A low purchase price is one thing, but which new budget car offers the best combination of value and ability? Matt Saunders finds out

They’ve colonised our high streets. They’re forcing their way into our grocery shopping habits. And, slowly but surely, Europe’s value brands are increasing their claim to our driveways.

As retail experts love to tell us, the past five years have proved nothing if not that Britons love ‘sneaking down’ as much as ‘trading up’ – grabbing a bargain from the likes of Costco and Primark in order to make room in the budget for that trip to Selfridges or Fortnum & Mason.

In 2011, cheapo retail champions Aldi and Lidl had half the UK market share that they have today. The bigwigs at Skoda, Hyundai, Citroën, Dacia and MG Motor UK must be wondering how they can pull off the same kind of growth rate. Those five are the UK’s only budget car brands but still supplied 1.2 per cent more of the country’s new cars this year than in 2012, at just over 11 per cent in all.

Good product will be key if they are to increase that rate of progress. So many of us wouldn’t now be making an extra stop on the weekly shopping trawl if we hadn’t heard about Aldi’s smoked salmon or Costco’s fresh meat. In the same way, if Skoda – or even Dacia – can come up with a supermini that’s as good as a Ford Fiesta or a Volkswagen Polo and can charge less for it, we’ll all hear about it.

So is there an automotive equivalent of Lidl’s legendary Parmigiano Reggiano? Has either Skoda or Hyundai launched it in the brand-new Fabia or i20? Does the more esoteric Citroën C4 Cactus crossover represent the best value on our roads? Or is it worth plunging even deeper into low-cost motoring with a Dacia Logan or MG 3?

What they’re like to drive

Even in value-brand superminis, the driving experience matters. If paying less for a car means getting less, you’re clearly not getting value – whether it’s performance, refinement, comfort or handling.

Good news to begin with: although no car here has more than one and a half litres of swept volume, all but one hit a competitive mark in terms of basic speed. A Ford Focus EcoBoost costs twice as much as some of our test cars and hits 62mph from rest in 11.0sec. Only the Citroën needs much longer than that.

The fact that the Cactus is also the priciest option on test doesn’t flatter it. Citroën would argue that this 1.2 Puretech model has as much real-world performance as it needs, but it does feel a little underpowered when you’re nipping up to motorway speed or sweeping out to pass an HGV.

But a shortage of outright poke isn’t the biggest offence caused by the poorest of these cars. Manageable handling, decent ride comfort, light and pleasant controls and a quiet and well insulated cabin are the facets that a budget hatchback really can’t afford to compromise on, I reckon.

The Dacia Logan MCV compromises on all four. Its handling is only adequate, with reasonable grip and responsiveness up to a point but quickly deteriorating body control and steering authority at speeds that many of this country’s hurrying population wouldn’t consider fast. The ride is soft but poorly damped and feels wooden over tougher surfaces. Its cabin also suffers from the worst wind noise of our five by some way, 70mph being enough to make you wonder if you’ve left a window open.

The Logan’s 0.9 TCE Renault petrol engine is strong enough, but its sticky accelerator, snatchy clutch and notchy gearlever make that engine more unpleasant to interact with than it ought to be. Wherever, whenever and however you drove this car, it would continually remind you of how little it cost – and not in welcome terms.

There again, at least the Logan is genuinely cheap. The Citroën’s controls are only marginally more slick and consistent-feeling; its body control is better over rough roads but still lacks any real accuracy or finesse. The car rolls a long way when you hurry it around a corner and is easily deflected over lumps and bumps. Its ride feels hollow and restless at times – crashy, even. Add in a baggy gearchange and the paucity of performance and the Cactus’shand looks far from convincing.

The MG outclasses the Citroën and does so starting from a big advantage on list price. Flat cornering manners, balanced grip and a fluent, incisive wheel make it a fledgling driver’s car where you least expect to find one. Well, nearly. If it had another 20bhp, a better-mannered clutch pedal and more dexterous rear suspension, it’d be there or thereabouts. But as it is, you can take surprising amusement from a drive in a 3 – much more than any £9k car has any right supplying.

More than you’ll take, as it happens, from the Skoda and Hyundai. Not that it matters much. Both the Fabia and i20 speak of their makers’ greater experience and maturity with much broader dynamic competence and completeness than anything else here.

The relative sophistication of the Fabia shows itself in the calmest and most comfortable ride of the group. The Skoda’s controls are perfectly matched on weight, perfectly linear, slick and assured. Its turbocharged engine makes it relaxing and easy to drive. It’s effortless from low revs and undemanding on the motorway.

But the i20 has the Fabia beaten on handling crispness and agility. It’s firmer sprung, clearly the result of a bid to inject a bit of verve and poise. Its powertrain isn’t as quiet as the Fabia’s, and it needs revs to work well, but the six-speed gearbox gives the 1.4-litre model convincing mechanical substance. And although the ride occasionally seems a bit indelicate in dealing with bigger intrusions, it still deals with them quickly and quietly.The Fabia may be the classiest operator here, but the 3 is the most fun, and the i20 bridges the gap between them very skilfully indeed.

