Off-roading my Lada Niva in a mining quarry was as absurd, and glorious, as it sounds
The Lada Niva, kindly put, is a functional mode of daily transportation. That’s it. Nothing more. I bought one as a daily driver for puttering around Marbach am Neckar, outside of Stuttgart, Germany, and chose to overlook a cornucopia of the car’s shortcomings. The purchase was an action commanded by pathos. The screaming gearbox, utter discomfort, the ability to observe it rusting in real time—all grounds for a reasonable person to run far, far away and into the loving embrace of a lightly used subcompact crossover with Apple CarPlay. The idea of an unstoppable Soviet 4×4, however, simply overwrote these data points on my gearhead mind’s hard drive.
After driving the Lada for three weeks, and (mostly) loving every minute, it was time to really test its Geländefahrtfähigkeiten—German for “off-road driving skills.” Some colleagues of mine had organized a trek through the Alsatian hills in France, but with COVID-19 gaining momentum in much of southern Europe, the area was labeled high-risk. If we had gone anyway, it would have meant entering a two-week quarantine period upon our return. Instead, we opted for an old mine-turned-off-road wonderland in Bavaria, a mere two-hour drive East. Social distancing at its finest.
Right, preparations. I’m no overlander myself. I’m confident that 95 percent of the Niva-driving world knows more about off-roading than I do. Motivated by the looming specter of what could go wrong, I threw together a tool kit in a bright orange waterproof box, along with a couple of tow straps, a high-visibility vest, water, snacks, and two emergency beers in case I became stranded. The Niva, a 2009 model, had picked up a wicked vibration at 30, 60, and 120 kph at some point in life. Shifting into low range dropped those modes by about half—thanks to a 2.135:1 transfer case ratio—which pointed to the combination CV joint and giubo intermediate shaft between the gearbox and transfer case.
The night before, I started pulling the t-case but bailed due to high risk of not being able to reassemble it. I removed the center console and drove around town while peering at the whirling shaft below. Nothing looked like it was going to fly apart any time soon, so back together it went.
I rolled up to my buddy’s house in the Lada at about 6 a.m. and we headed off to the Bavarian countryside, stopping only once for fresh pretzels and fuel. Finally, the small towns and rapeseed fields gave way to a massive dugout, perfect for recreational off-roading thanks to an existing mining operation that allows shared usage of the area. A fee of 35 euros, which we paid at a small stand, was truly a pittance for unmetered access to a quarry.
As we entered the off-roading area and secured odds and ends within the vehicle, it became worryingly obvious that the 185-width snow tires the Lada was wearing might be a severely limiting factor. I aired them down to about 14 psi for best possible footprint without losing a bead. From a geographical standpoint, the terrain ranged from mounds of pulverized limestone to large, flat plates of sedimentary rock with succulent vegetation and knotty pine trees finding their way through the cracks. Steep hills of rock were available to test approach and departure angles (as well as overall intestinal fortitude). This was not traditional German scenery.
On the road, the Niva drives like a lifted Fiat 124 Spyder, complete with legs angled toward the center of the vehicle and heel-toe friendly pedal arrangement. Granted, it’s a little bit shaky on the highway. On any other paved surface, however, it’s a complete riot to chuck around. Dead-flat cornering and wildly entertaining whirrs, thrashes, and ka-chunks, galore. Driving it hard without breaking it is as satisfying as successfully smacking the armored cart that collects golf balls at the driving range.
Take it off the street and the I’m-not-supposed-to-be-doing-this feeling dims, but the smile lingers.
I crunched the Niva into low range and pulled hard on the center diff lock lever. The Lada bounced up steep and crumbling grades, clawing for traction. The tiny 1.7-liter four-banger was never the limiting factor of what could be accomplished, as much as how quickly. The Niva proves itself not a total chump up the loose red rock of tightly winding, excavated trails. For one, it’s really tiny—think Yugo length but a bit wider. With no lockers in the front or rear diffs, limited front suspension travel, and stock ride height, you’re far from invincible. Placement on the trail is pretty key to a successful journey up any heavily rutted trails. While taking on some of the smooth, undulating grades of sun-bleached limestone, the relatively minuscule dimensions make it quite easy to fall into a hole, or hang a wheel or two in the air and lose forward progress. When one wheel comes up, the creaking body seams gently protest. No matter, just choose a slightly different line, gain some forward some momentum, you’re on your merry Soviet way.
Sure, the big turbodiesel Land Cruisers and Unimogs could just peg the high-idle governor and grapple their way to the top of 10-story hills without stress, but where’s the fun in that? (Note: I am obviously jealous of this capability.)
Other drivers and spectators—some sitting on their hoods, others enjoying a beer next to a stunted pine tree—watched attempts of a wide variety of vehicles from the massive overlooks of the 200-acre quarry. The clan of off-roaders having the best time on the dirt were riding in 500-Euro Jeep Grand and non-Grand Cherokees, with their various 4.0 HO six, Magnum eight, and Renault turbodiesel engine configurations. All fearlessly banging the rev limiters, of course. Something costing less than a grand, no matter what it is, has the advantage of a driver lacking protective instinct. Sharing the trail with a brand new yet Soviet-designed UAZ bukhanka 452, ‘Mogs, and a gaggle of Suzuki Jimnys, the Lada—despite its status as the unofficial vehicle of thrifty pig hunters and grape growers in southwest Germany—was considered at home. The UAZ driver and I even shared a “thumbs up, Comrade” moment while our mirrors passed.
The team paused, briefly, to grill some brats and compare notes. After a quick rinse of our plates, we were back out there. Just as we nosed through the pines into the trail head, I thought, “Hey, wait. Did I forget to reconnect the diff lock warning lamp after my transfer case investigation?” I reached down and gave the lock lever a tug. The 4×4 indicator bulb dimly lit up. How about that? We did the whole day with the center diff open. After that, the Niva was a total mountain goat, performing every climb we asked of it with no consideration to approach line. It was a different animal. Shame we only found out with an hour to go, but it was good line-finding training.
The vibration worsened after wheeling, especially sitting at 120 kph on the Autobahn most of the way home. I thought the dash was going to vibrate off and into my lap. The next morning, I yanked the transfer case was yanked and the problem was obvious: a missing pilot bushing from the last time the couple was changed. Now, to put it all back together, browse the local classified for some proper tires, maybe a small lift, too. Clearly a rabbit hole worth tumbling down. After using my Niva for God’s intended purpose, an uncomfortable commute is a price I’m more than willing to pay.