As part of Groupe Renault, Dacia has carved out a distinctive niche as a manufacturer of competent if unexceptional budget vehicles. Today we examine how this strategy has evolved over the past twenty years.
In 1997 Renault Chairman and CEO Louis Schweitzer visited Russia to gain an understanding of the market and Renault’s prospects there. To his surprise, he established that the ancient Fiat 124-based Lada was market leader despite its antiquity. The prime reason for this was its bargain price, equivalent to US $6,000 when the cheapest Renault sold in Russia cost twice that.
Flying back to France, Schweitzer set down the requirements for the design of a basic but not minimal modern car which could be sold profitably worldwide at the Lada’s price of $6,000 (€5,000). His brief, written on an airline napkin, stated the basic tenets in three words: modern, reliable, affordable, with the codicil that “everything else is negotiable.”
Long serving Renault R&D manager Gérard Detourbet, was given the task of developing a car to meet Schweitzer’s brief. Led by Detourbet, engineering teams in France and Romania would first develop a compact but spacious four-door sedan on a generous 2630mm wheelbase, which would be christened Logan.
However, the so-called X90 project would not be a single car but a new architecture for a range of passenger and light commercial vehicles that could be built in labour-intensive, low-investment production facilities worldwide. Reducing the parts count, both in variety and number, was key to the success of the project: the Logan required 50% fewer parts than an equivalently-sized contemporary Renault.
The Logan would not be ready for launch until 2004. In the meantime, Renault, having acquired Dacia in 1999, would have to manage with Romanian company’s existing range. This mainly comprised saloon, liftback, estate and pick-up versions of the 1310, all of which were based on the underpinnings of the 1969 Renault 12.
Despite their antiquity, all still sold strongly in their domestic market because, priced from around €4k, they were the only new vehicles that could be afforded by their impecunious owners. Moreover, they were inexpensive and easy to service, and their longevity meant that a ready supply of second-hand spare parts could be scavenged.
Dacia did, however, produce another model called the Nova. This was an in-house design that had been launched in 1995 after a protracted development period. It was a transverse-engined FWD hatchback with a distinctive notchback profile. Although smaller than the 1310, it was more expensive and regarded as less practical and durable, so was not a strong seller.
It was to the Nova that Renault turned its attention. The car was re-engineered to accept a Renault 1,390cc fuel-injected engine and gearbox. Equipment levels and build quality were improved, and the car was relaunched as the Supernova in 2000. The Supernova was replaced by the Solenza in 2003, a further upgrade of the Nova, this time also offered with a 1,870cc diesel engine. Both cars were stop-gap models awaiting the arrival of the Logan.
The Logan went on sale in September 2004. It was based on the Renault B0 platform that underpinned the Clio Mk2 and numerous other Renault and Nissan models. It was a conventionally engineered FWD four-door saloon with an emphasis on mechanical simplicity, ease of maintenance and robustness. Renault was surprised to discover a demand for the Logan in West European markets and began exports of better equipped versions in June 2005, priced from €7.5k.
The Logan was subsequently sold widely in Russia, Asia, Africa and Latin America under either the Renault or Dacia marque names and has been assembled locally in many of these markets. The model range was extended with the MCV, an LWB estate version offering five or seven seats, introduced in 2006. Van and pick-up versions of the MCV were launched in 2007.
Renault and Dacia also recognised the potential for a no-frills B-segment hatchback and launched the Sandero in 2007. Like the Logan, this was also based on the B0 platform, albeit with 41mm taken out of the Logan’s wheelbase. Engines ranged from 1.0 to 1.6 litre petrol units and a 1.5 litre diesel, broadly similar to the Logan.
The new Logan and Sandero Mk2 models were launched together in 2012. This time, the Logan MCV was available only with five seats, the seven-seat version being replaced by the new Lodgy, an MPV available in both five and seven-seat formats.
Also launched in 2012 was the Dokker, primarily a panel van with sliding rear doors, but also offered in a passenger version as a smaller alternative to the Lodgy. Both the Lodgy and Dokker were built, not in Romania, but in Morocco. By then, Dacia’s vehicles were being built in multiple locations across four continents, selling under such diverse nameplates as Nissan, Lada, Mahindra, Pars Khodro and, of course, Renault.
Renault and Dacia observed the market’s inexorable move towards SUVs and thought the value concept could be applied here too. The result was the Duster, launched in 2010. This was a compact SUV, available in either FWD or 4WD versions and again utilising the versatile B0 platform and the already familiar range of petrol and diesel engines.
Dacia chose the Sandero and Duster models to lead the company’s launch in the UK market in 2012. The entry prices were certainly striking: £5,995 for the Sandero and £8,995 for the Duster in base Access trim. For that price, the car came only in white with unpainted grey plastic bumpers, steel wheels, no air-conditioning and not even a radio as standard. If you wanted a 4×4 Duster, prices started at £10,995, a £2k premium over the 4×2 versions.
These prices were set to draw customers into the showroom, where they could readily be persuaded to go for the higher Ambiance or Laureate trim levels. Cleverly, Dacia did not make the more economical 1.5 litre turbodiesel engine available on the Access level Duster, just a 1.6 litre petrol unit. Even so, the top-level Duster 4×4 Laureate was still remarkably cheap at £14,995 on-the-road, which was less than the entry price for the Škoda Yeti, for example. The vehicles came with a standard three-year/60k miles warranty, extendable to five-years/60k or seven-years/100k miles at an extra upfront cost.
Unsurprisingly, given its ‘tried-and-tested’ underpinnings, the Duster felt a bit outdated to drive, with soggy handling and a noisy, underpowered petrol engine. The diesel unit, only 5bhp more powerful, but with much stronger torque, suited the Duster much better. The steering was somewhat heavy and lacked feel, the gearchange was notchy and imprecise, and the pedals inconsistently weighted. Ride comfort was reasonably good, although wind and road noise marred refinement. The suspension thumped loudly over potholes and wind noise made conversation difficult at motorway speeds. The interior was austere and some of the fittings felt a bit flimsy, but it was spacious and practical.
The biggest hidden cost in the bargain price was the lack of safety kit. Although the Duster met minimum requirements, the lack of curtain airbags and its relatively outdated underpinnings meant it scored only three stars when tested by Euro NCAP in 2011. Some early Indian-assembled models had significant corrosion problems due to poor paintwork and there were occasional problems with water ingress due to poorly fitted door or front bulkhead seals. Otherwise, the Duster proved to be pretty reliable in service.
The Duster was replaced with a Mk2 model in 2017. Still based on the same B0 platform and mechanical package, the new model was a cautious update of the original, with higher equipment levels and greatly improved refinement. Safety was improved too, with ABS, emergency brake assist, electronic stability control and traction control standard across the range. That said, the new Duster was still rated at just three stars against tougher 2017 Euro NCAP standards.
Autocar magazine tested the new Duster in 2017 and was impressed by the improvement in refinement over the original. The magazine recognised that it was still behind the median standard for its peers, but still rated it four stars on account of its terrific value for money and clarity of purpose.
The story of Dacia is first one of survival, then of success. In fifty years, it has produced over nine million vehicles, not including those marketed under Renault or other brands. Renault has proved to be a safe and steady guiding hand in the successful development of its Romanian subsidiary.
Author’s note: My thanks go to DTW fellow-author, Robertas Parazitas, for his contribution to this piece.