The Lada Samara or VAZ-2108 is an economy car produced by Soviet/Russian vehicle manufacturer AvtoVAZ's Lada brand, from 1984 until 2004. The brand name Samara originally was used only for exported models, in Russia the same model was called "Sputnik" (satellite), until 1991, when the sedan version of Samara entered in production, using the export name.
The Samara was to build on the success of the traditional Fiat 124-based range, by providing a car that combined a robust build and ease of maintenance with a modern style. It was produced in various three, four and five door designs with 1.1, 1.3 and 1.5 litre petrol engines. Lada had hoped that the Samara would enable it to compete for sales in the mainstream European car market. It was the second autonomous design from AvtoVAZ (the first was the Niva SUV), and the first one not based on the Fiat derived mechanics.
VAZ had made their first front-wheel drive prototype, the VAZ 1101, in the early 1970s. The engine from the Fiat 127 was used. Further development of this project led to the 900 cc "Ladoga" three-door prototype in 1976. On 31 December 1979 the first VAZ 2108 prototype was completed.During VAZ 2108 development, VAZ engineers also looked closely at a range of European competitors like the Volkswagen Golf, Opel Kadett D, Ford Escort Mark III, and Renault 9. While named "Sputnik" at home, it was more commonly known as the "Eight" after the last digit in the model code. The export version was named after the Samara River, a tributary to the Volga. The first cars left the production line on 18 December 1984.
Despite NAMI (National Automobile Institute) having allowed the involvement of Porsche engineers in the engine development, the Samara never achieved the same success as the Riva, even though it did prove to be a robust car with a modern style and an initially competitive price. Even so, it suffered from variable and often doubtful build quality and some of the uglier handling qualities that had always been associated with Lada. The car's molded plastic front grille was also a point of contention, as it was often seen to be ugly and cheap-looking; many were replaced with after-market grilles, even by Lada dealers themselves before the cars were sold.
In very small numbers, a rotary-engined (VAZ-415, 2 x 654 cc) Samara was sold in Russia only. Due to severe reliability problems, this remained rare, most commonly bought by police and other agencies to use as a pursuit vehicle. There were also a rear-engined Samara 4x4 rally car (1985), and the 1987 mid-engined Samara-EVA with a turbocharged 16-valve 1860 cc engine (300 hp). An even more powerful Samara S-Proto appeared two years later (350 hp). Most notably, the Samara T3 came seventh in the 1990 Paris-Dakar Rally and fifth in 1991, piloted by none other than Jacky Ickx. The T3, however, didn't contain many Samara parts, using the Porsche 959's four-wheel drive system and a 3.6-litre Porsche flat-six. It was developed by French concessionaire Lada-Poch together with NAMI and the Tupolev aerospace company.
The Samara was sold all across the world, from Australia to Canada, in most European countries and throughout the COMECON sphere. In most nations, versions and equipments were decided on and installed by the dealers themselves. These local varieties ranged from decals and badges to the convertible conversions offered in Belgium and Germany. The Samara was often sold under other names as well, in particular the VAZ 21099 (Samara Sedan), which was sold as the "Sagona" (France), "Diva" (Belgium), "Forma" (Germany) and "Sable" (Australia).
In certain markets where the tax structure benefited diesels (such as France and the Benelux), the Samara was available with a 1.5-litre Peugeot diesel engine in 1995-97.
With VAZ facing bankruptcy in 1996-97, exports began coming to a halt. The Lada Samara disappeared from Canada after the 1997 model year, leaving the Niva as the only Lada sold in Canada for the 1998 model year. Exports to Australia and Britain ended around the same time. The biggest problem was GM's reluctancy to sell the fuel injection kits necessary for exports, as they doubted VAZ's ability to pay. Faced with parts shortages, tax problems, and the chaos and criminality of Russia in the mid-nineties, export efforts languished and RHD production was no longer feasible.
