It was one of the first off-road vehicles to feature a unibody architecture and a predecessor to current crossover SUVs. Before it was introduced to the UK, it was referred to by some in the motoring press as the 'Russian Range Rover'.
The Niva (2121) was Lada's (VAZ/AvtoVAZ) first non-Fiat based model. Much of its mechanicals are carried over from the Fiat based Lada models, though the body, four-wheel drive system, and front suspension were designed by Lada. Production began in 1977 and continues today (as of 2008) with only minor changes to the engine, rear hatch design, and interior trim levels.
In basic form, the Niva has a carbureted 1.6-litre overhead cam four-cylinder petrol engine producing 54kW (72hp) and 126N·m (93ft·lbf), a four- or five-speed manual transmission, and full-time four-wheel drive. There are no locking hubs and the transfer case can be locked on the fly. The original Niva has a maximum speed of around 130 km/h (80 mph), and can cruise at 90 km/h (56 mph) while consuming petrol at a respectable 8.25L/100km (34.2mpg-imp; 28.5mpg-US). Its towing capacity is rated for up to 860 kg (1900 lb).
A 1.7-litre petrol engine was introduced later in production, as was fuel injection supplied by General Motors. Around this time the rear hatch was revised to have a lower opening. In some markets a 1.9L Peugeot diesel powered Niva was sold.
Coil springs are located at each of the four wheels, and suspension is independent in front, whereas the rear axle is a 5 link live-type, with ratios between 3.90 and 4.30 depending on the model and market. Ground clearance is good at 235mm (9.25 in) and water 510mm (20in) deep can be negotiated.
The brakes (disc front, drum rear) are servo-assisted dual-circuit style and the clutch is hydraulic. The turning circle, at 36.25' is adequate, while the centre of gravity is exceptional. Cargo space is 0.48m³ (17ft³), or 1.33m³ (47ft³) with the rear seats folded down. A spare tyre is located in the engine bay under the bonnet, and as with all Ladas, a 21 piece toolkit is also supplied for do-it-yourself roadside repairs. The latter feature is considered a useful and practical feature by off-road fans.