niva on PH...
Nowadays, the title of go-to budget off-roader has fallen to the Dacia Duster and at PH we have been running a fully-optioned one since January
. So far it has tagged along on a shoot in the Yorkshire Dales
with a Twisted Defender 110 and a Mercedes G-Class, completed the North Coast 500
, and has recently returned from an extensive group test with our sister publication Autocar. There it found itself up against some pretty hefty competition, but after two days play... rigorously testing the vehicles in a former quarry turned off-road playground, the Duster left everyone pretty impressed. It scurried up steep inclines and wasn't troubled by fairly deep mud. It may have faltered on the rock crawl, but likely only because, preferring to drive home rather than return on the back of a lorry, we decided to call it quits before cracking the sump or damaging a suspension component. In other words, we gave up before the Duster did.
Just being mighty again!
The Niva may have been more rugged than the Duster with its central locking differential, permanent four-wheel drive and hose down interior, but nowadays cars don't have the luxury of being designed to perform a single function as well as possible. Many off-roaders spend their time tackling multi-storey car parks and school runs, hardly ever traversing a dusty track, let alone massive inclines or deep mud. The Duster, with its optional 4WD system and smaller but more powerful engine, has a slightly lower ground clearance (210mm vs. 265mm) and wade depth (350mm vs. 600mm) than the Lada but it is far better suited to modern life, replete as it is with gadgets like Bluetooth and sat-nav, yet will still get you out of sticky situations when absolutely needed.
If I were to go off-roading the Duster wouldn't be my first pick, but I wouldn't be disappointed to find myself in it either. The sense being that it was the same with the Lada when other, even more utilitarian vehicles were on offer. For under £18,000, and considerably less than that in more basic guise, it sets a new standard for the cheap and cheerful, go-anywhere off-roader.
[Sources: Mark Key, Dacia]