Lada Niva

Most mornings, on the daily grind from the western suburb of Bemowo to the centre of Warsaw, the tram will rumble its way along, crammed with pale-faced commuters pressed armpit-to-face in grim preperation for a steady day's moaning. This is life as usual in Poland, where complaining is the national hobby.

To leave Bemowo , one has to traverse the small area called Kolo, home of the infamous Kolo Flea Market. Five days a week, Warsaw's pensioners plod their way around a bombsite of tin shacks and car boots loaded with fresh produce, arming themselves with canvas bags of potatoes and onions before cramming themselves onto the commuter trams. Why on earth pensioners need to buy their vegetables at exactly the same time the entire population is trying to get to work I have yet to figure out, but it provides ample opportunity for the workers to get theirgrumble-faces ready, and for the old harridens to prove that, with fifty years under Communism, they would be seasoned enough to win Poland a gold medal at Moaning. Bags of carrots bash the knees of sharp-suited businessmen, the heady odour of pickled cabbage mingles with the secretaries' perfumes, and the schoolkids refuse to give up their seat for 15kgs of tomatoes. What was once an uncomfortably busy tram now becomes reminiscent of Indian trains where live chickens flap around the unshod feet of dirty children. Of course, it's not that bad, but it's good enough to spoil the mood of everyone unfortunate enough to need public transport. Although when I say 'spoil the mood' I ony mean drop it from "tetchy" to "downright waspish."

At the weekend, however, the market becomes an antiques fair, where the same retired patrons hawk the last remants of Poland's heritage to tourists, opportunists and illegal exporters, who nose around the horse brass and battered silverware for the possible bargain. Prices are haggled, toothless proprieters smile and sigh, and the old family portrait is sold to supplement Grandma's meagre pension. Poland's history is traded not in gold, but in kilos of vegetable produce. One could almost believe it's a sad sight that the most treasured objects, accumulated by scrimping and saving throught the Socialist years, now slip through one's fingers for a song, but when you get a closer look the tat on sale is essentially worthless. Radios that can only pick up long-dead frequency bands, incomplete sets of cutlery and unremarkable oil paintings.

The market is surrounded by a myriad of one-way streets, a nightmare for parking but a wonderfully quiet escape from the market bustle. And it was down one of these, perched high on its rims above the other squat low family saloons, that I espied the Lada Niva.

The more affluent suburbs of Warsaw boast shiny off-roaders aplenty, parked up on the streets where the hardest driving challenge they face is the supermarket speed humps. In the slighter poorer Kolo district you wouldn't expect a Porsche Cayenne or a new Range Rover, but I certainly wouldn't expect Russia's cheapest 4x4 to be showing its lumpy appearance here either. But then again, the Niva isn't a hairdresser's excuse for a vehicle or a banker's pretentious statement. It's a rugged little shell with a weedy little engine and not even a chassis underneath to hold it all together. Christ, even a Suzuki Vitara has one of those, and yet the Niva has a semi-serious reputation as a decent off-roader.

Most of the finger-pointed laughing at the Niva is deserved. It's a cheap compromise of Fiat-derived mechanicals and Russian-developed styling, which comes together in a squat, ugly little package that is uncomfortable and slow. Something about the design makes it look like the yellow-and-red Fisher Price roller skates of the '80s.

And that may be the right comparison. Launched in 1977 as Lada's first non-Fiat, the cheapness of the Lada stands out as a defining factor which it flaunts rather than hides. Included from the dealer would have been a 21-piece tool kit for inevitable road side repairs, the interior doesn't show a single attempt at styling, and the front end is simply functional. Square hole for the radiator grill, headlights either side, indicators on top almost as an afterthought. With such sparseness, its no wonder there's no chassis underneath - box steel would be an unnecessary extra cost.

What marks the Niva out as special is the fact that all the traits that Lada attributed to simply keep the costs down and the weedy 78hp engine chugging along are now considered standard in the SUV world. Coil spring suspension and permanent four-wheel drive were only offered on Range Rovers at the time, so how the hell did a part-Italian mostly-Soviet manufacturer put this all together in one cost-efficient little package? Who knows, but its a recipe that works good enough for the Niva to still be in production, albeit in Uruguay, and for off-roading enthusiasts to still snap them up.

It's all too easy to criticise the Lada Niva, and its flaws were evident to all, but in Kolo it's one of the most valuable relics around, andeven if the rock-bottom prices don't represent their true value, it's hard to complain about a Niva when you look at its modern competition. It's not the best city car, and it's not the best off-roader. It's not pretty, and the interior is cheap, but as the forefather to modern SUVs, it's certainly a lot better than its modern offspring.