Lada and Land Rover are entirely disparate brands with a common problem — how to replace an off-roader that stuck around for so long that it has become irretrievably wound up in the brand image. For Land Rover, the soul searching ends next year with the launch of the new Defender.
For Russia's Lada, the journey to replace the Niva (badged simply 4x4 in its home market) began officially last month at the Moscow auto show with the unveiling of the 4x4 Vision — a concept showing how a new version could look.
Within the Renault-owned company, however, management is split on whether it should continue to be the farmers' friend, or a funky urban SUV with occasional mud-plugging skills
"You can't simply replace a car that's 40 years old — it's the same problem Land Rover has with Defender," Steve Mattin, the Brit in charge of Lada's design, said on the show's sidelines. "The world has changed. The regulations have changed. Manufacturing techniques have changed. The customer has changed."
The tiny 3-door 4x4 is over 40 years old. Launched in Soviet Russia in 1977, it has long outlived the three-box, Fiat-based sedan that was Lada's other staple. Despite its wheezy 1.7-liter engine, cramped interior and design quirks (the spare wheel sits under the hood), the Lada 4x4 still sells in phenomenal numbers. It was Russia's 14th best-selling model in the first seven months of the year — mostly to rural customers who value its simplicity, cheapness and phenomenal off-road ability. It accounts for 30 percent of Lada's exports, mostly to former Soviet countries, but also to European markets such as Germany.
The 4x4 Vision borrows lots of cues from the current 4x4, but it also uses the striking X-motifs that adorn current Ladas, and, overall, its modernity is a world apart from the model it will replace.
Mattin is convinced the brand needs to target a new buyer with the production car. Make it too much of a hardcore off-roader and you alienate the biggest customer — the SUV-loving urban middle class.
"It's fine going fishing or if you're a farmer, but you still have a limited customer base," Mattin said. "They're not interested in design or quality. If it didn't change for another 40 years, they'd still keep buying it."
His boss, Yves Caracatzanis, CEO of Lada's parent company, AvtoVAZ, has a different take. "Today's customer[s] of the 4x4 are not from the city, they are from outside. If you make an SUV like all the others, what is the differentiation? The 4x4 story must go on," he told Automotive News.
Lada even has two platform options, depending on who wins this battle. One is a prototype chassis that places the engine longitudinally — the traditional off-roader setup. Or they pinch a traverse engine platform from Renault that allows all-wheel drive. Cheap but not an option that would gain respect from hardcore owners.
A production version is not due until 2022. AvtoVAZ is still slowly digging itself out of a financial hole partly caused by Russia's ongoing economic woes, so it's not an immediate priority. The Vision 4x4 is a toe in the water to see what customers might accept.
Said Mattin: "The concept is about gathering information and seeing what's right for the brand. This is the one car that gives the brand a very good reputation globally."