The Lada Niva originally debuted in 1977 when it was launched as the “Renault 5 on a Land Rover chassis.” Soviet Russia wanted to develop a more rugged car suitable for the country’s rural areas and the result was a hatchback-style crossover with solid off-road capabilities. Many changes were made to the vehicle over the following decades, but the Niva is still sold in Russia in a largely unchanged form compared to the original vehicle. However, for an off-road enthusiast, the Niva’s factory qualities just weren’t up to proper dune crawling and he modified basically every inch of the vehicle.
The video at the top of this page introduces us to Andries from South Africa and his Lada Niva. Small off-roaders were never popular in the country but in the 1980s and 1990s, the Lada was officially imported into SA where it sold several different versions of the Niva. These vehicles are hard to find in the used car market these days and more importantly, it’s getting harder and harder to find spare parts. What better time to put a new engine under the hood?
Andries wanted to replace the original four-cylinder petrol engine with a large and reliable motor. The choice was the 90-degree 4.0-liter V8 engine from the first-generation Lexus LS – not the factory’s most powerful but certainly one of the most reliable. In its early years, output was 254 horsepower (191 kilowatts), but Niva owners say that peak power is now slightly lower. More importantly, you can keep it in the red rpm zone most of the time without worrying too much about overheating or blocking it.
Why not more power? Because it’s hard to find a transmission and differential that fits the Lexus V8 engine and can handle more horsepower. Instead, Andries decided to modify the suspension and make the vehicle not faster but more capable in mud and sand. Combined with the raised suspension, Maxxis off-road tires turn the once humble Niva into a rear-end beast slithering over rocks and dunes. Watch the story in the video above.