What they’re like to live with

Life with a Logan MCV – even the range-topping version here – would certainly be cheap, but it would leave you wanting plenty. As we’ve so often written of Dacias, this car is designed to serve your non-negotiable requirements of a car rather than your desires – and to do it as cheaply as possible. The standard equipment list leaves out electric rear windows, a spare wheel, a centre armrest and an alarm – even on top-level trim.

Dressed up to the max, the car’s cabin still looks as plain as Ryanair’s plainest ‘cheese’ sandwich. The one thing that it does have is space. The Logan’s huge load bay will swallow more stuff than a £30,000 Audi A4 Avant. 

The load bay cover and floor divider fittings are among the cheapest things that I’ve ever seen on a new car. Does it matter? Not at all if you need this much space and can only afford about a third of a Volvo V70. For some, this car would be a heaven-sent answer to a need. For most, though, I suspect it’s an overblown compromise of cost and space against quality and habitability.

We all want to be attracted, delighted and amused by the articles we spend our cash on – at least a little bit. That’s predominantly why living with a 3 would be significantly preferable for most people to living with a Logan.

The MG gives you a more modern, colourful fascia than the Dacia, good passenger space and more second-row passenger room than in the Fabia or the Cactus. The MG looks contemporary – handsome from some angles. It has flavour, character and charm.

The ‘leather’ seats of our test car were shiny and cheap-looking but comfy enough to sit on. Although the CD/radio looks a bit like a refugee from the 1980s Austin Metro that the car so clearly brings to mind, it does do Bluetooth media streaming. You get cruise control, daytime running lights, air conditioning, a DAB radio, 16-inch wheels and electric windows all round – and all for less than £10k.

The Cactus is quite generously equipped as well, but you’d expect it to be for almost £15k. It has every bit as much charm and likeability as the MG but develops it with more down-to-earth touches that endear it to you in normal daily use. The glovebox is enormous, for example; the door bins likewise. The seats are wide and very comfy and the boot is big. The long-travel suspension, responsible for the jittery ride out of town, handles sleeping policemen in town without obliging the car to break stride.

I can see why rational, sensible people would take to this car. Equally, I couldn’t forgive it for offering less rear seat space than such a refreshingly sensible car really ought. There’s less rear headroom here than in any of the rest of our field, and legroom isn’t generous, either. The rear seatback folds, but only as a single piece, which seems a needless annoyance. There is only one cupholder – and it’s hard to reach from the driver’s seat.

If the Cactus is like Marmite, both the Fabia and i20 are low-fat spreads: palatable to all. On material quality, both belong at the head of this field by some way. The Fabia’s cabin seems a little more upmarket because its layout and appearance are so expertly judged, and its touchscreen multimedia system is equally sophisticated.

But the i20’s fascia plastics are just as high in quality. They’re hard to the touch everywhere, just as the Skoda’s are, but still quite attractive and well finished. The blue-grey-on-more-grey colour scheme isn’t too inspiring, but there are more stylish combinations in the catalogue.

Where the Hyundai really scores is with more second-row passenger space than its key rival, a boot that’s meaningfully just as large, the marginally more engaging handling already described, and its value.

So we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty. The prices and various running costs of our individual test cars are a bit misleading in our specification rundown. In an ideal world, we’d have compared equivalent 80bhp-or-so cars here in equivalent, unoptioned mid-spec trim, which is how most customers will buy them. In some cases, we did that. But with the i20 and the Fabia, we couldn’t.

If we had, the Skoda’s advantage on performance would have been greater, but its disadvantage on ownership costs would have been greater, too. As well as being £700 pricier, a mid-spec Fabia rates three insurance groups higher than the equivalent i20, and it’s more meanly equipped. 

Steering wheel audio controls, daytime running lights, front foglamps, electric rear windows, a proper spare wheel, cruise control and parking sensors are all items that you’re quite likely to want. All come for free on a mid-spec i20, and all are items that Skoda asks you to pay extra for. Hyundai even throws in a lane departure warning system, an air-conditioned glovebox  and that five-year warranty.

Which one should you go for?

You might already have worked out that this contest is actually between the two established, conventional five-door superminis. The Logan smacks too much of austerity to break into the mainsteam, useful and cheap though it is, and so it comes last. The C4 Cactus ranks fourth. If it was as thoroughly executed as it is charmingly alternative, it might have fought for the win. It deserves to survive, at least, and improve over time.

The MG, meanwhile, deserves a podium finish. It’s spacious, well enough built and appointed and genuinely fun to drive. Its qualityis lacking in places, but the car still offers heaps more than it needs to for the money – on performance, handling, space, equipment, you name it.

