What is it?
Perhaps the most superfluous first drive review of 2012. Does it really matter how the new Dacia Sandero drives? This is a full-sized five-door supermini, after all, with five seats, four wheels, an engine and a practical boot, that’s coming brand new to the UK next January for less than £6000.
For those old enough to remember when that seemed a perfectly normal price for a four-metre hatchback, consider this: the list price on an entry-level five-door version of the Vauxhall Corsa, not-so-long ago the most popular car in the Sandero’s class in Britain, currently contains five figures. And it starts with a ‘12’.
That being the case, you may think, it’s vastly less important how well the Sandero serves its purpose functionally and dynamically than that it simply performs at all. This is a new breed of supermini, you could say. One that, for the time being, is in a class of one on sheer value for money. If you like a bargain, how could you possibly find fault with a deal like that?
What is it like?
You mean ‘what on earth is a new £6000 supermini like on the road in 2012?’ The answer will have to wait, because Renault didn’t make any £5995, 74bhp, 1.2-litre Sandero Access models available for us to test on the international press launch.
It did confirm an equipment level for the bottom-rung model, though. Those wanting to spend exactly £5995 will get power steering, split folding rear seats, electronic stability control and ISOFIX child seat anchorages. But they’ll also get white paint (whether they like it or not), black plastic bumpers and body trim, old-fashioned door locks, no alarm, and a blank on the fascia where the radio would otherwise be.
Automotive austerity gets a new hero in the UK in 2013, in the shape of a car that comes on 15in steel wheels – without wheel trims.
Instead of that car, though, Dacia gave us a Sandero in range-topping Laureate trim to test, which it expects to account for more than 60 per cent of the UK mix. Laureates start from £7995 and – on the equipment list at any rate – smack much less of the bare necessities. You get USB and auxiliary audio connections for your sound system – not to mention the sound system in the first place – as well as electric windows, air conditioning, remote central locking, Bluetooth, a trip computer and front fog lamps with this Sandero.
Sounds quite generous, but it’s not nearly as spectacular a bargain as the entry-level car. You have to add cost options for example, even to the range-topping Sandero, to get it to an equipment level commensurate with, say, a Kio Rio 1.25 ‘2’: alloy wheels (£425), Dacia’s protection pack (for the alarm - £430) and a four-year extension to the standard three-year warranty (£850). Having done that, your Sandero will set you back a no-haggle £10,250; after a manufacturer-backed incentive and a bit of deal-brokering, you can expect to pay about £11,500 for the Kia at the moment. Which is why, where this particular model is concerned, it absolutely does matter how the Dacia Sandero drives. You bet it does.
There are three engines in the UK range: a 1.5-litre, 99g/km, 89bhp diesel, and two petrols. Our test car was the more powerful of the latter two, powered by Renault’s new 898cc turbo three-pot engine, mated to a five-speed manual ‘box.
It’s a quiet enough engine at low rpm; a new thicker front bulkhead for this second-generation Sandero sees to that. But at working crank speeds, the motor sends vibrations through the body and into the cabin that you can feel through the seat and controls. It produces plenty of torque, and makes the Sandero every bit as flexible and spritely a performer as you’d want it to be: this isn’t a slow car at all. But it doesn’t have a particularly inspiring engine either, nor one to take much pleasure from.
The same goes for the Sandero’s handling. In outright terms, this is an entirely competent and adequate dynamic prospect, that rides quietly enough, and that will deliver you to your destination safely and securely. But it does feel a little bit thrown together. Grip levels are decent, and the car’s hydraulic steering is consistent and even a little feelsome. But the Sandero rolls its way into corners unchecked for a few degrees before settling onto its line, displacing you from a driving position that was far from perfect to begin with. Its damping is rudimentary: ultimately passable, but much more digital than the class norm. Which is why, judged by the current supermini class standards, the Sandero just isn’t quite at the races.
Should I buy one?
If you buy right, yes. Pay £5995 for a Sandero and ‘adequate’ refinement and handling will more than suffice. This is a surprisingly handsome small car with value on its side at any point in the range, that’s well enough built, and will make a practical, sensible purchase for anyone with their head screwed on.
But on this evidence, it’s a mistake for Dacia’s marketeers to believe this car can stand toe-to-toe with the likes of the Kia Rio and Chevrolet Aveo. Both of those Korean-built superminis are much more highly developed, polished acts. If you’re going to spend more than £10,000 – and you’d need to in order to make our test car your own – in either of the Koreans is where we’d advise putting your money.
For the Sandero, the golden rule would seem to be ‘if it’s cheap enough, it’s good enough’ – and almost £9000 probably isn’t quite cheap enough.
Dacia Sandero 0.9 TCE
Price £8795; 0-62mph 11.1sec; Top speed 109mph; Economy 54.3mpg; CO2 116g; Kerb weight 962kg; Engine 3 cyls, 898cc, turbocharged petrol; Power 89bhp at 5250rpm; Torque 100lb ft at 2500rpm; Gearbox 5spd manual