THE Dacia Sandero is Britain’s cheapest new car, but what sacrifices have been made to bring it in at such a low price?
What did you think it was going to be like? It’s Britain’s cheapest new car, for Pete’s sake. Of digital climate control, quick-clear windscreens and DAB-enabled, sub-branded stereos, there was no sign. At £5,995, this no-frills, five-door hatchback costs less than some food mixers.
Dacia, (pronounced “Datch-ha”), was founded in 1966 as Romania’s state car-maker, 6building obsolete Renaults under licence. It was acquired by Renault in 1999 and the Logan, billed as the “5,000 Euro car” was launched in 2004 aimed at developing countries and Eastern Europe. Designed to be built cheaply, with labour not robots, it could accommodate a family of five and had a big boot. Renault even had to drag a team out of retirement because it no longer had anyone on staff who knew how to design a wind-up window. Louis Schweitzer, the former Renault CEO who masterminded the Logan, didn’t think that Europeans would want a stripped-as-a-cell Dacia, pointing out that the brand wasn’t designed for “cheap-chic Europeans”.
Yet many Western Europeans maintain that this is exactly the car they want. The original Sandero of 2008, a hatchback version of the Logan, has been a sales success in Europe along with the 4×4 Duster. But while the simple motoring life sounds great in theory, and many people write to Honest John clamouring for back-to-basics vehicles, Britons are notorious for over-specifying their cars from the options list.
And the history of basic cars in the UK is patchy. Ford’s 1953 103e Popular was Britain’s cheapest car at £400, but the specification was Spartan with no electric windscreen wipers, heater, or even a boot floor. It was a poor rival to the more advanced Morris Minor, or even Ford’s own Anglia 100E which cost nearer £500 and an aura of poverty motoring hung over the ‘Pop’ like a smokescreen.
Cars such as the Sandero tend to be enthusiastically purchased for other people to drive – the daughter, the nanny. Is it safe enough? In the 2008 New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash test, the Sandero got three stars, but just one for pedestrian safety. The new model has yet to be tested, but Renault isn’t predicting any more than three stars. All UK Sandero models come with electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes with emergency brake assist, traction control, driver/passenger and front side airbags and two rear Isofix seat mounts.
When it arrives in January there will be three engines and three trims. Two petrol; a toothless 74bhp, 1.2-litre, four-cylinder base model with the headline price, as well as Renault’s most modern 89bhp, 898cc, turbocharged three-cylinder starting at £7,395. The turbodiesel is Renault’s highly commended 89bhp, 1.5-litre four-cylinder for a minimum of £8,395.
Trim levels start with Access, (15in steel wheels, power steering, but no radio or painted bumpers, mirrors and door handles). Another £600 gets you into an Ambience with a radio, USB slot, remote central locking, electric front windows, painted bumpers and nice hub caps. Two thirds of buyers will likely fork out an extra £2,000 for the top-spec Lauréate trim (air-conditioning, electric door mirrors, cruise control and rear electric windows).
It’s all a bit reminiscent of those Seventies adverts for the Citroën Visa which boasted “four wheels, a big bumper at the front and a big bumper at the back”. But while it’s easy to scoff, at least they don’t mug you for the options. Alloy wheels are £425, metallic paint is £470, the protection pack of boot liner, alarm and rear parking sensors is £430 and extending the three-year, 60,000-mile warranty to five years will cost £395, or £850 for seven years and 100,000 miles.
The trouble is all these extras add up fast and take away Dacia’s unique selling point. Buy a Lauréate diesel, add the above extras and you’ve spent £12,220. Take that money to a Kia dealer and with a discount you could be driving a top-spec Rio or even a starter Kia Cee’d. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Interestingly, we didn’t get the basic Sandero to drive at the launch, we had a £8,795 turbo petrol in top trim. This is not the most attractive car and the clumsy roof-to-side panel join and the visible lower sill seam anchor the Sandero’s appearance firmly in the 1970s. The undamped panels tend to clang shut and the doors don’t always latch; it feels and looks old hat. Step inside and the one-piece door cards and slush-moulded dashboard maintain that impression. The trim is austere, unremittingly grey, the seat fabrics are thin and unpleasant to touch, and the switches grind rather than spin. There’s not a lot of love in here.
The seats are narrow with thick, old-school cushions that feel as though you are sitting on them rather than in them. The steering adjusts for height only, but there is a simple height adjustment for the driver’s seat. The rear seats provide basic and spacious accommodation for three adults and the boot is amply large, with the rear seats folding 60/40 including the squab.
On the move the little triple provides adequate power, but overtaking requires a crystal ball and at times the power surges irrationally. It’s reasonably quiet and refined, although the gear-change quality is gritty and obstructive, especially in the lower gears. The steering hasn’t a lot of on-centre feel.
The ride is quite comfortable, but the body trembles over irregular surfaces and the ride feels wobbly and nervous almost as if the car were frightened by bumps. The handling is very old fashioned with lots of body roll, and a rolling gait which you have to overcome by hurling the car at the corner as if it were a test of nerve and skill that won you the heart of a fair lady. No one is going to drive their Dacia like this.
Renault bullishly hopes to maintain retail price with a “no discounts” policy, which it claims has held in Europe. Daewoo and GM’s US brand Saturn tried in vain to enforce such policies before, but Renault bosses have even threatened to withdraw the brand if they have to discount. Renault dealers will be thirsty for the extra Dacia business but the initial investment is minimal, not much more than a corner in Renault showrooms.
The fight for the cheap end of the market is a perfectly acceptable ploy and the Chinese will do this when they start to import cars. But Dacia isn’t really good enough to hold its own against rivals without that low price, yet most people will splurge on the options list and more than half will opt for the Stepway version, an “urban warrior” model with a raised ride height and costing from £7,995 to £10,795 when it arrives in May, so where’s the point?
Doubtless the Sandero will find buyers, but there’s delusion here especially as we know that Renault can build a better car for Western Europe. Could I introduce you to the Clio?
Tested: Five-door hatchback with 898cc, three-cylinder turbo petrol, five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Price/on sale: £5,995 to £9,795 (£8,795 as tested)/now
Power/torque: 89bhp @ 5,250rpm/ 100lb ft @ 2,500rpm
Top speed: 109mph
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 11.1sec
Fuel economy: 42.2mpg/54.3mpg (EU Urban/Combined)
CO2 emissions: 116g/km
VED band: C (£0 first year, £30 thereafter)
Verdict: It’s cheap and cheerful but drives better than it has a right to and is also spacious. But this is austerity motoring at its most basic and for many people a used car will be a better option.
Telegraph rating: Two out of five stars.
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