Austerity Motoring and the Market for Hairshirts

Today is Ash Wednesday, when devout Christians wear ashes as a prelude to six weeks of Lenten privation. So as the faithful mortify themselves, we ask is there still a place for austerity in a recovering European car market?

Image: Dacia UK
White and good. Image: Dacia UK

Austerity: The ​condition of ​living without ​unnecessary things and without comfort, with​limited ​money or ​goods, or a ​practice, ​habit, or ​experience that is ​typical of this.

So goes the definition. But surely there’s a difference between offering up your chocolate habit for the holy souls and replacing your over-ambitiously financed automotive indulgence with a penitential Logan?

Frankly, we’ve all probably heard a good deal too much about austerity lately; mostly as a vague-sounding term blanketing some regressive and politically expedient retrenchment over a hitherto vital public service. Since the Eurozone crisis saw car sales collapse, automotive hairshirts have been moving off forecourts in sharply growing numbers – until comparatively recently, anyway.

But austerity motoring has been with us for decades in some shape or other. We all remember the likes of FSO, Lada and Zastava – that’s Yugo to the likes of you. Automotive sackcloth predominantly from Eastern Europe, ironically beginning life as fun-loving Fiats, but repackaged as sensible low-cost transport with an emphasis on rugged durability to mask the lack of comfort or finesse. Because as every Roman Catholic knows, it can’t be a sin if you don’t enjoy the experience.

In latter times, it’s become almost fashionable in affluent circles to shop at retail outlets such as Lidl and Aldi. These days, shopping smart is more of a pragmatic lifestyle choice than the admission of social immobility it once was. Similarly, to be in possession of a Dacia is viewed less as automotive penance as a sound no-frills choice – as endorsed by TV’s James May.

Since Dacia was relaunched by Renault in 2004, it has been one of the auto industry’s biggest success stories and is widely believed to have salved the stinging privations of its parent in the wake of the Euro crisis. Having bet the farm on electric cars, the Franco-Japanese car giant was facing some pretty stark vistas, but Dacia’s growth from 66,174 units to 376,324 over the past decade has underpinned Renault-Nissan’s business at a crucial time; helping it attain third position overall in Europe last year. But now with Dacia’s 2015 European market share falling to 2.67%, there are reasons to suspect the Romanian brand’s growth is slowing.

Austerity wearing a smarter suit. Fiat Tipo. Image: tribunamotori
Austerity in a sharper suit. Fiat Tipo. Image: tribunamotori

Dacia’s had the austerity market pretty much to itself, especially since GM’s Korean subsidiary has upped sticks, but this is about to change. The European big names, tired of looking on enviously as Dacia vacuumed volume from their own struggling brands are going on the offensive. Citroen is in the process of repositioning itself entirely on a value proposition – low on cost, big on fun.

Fiat too is moving in a similar direction. In fact it’s moving in two directions simultaneously. A classic Marchionne two-step, since the man seems incapable of taking a position and sticking to it. These offerings major on the value side of the equation. Fiat’s new Tipo for instance offers a lot of car and a decent amount of style and equipment for the money. Couple this with low running costs, and it’s a hairshirt Giacomo, but not as we know it.

There are already signs that as Europe wakes up from its austerity nightmare, the appetite for penitential motoring is paling. VW have been offering the automotive equivalent of burnt toast in the shape of the Seat Toledo/Skoda Rapid twins for some years now; both of which posted sizable sales falls in 2015, which could suggest that with the return of normality, customers may be turning their back on austerity.

And just as the Easter celebration traditionally marks the end of penance and self-denial in an orgy of chocolate smeared consumption, will Europe’s slow and painful re-emergence from fiscal privation see Dacia’s appeal evaporate as quickly as those Lenten promises?

