Against all Odds (Part Two)

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.

2018 Dacia Duster Mk2 (c) Dacia UK

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.

2003 Dacia Solenza (c) auto.vercity.ru

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.

2004 Dacia Logan (c) autotanacsado.com

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.

2013 Dacia UK Range (c) dacia.co.uk

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.

2014 Dacia Duster Access (c) carbuyer.co.uk

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

19 thoughts on “Against all Odds (Part Two)”

  1. It’s astonishing to see what Renault achieved with Dacia.
    A manufacturer whose biggest product related problems were lack of quality, unreliability and dysfunctional dealer network decides to create products that are simpler (verging on the primitive) and cheaper to make. This would have been a sure recipe for disaster if they hadn’t managed to find a new customer base with different expectations.
    Selling Dacias as something of an anti-car to customers who don’t care about cars seems to have worked.
    Cars like the Logan MCV had an unexpected sales success when plumbers and painters discovered that the costs for buying such a car and throwing it away when it’s worn out after three years were lower than lease fees for VW Multivans or Benz Sprinters over the same time.

  2. Gérard Detourbet seemed like quite the character. I first ran into his name on the Daily Kanban website, where the long-ago editor of The Truth About Cars reported on the thinking behind the Renault Kwid being built in Chennai India. He visited the plant and got to talk to Gérard Detourbet there, reporting his findings on Forbes business website. Fascinating reading for me at the time, since Dacias haven’t made it across the pond, and the brand is unknown here. If you’re interested in how cheaply a relatively decent vehicle can be made, the articles are fascinating.

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/bertelschmitt/2017/05/22/the-auto-industrys-most-feared-disruptor-reveals-his-secrets/#4fb0c01149e5

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/bertelschmitt/2017/05/22/how-can-a-4100-renault-kwid-make-a-profit-the-answer-is-here/#1453985c27e4

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/bertelschmitt/2017/05/22/true-disruptors-of-the-auto-industry-a-118-year-old-carmaker-a-71-year-old-man-a-4100-car/#5b3006b869b0

    After digesting all that some three years ago, it made me wonder why other manufacturers haven’t applied Detourbet’s kind of thinking. Of course, safety performance is compromised compared to what’s expected in the EU or USA, and the original Kwid had no airbags. Still, as a philosophy about how to manufacture inexpensively, I think these articles give an idea of how Renault approached its acquisition of Dacia.

    1. This modus operandi is very similar to Fugen Ferdl’s way with the difference being that his was not to make cars cheaper but panel gaps tighter, details nicer and cars more desireable – something completely lost on the typical Dacia owner.

  3. I would imagine that early 4WD Dusters do not take long to sell, for similar reasons – there are probably a good number on farms, especially the rare panel-van version. Nice to see the use of actual hub-caps rather than full wheel trims, too! I wonder whether Lodgy would sell in the UK, as there is little alternative for people who want such a car. I think I read that they are not keen on Dokker coming here because it would steal sales from Renault’s own Kangoo. While the entry trims are indeed to draw people to the showroom, I wonder how much profit (if any) they make on the Access trims.

    How does Dacia fit in with the new RNM Alliance brand strategy? Is it largely continuing as-is? They had plans to produce an EV called Spring, which might cause headaches for some manufacturers if it is successful.

  4. The challenge is to keep Dacia simple. Skoda has inflated wildly from being an economy car to being good enough for people to choose actively. You can´t keeep adding features to the higher-class brand; there comes a point when even if the lower-class brand is relatively inferior it is still absolutely plenty good enough. There´s a kind of baseline of quality and features beyond which people lose interest if asked to pay. MB can sustain it, VW can´t. The material differences between Skoda, VW and Audi are wafer thin.
    At the moment Dacia is just about worse than a Renault and people remember the old cars so Renault seems like a more prestiggious option. In a decade that won´t be the case and Renault will have two almost equally good brands for two different prices.

  5. Contrary to what some may believe, there was a proper competition among Renault designers to get the Logan gig – what with a fair few of them relishing the chance to create a design according to such an unusual brief. In the end, it was Benoit Jacob (previously Renault Spider exterior and future BMW i and Byton chief designer) whose proposal was selected for production.

    Groupe Renault can count themselves very lucky indeed that calmer heads prevailed when Carlos Ghosn wanted to shut down Dacia as one of his first measures after having taken over from Louis Schweitzer. Very lucky indeed.

  6. Good afternoon all and thank you for your comments. I actually travelled in a Lodgy taxi when visiting southern Spain last year. It is very van-like, with a noisy, creaky interior, but very roomy and perfectly adequate short-distance transport. Here’s the interior configuration:

    The Renault version (where available) seems to be sold with a more luxiourious six-seater configuration:

    I hope they’ve added more sound insulation materials to quieten it down a bit.