As a partial response to this situation, a higher quality version for the European market, the Lada EuroSamara or Samara Baltic in some markets, was assembled in Finland at the Valmet Automotive plant in Uusikaupunki. Production started in summer 1996 and ended in July 1998, with 14 000 cars made from 85 per cent Russian parts.
The UK had to wait nearly three years for the Samara to go on sale after its launch in the USSR, but sales were reasonably strong when the first versions of the car left forecourts in November 1987. The Samara was a major change compared to other Lada models at the time, with a modern hatchback body-style and front-wheel drive as well as new engines featuring on the car. But the low-rent plasticky interior, sub-standard finish and lack of dynamic qualities were a big let-down for those who had been hoping for a car that was comparable with Western contemporaries. Many budget buyers, Lada's main targets, stuck with the old Riva. Still, the Samara remained on sale in the UK right up to 4 July 1997, when the decision was made to withdraw from the UK and most other export markets.
The attempt to appeal to a wider clientele failed; while an improvement over previous Ladas, the Samara's higher price pitched it against stiffer West European competition. By the time of the Samara's launch, the British small family car market was effectively split into two segments: The large "mainstream" market was dominated by mass market manufacturers such as Ford, Vauxhall, and Volkswagen. The "budget" market consisted of Eastern European and Far Eastern brands such as Škoda, FSO, Hyundai, and Proton. The Lada Samara was very much in the budget sector, but during its years on sale in Britain it faced ever stiffer budget competitors such as the Škoda Favorit, Hyundai Pony and Proton "Aeroback". Strong initial sales soon dropped as the competition leapt ahead with newer models from Daewoo, Hyundai, Kia and Proton, pushing Lada sales into terminal decline. The Samara came bottom of the annual 1996 and 1997 JD Power survey in the UK. In countries where ruggedness was more important, it did manage some success, selling reasonably well in Canada, Australia, and Finland for instance.In the 1996 and 1997 Top Gear survey, the Lada Samara was named as the least satisfying car to own in Britain.
Initially sold as a three- or five-door hatchback with a 1.3 petrol engine, a 1.5 version became available in October 1988. Metallic paint became an option for the first time in November 1989 when the 1.5 SLX was launched. A new entry-level model arrived in July 1990 when the 1.1 petrol engine was added to the range (Select or L). An updated version of the Samara was launched in April 1991, with all new trimlevels. This was followed by the introduction of the VAZ 21099 saloon version 15 months later. The saloon also became available as a sporty 1.5 "Juno" from July 1994, featuring alloy wheels, swoopy, ill-fitting sideskirts and a rear spoiler. A fuel injected engine became available on the 1.3 and 1.5 models in August 1996.
The Samara was introduced in to the Australian market in 1989 in 3 door and convertible body styles and was replaced the following year by the 5 door model, marketed as the Lada Cevaro. The 3 door returned in 1994 as the Lada Volante and the 4 door was introduced as the Lada Sable. Imports had ceased by 1996.
After 1997 the Samara was mostly sold in its homeland only, although it was still sold in some foreign markets with less strict emissions regulations. The Samara 2, a lightly facelifted version with a fuel-injected version of the 1,499 cc engine and a better gearbox, went on sale in limited numbers as the 2115 (four-door sedan) in 1997, built at the VAZ "special vehicles" unit. Brakes and interior were also upgraded, incorporating parts from the VAZ 2110. Full production on the main line in Togliatti began in 2000, in 2002 a five-door (2114) was added and the 2113 three-door followed in September 2004. The three-door was not originally planned to be built, was offered as a response to strong dealer demand. The last first generation Samara rolled off the Togliatti production line in 2004, ending 20 years of production there. Production of the "classic" Samara 2109/21099 continued at ZAZ in the Ukraine as of 2004, and from May 2007 in Kazakhstan (Asia Auto).
In January 2007, an upgraded Samara 2, using the modern 1.6-litre VAZ-11183-20 engine first seen in the VAZ 2110 went on sale. While the Lada 110 and the Lada Priora have taken much of the Samara's market share at home, the Samara retains a clear price advantage and steady demand.