With most signs of lasting economic recovery looking about as dependable as a Takata airbag, it’s far more likely austerity motoring is going to remain a sizable component of our motoring lives for some time yet. And while it’s been said that value never goes out of fashion, something similar could be said for hairshirts.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

22 thoughts on “Austerity Motoring and the Market for Hairshirts”

  1. The problem with many austerity cars is that they seem to be made to emphasise their austerity. I don’t mean they’re badly designed – even in the development of a cheap car, it doesn’t cost that much more to employ good designers rather than mediocre ones. I assume that they are deliberately designed to look a bit clumsy – not offensively so, but enough for punters to still wish their budget had stretched to a Clio or Kadjar with those cute chromey kinks on the sills. Those blisters on the tailgate of the Duster, which follow through from the lights just shout ‘I’m plain metal – if I wasn’t a CHEAP car, I’d be a lamp’.

    1. “it doesn’t cost that much more to employ good designers rather than mediocre ones.”

      Well, it probably does actually. And more importantly, even if the rate per hour wasn’t that different, then it’s all down to how many how of those the manufacturer had budgeted.
      For the rest, chrome, lamps etc. is exactly where the rest of the quantifiable savings are to be found.

    2. Laurent, realising that you were going to read this, I should have been more specific. I meant it doesn’t cost much more when viewed as a percentage of the total development costs. My point about the blisters is that they seem to have been put there precisely to underline that something is missing.

    3. Fair enough, although it would be interesting to see whether those ‘blisters’ have actually been filled with lamps and trim in those countries where the Duster is sold with a Renault badge.

  2. I’m not surprised that Dacia is not gaining market share as quickly. If you want cheap motoring, and the thrill of a new car, the VW Up or Toyota Aygo triplets are available on very cheap lease deals and cost pennies to run (other small cars are available). If you don’t want to sign up for a lease, the used car market is flooded with cheap and good cars. The entry level Dacia reminds me of an entry level ‘C’ trim VW from 20 years ago – really very bleak indeed. The Cactus at least has a sense of joy and fun about it, although some of the cost-saving measures such as the lack of opening rear windows and split-fold seat would prove infuriating for family use.

  3. There’s a pleasure in Simple that is not the same feeling you get from Cheap. I did seriously think of a Dacia on a couple of occasions, but then realised that once I’d added AC (which I no longer think of as a luxury) it seemed much less of a bargain. As Eoin suggests, there is something of the cold shower about the entry-level spec Dacia and it only makes sense if you must have a new car.

  4. Does anybody have access to Dacia sales figures for markets other than Europe? I would be curious to see what the trend is in places like India or North Africa. Also in Russia they are sold as Renaults instead of (or alongside?) Dacias.

    1. In Latin America they are sold as Renaults. I don’t have sales figures, but anecdotally the Renault Duster is very popular in Brazil and well suited to the local market.

    2. Thanks. My guess is that Europe is not priority and the real growth is in emerging markets.

  5. Just at random. Autotrader have a 16,000 mile X-Type estate for the price of a Duster. Or a 3 year old, 12,000 mile Astra Estate. Or a Bentley Turbo R. Personally, I’ve never been concerned if another bum has been in the seat before me.

    1. Have you tried to compare the price of a new Duster with A/C and metallic paint with an entry level hatchback from another manufacturer, to illustrate your point earlier about the new car market?

    2. It’s not even an option on the basic models. It’s only available on the top range version, which costs at least £4,000 more (over 40%). Also the top range model is an oil-burner, which reminds me why I fully discounted the idea. Air conditioning was standard on the Bentley Turbo R incidentally.

  6. A reliable budget car is a bad idea in ‘modern’ consumer culture. The thinking is that these customers will hold on to one and the same reliable cheap car for years and years (the old Lada type customer). Maybe these customers will buy a new car every 10-15 years and in the mean time there will be no money spent on accessories or expensive repairs. On first sight, this is only a good business case for company cars and car sharing services.

    1. I agree really. I think an industry where companies build good and nice cars, meaning that there is a healthy secondhand market is better, both in terms of what the customer gets and in terms of not being profligate with resources. But then I’m fortunate to have been able to afford to buy a new car – though I’ve only ever done so once for myself. For some people the idea of new car ownership makes them feel better about their lives, but it’s always seems out of reach. And the truism about a new car purchase is that, from the moment you drive out of the showroom, you’re driving a used car.