That leaves just two. The Skoda is undoubtedly the classier prospect and is marginally the more agreeable to drive. The trouble is that it’s not really a cheap supermini – not any more. So it can’t win.

Once you’ve corrected a mid-spec Fabia SE to match the i20’s standard equipment, it’s a near-£15k purchase – £2000, or about £30 a month,more than the Hyundai. The difference is probably double that by the time insurance is taken into account. The Skoda is the more complete package, true, but it’s not that much better.

So the i20 takes it. It’s polished and multi-talented, impressive to drive and still a real bargain. If you’re looking for an unbeatable way to ‘sneak down’ with the family’s second car, this is it. Expect to see plenty in the Lidl car park.

Read Autocar's previous comparison - three cylinder engines on test

Read our full review of the Dacia Sandero Stepway

Hyundai i20 1.4 SE

Price £13,325; 0-62mph 11.6sec; Top speed 114mph; Economy 51.4mpg; CO2 127g/km; Kerb weight 1060kg; Engine 4 cylinders, 1368cc, petrol; Power 99bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 99lb ft at 3500rpm; Gearbox 6-speed manual

Skoda Favia 1.2 TSI 90 SE L

Price £14,420; 0-62mph 10.9sec; Top speed 113mph; Economy 60.1mpg; CO2 107g/km; Kerb weight 1034kg; Engine 4 cylinders, 1197cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 89bhp at 4400rpm; Torque 118lb ft at 1400rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual

MG 3 Style

Price £9999; 0-62mph 10.9sec; Top speed 108mph; Economy 48.7mpg; CO2 136g/km; Kerb weight 1155kg; Engine 4 cylinders, 1498cc, petrol; Power 105bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 101lb ft at 4750rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual

Citroën C4 Cactus 1.2 Puretech Feel

Price £14,590; 0-62mph 12.9sec; Top speed 106mph; Economy 61.4mpg; CO2 105g/km; Kerb weight 965kg; Engine 3 cylinders, 1199cc, petrol; Power 81bhp at 5750rpm; Torque 87lb ft at 2750rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual

Dacia Logan MCV 0.9 TCE Laureate

Price £9795; 0-62mph 11.1sec; Top speed 109mph; Economy 56.5mpg; CO2 116g/km; Kerb weight 1038kg; Engine 3 cylinders, 898cc, turbocharged, petrol; Power 89bhp 5250rpm; Torque 100lb ft at 2500rpm; Gearbox 5-speed manual

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Our Verdict

Dacia Logan MCV

This facelifted Dacia Logan MCV might not offer many more driving thrills than before, but there's plenty of space inside, a low asking price, and now even a new turbocharged triple propping up the range

Join the debate

Comments
12

10 January 2015
Cactus and Logan are aimed at completely different markets. Would have been better using a Sandero Stepway which just about shows up every car on this test in real world driving.

11 January 2015
Shane_2005 wrote:

Cactus and Logan are aimed at completely different markets. Would have been better using a Sandero Stepway which just about shows up every car on this test in real world driving.

Agreed the Logan estate is a strange choice in this comparison should have been the Sandero which at least is a hatch. Also strange how MG gets praise when most other reviews write it off for being poorly finished and a disaster zone in terms of depreciation.

10 January 2015
The MG 3 and Logan are the only ones on the test close to being a 'budget' choice.

10 January 2015
This reads more like a Whatcar test, where the most interesting and best to drive are alsorans, and automotive white goods are considered better. Not really what I expect from Autocar

10 January 2015
Not one of these products comes from a British company, or British factory. And mostly they are not that cheap either, with just a couple on offer for less than £10,000.
Nevertheless, it's an interesting article. There are considerably more challenges in making a good cheap car than a decent expensive one and some of the cars featured undoubtedly offer real value.

10 January 2015
Last year looking to replace my partner's Fiesta we tried Kia Rio with 1.4l engine that also boasts 6-Speed. We don't like Skoda elderly styling so didn't bother but with an open mind did try an Ibiza. Nothing in the class that we tried compares with Kia \ Hyundai power train and superior transmission. Having said that my partner still went on and bought a Fiesta again thanks to its better steering and dealer discount.

10 January 2015
.....been considered budget priced??

10 January 2015
...I see that the IT department at Autocar must still be on their Christmas break. Once comments run to more than 1 page, there is no point in posting as subsequent pages just repeat all comments from page 1......still!!!!!!!

10 January 2015
Completely agree with erly5, but maybe having access to all sorts of exotic machinery takes you out of touch with reality.

11 January 2015
The MG3 is the real winner here. It is cheap, fully loaded, good looking, and sounds like it's a decent drive. If all you want is a new car at a cheap price, but don't want a city car, and don't want the bargain basement Dacia, then it wins. The Skoda and Hyundai are no longer budget brands, but have caught up with mainstream ones in every respect, including price.

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