The Soviet Union will never cross your mind when you talk about high-end cars. When communist power and most of its resources were put in the military, the USSR did not consider first-class cars for the masses as a priority. For example, many Soviet cars were built as cheaply as possible and ignored things like safety features or even a car that drove well.
But sometimes the Soviet bloc produced surprisingly good cars. Keep in mind that even the best Soviet cars can make a Vega look like a Lamborghini in terms of power and not so stylish, but some can still be surprisingly good compared to the disasters that caused the nations of the time. These are five of the best Soviet cars ever made and five of the worst as a reminder of the mixed bag of the USSR’s auto industry.
10 Worst: Lada Oka
It’s harder to become more avoidable than openly driving a car nicknamed the “capsule of death”.Also known as the VAZ-1111, this was one of the last cars built before the Soviet Union collapse and shows how resources became scarce at the time.
Originally intended to be driven by people with physical disabilities, the Oka itself seemed to have the worst body possible, capable of crumbling just by running into another parked car. Somehow a good seller for the time, the Oka is also one of the worst cars in Russian history.
9 Best: Melkus RS 1000
It may not be the strongest car out there, but the “Ferrari of the East” not only looked cool (well, by Soviet standards), but was one of their better attempts at a sports car.
Yes, the 90hp 2-stroke 3-cylinder engine may be laughed at by Ferrari fans, but the styling was great with gull-wing doors. The transaxle sent power to the rear wheels properly, and it was sturdier than most Soviet offerings to make it the closest Soviet-era owners could get a Ferrari.
8 Worst: SMZ SIL1
The “Invacar” program was intended to provide people on benefits with cars. That may sound nice, but it also meant those people got one of the worst cars ever on the road. The SMZ SIL1 was arguably the worst of the bunch, starting with the three-wheeled design that looks more like a bathtub.
The “motor” makes just four horsepower and a top speed of 29 mph. That’s on top of a weak frame that can easily tip the car over. There’s a good reason they literally had to give these cars away to the public.
7 Best: Lada Nivac
The Lada Niva can be a divisive car, some call it terrible and others consider it far superior to its reputation. With a lightweight and unibody design at a time when most SUVs were hardbody builds, the Niva also had good suspension.
It was never a fast car, but it is amazingly strong and reliable to the point of being used in Antarctica for 15 years. The fact that it’s a revival proves that the Niva was a much stronger car than many claimed.
6 Worst: LuAZ 969
One of the worst excuses for a “utility vehicle” ever put on the road, the LuAZ 969 was considered groundbreaking by Soviet standards in the late 1960s. On the one hand, it was actually capable off-road and later models with a decent 40 horsepower.
But it was also slow, difficult to handle, very uncomfortable and had no safety features. There were also 60 deaths due to carbon monoxide leaks, making it an SUV to be avoided at all costs.
5 Best: GAZ M21 Volga
When a car is considered the must-ride for the KGB, it indicates that it is a good Soviet product. Made in Poland, the Volga copied the looks of American cars of the late 1950s with a touch body and frame.
The 2.4 four-cylinder delivered decent performance and a top speed of nearly 90 mph. It also had luxury technology at the time, such as reclining seats, a larger radio, a cigarette lighter, and more. It was a popular ride, especially by police and government officials, while a later V8 upgrade provided better performance for a strong ride for the USSR.
4 Worst: ZAZ 965
As one of the first public consumer cars on the USSR market, the ZAZ 965 was a sales success. Too bad it was also a crappy car.
It was okay at first, but it got worse as time went on, thanks to the cheap materials used in its construction. It had too short and thin cylinder and exhaust pipes which led to overheating and engine fires. It was also terribly slow, and while later models were minor improvements, the first ZAZ offering is not a car to be fondly remembered.
3 Best: ZIL-117
The rare case of a Soviet “luxury” car that lived up to its name, the ZIL-117 was an offering that felt like it was made in another country. A 1970s Soviet car with a 300hp V8 was stunning and helped by a well-constructed body that protected the passengers.
Perhaps because it was such high quality, only 50 were produced because the USSR just couldn’t afford to keep it running. But the ZIL-117 was a gem of the era to show that Russia did know how to make good cars when it tried.
2 Worst: ZAZ-1102 Tavria
A rare case of a Soviet car that became successful abroad, the ZAZ-1102 Tavria had a better engine than its predecessors with about 51 hp. That’s where the good stuff ends, as it’s made from amazingly thin and inexpensive materials.
The interior was even cheaper, with few safety features. They moved hundreds of thousands, but that’s more because of how cheap they were to make than their real success. It’s another case of a Soviet car that belonged in a junkyard.
1 Best: Skoda 110R
Calling something the “best Soviet sports car” may not be the greatest praise, but it’s praise nonetheless. “The Porsche of the East” was a better car than what was given credit for. Skoda itself is the most successful Soviet manufacturer of cars not only in the old Soviet countries, but also abroad.
The 110R was an updated version of the typical Skoda sedan with a beefier 62 horsepower engine and four headlights to make it stand out. It was a good ride with some surprisingly good performance and can be considered one of the best Soviet era cars ever released.