  7. I have some oblique experience of austerity motoring via my RenaultSport Clio. (Yes, yes; bear with me.) Being a Cup, it is based on the most basic Clio, a device of stunning miserliness. As such, the car lacks standard specification list padding as electric mirror adjustment, a telescoping steering wheel, a split rear seat or even rear Isofix fittings, although thankfully whoever specced mine new ticked the option box for air con.

    But more so than that, penny pinching is evident in every single material and interface. Every single plastic surface looks and feels awful. The doors and boot shut with a clang that resonates through the whole car, indicating a lack of both sound deadening or expensive latch mechanisms. The glove box only occasionally latches shut and is haphazardly aligned with the dashboard. The underpowered electric windows (which I assume are cheaper than winders these days) perform their function with the vigour of a teenager asked to rise from their beds before 10am. The windscreen wipers have no plastic coverings to improve their appearance. The handbrake has no gaiter, exposing both its own greasy dust flecked mechanism and the ragged yellow foam insulation of the transmission tunnel. It takes ten minutes of hard driving before the underpowered heater creates warmth. The car even lacks an external temperature gauge, for God’s sake.

    Of course my own car makes up for this desperate parsimony in other respects. But I have also suffered the misfortune of being lent the same car with a 1-litre engine. It was an experience I would not care to repeat, the car being both desperately underpowered (not necessarily a problem in itself) and in possession of the most undercooked set of driving controls of any car I have ever driven. Everything was wrong: the accelerator had huge travel, the clutch biting point was oblique, the brakes massively over-sensitive to the point where every slowing manoeuvre had me near head butting the steering wheel.

    At this point I guess I should “check my privilege”, as our American friends say. But given the wealth of options both new and used from any number of manufacturers at any number of price points, I simply cannot understand why anyone would put up with a car that was as teeth grindingly bad at performing its most basic function, that of going and stopping. More so than anything else, it is the level of attention lavished upon the driving interfaces that many budget cars lack. Any number of cheap Fords over the years demonstrate that ‘decontented’ need not be synonymous with ‘discontentment’, as long as the underlying engineering package is mapped out by engineers holding the driver’s interests in mind.

    1. My own opinion on new versus decent-used is based on the Nissan B. My Cube has nice plastics that are well made and installed, it’s solid, it has AC, connectivity, glass roof, etc. Obviously the exterior is Marmitey to say the least, but driving it you don’t feel cheapskate. Yet it cost about half the price of a new Duster and, at just under 30,000 miles, it feels like a new car. Buying secondhand does require a bit of a leap of faith sometimes, but really so does buying new.

    2. I cannot understand how the Clio III could be such an awful drive when other cars spun off the same components are not. I can only conclude that Renault thought Clio customers were happy with that sort of half-baked experience? There again, I could start a spread sheet on the ways in which the Clio III was manifestly worse than previous models.

    3. Obviously the Cube started out as a niche vehicle, sold at a premium when new, so I guess that Nissan could afford to put a bit more care into it. A Micra is a more direct comparison, but my guess is that would feel more solid too. These things do depend on how much you spend, I suppose. A used Mk 2 Astra Estate we had at work long ago was a bit like driving in a (albeit reasonably well handling) bucket. But it just went on and on and I was surprisingly fond of it. But if I had bought it new, I don’t think the affection would have been the same.

    4. Another approach to the austerity car is the putative £500 banger, which has been discussed at length elsewhere. I’ve never been one for the whole use it until something breaks, then bin it approach; I’m too much of a sap for that. A couple of years ago, I bought a 1996 Saab, viewing it as a more romantic option to something newer and smaller. I’ve never regretted it for a second. I’ve owned nicer cars, faster cars, more driver-focused cars, (in addition to a couple of dogs) but over the past (almost) three years it has proved the most dependable, versatile mile-muncher & load hauler I’ve ever owned. I accept that it represents a pretty dire period in Saab’s history and its dynamic deficiencies are often hilariously apparent, but I’ve developed a really durable bond with the thing by virtue of its utter faithfulness. Frankly, it might be 20 years old, and a bit creaky here and there but it’s never felt particularly austere to me. Still doesn’t.

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