  7. There’s a work colleague who’s had a Duster from brand new for about four years now. He openly admits to being neither keen on driving nor vehicles (he’ll never be a DTW devotee) and took a lot of stick from friends about the Duster NOT being the Audi/Rangie/whatever suv. That is until he had to carry a few mates playing football up a steep and difficult track that the aforementioned struggled or failed upon. Suddenly Tony and his Duster were in demand. The Dacia range is not my cup of tea but I certainly see the point of them. An excellent brace of articles, Daniel.

    Bill, the Detourbet interviews WERE most interesting, thanks for sharing . The man can certainly get his points across; to enlighten Carlos must’ve been a huge fillip for him. I just can’t see his practices working in the decadent West but I am no mathematician/economist or calculated risk taker. Fascinating premise

  8. Hi Daniel,
    thank you very much for the interesting story, I also find the design of the Dacia Sandero more successful than that of the new Clio, personally I don´t think that the Renault and DACIA brands will approach each other as perceived quality unlike what happened between SKODA and VW.
    Fiat with the Tipo is approaching the DACIA philosophy, much space at a low price. I hope that the new Stellantis management will be more consistent with the FIAT brand.

  9. Interesting stuff, thank you Daniel (and Robertas). Thought provoking too, as others have touched upon.

    Dacia seems to be uniquely placed at the moment, certainly in the UK where I am. The Lada connection is interesting as Dacia seem to have inherited the place of Lada here too, albeit about 25 years after Lada disappeared. Since then Skoda, Proton, Hyundai and Kia each filled the vacancy for a while, but Dacia seem to have more staying power, seemingly by design, as their current generation vehicles are not socially climbers, by which I mean they are aimed at the same market as their predecessors.

    This could be a very successful segment of the market going forwards if Dacia can produce a profit, don’t you think? The widely predicted demise of city cars will surely leave many customers looking at the better value end of the market still seeking a car to buy and only Dacia seems to fit the bill at the moment.

    I drove a Twingo this week as a loan car while my year old Clio IV was in for a service. I was surprised at just how basic and how far behind the Clio it was. I’ve always wanted to like the Twingo but having finally got my hands on one it was really quite disappointing. The reviews were right of course, but what struck me as I drove around sunny Devon was that something like a Sandero really isn’t miles behind its city car competition after all.

  10. Good evening gentlemen and thank you for your comments. Marco, your mention of the Tipo reminded me that I saw one in a car park last week and had the opportunity to look it over properly. It’s not unpleasant and, I imagine, a perfectly practical proposition.

    However, a look at the Fiat UK website shows that the Tipo range starts at £15,820. For another £75 you could buy a top of the range Dacia Duster Prestige, with an extensive list of standard equipment! I know that the Fiat is likely to be heavily discounted, but it really would need to be, which will, of course, hit its residuals.

    Another ‘budget’ car, the Škoda Scala, starts at £17,265 and the Ford Focus starts at £22,210. In that context, Dacia really has a unique position in the market, one that other manufacturers have so far failed to challenge.

  11. Above all this demonstrates the fatuity of list prices, at least in the UK.

    My nation’s largest motor trader is offering the 95bhp Tipo 1.4 Street pre-registered at £11,298 (around £5K below list), with zero miles and the latest registration. For those who are certifiably insane, £16K will get you a Tipo Sport, with the same engine and nothing of worth over the Street’s generous specification.

    With Dacia you pay more or less what they say, but there are finance and minimum trade in deals on the go. I’ve just specced a Duster up to £22K – AWD and heated cow, but still doesn’t do its own gears.

  12. Could a case have been made for Dacia to produce a budget 3-door city car beneath the original Logan and Sandero with downsized styling similar to the larger models?

    Essentially a version of the (also mk2 Clio-based) mk2 Renault Twingo that has gone on a crash diet to reduce the weight to something approaching or even exceeding the much later Renault Kwid, if not preceded by a rebadged / rebodied version of the mk1 Renault Twingo.

    1. Hi Bob,

      the renault Twingo mk1 was a great machine, however i think it could not be put on the market anymore for safety reasons and personally i think that people who buy Dacia need space and twingo offers space only if they travel in two people, i live in germany and two families in the kindergarten out of 15 have a Dacia Lodgy best value for money.

    2. Good morning Bob. I imagine that the smaller the car, the harder it would be to differentiate on price, especially as the mainstream manufacturers are making virtually no money on their city cars. I’m more surprised that Dacia hasn’t produced a larger hatchback in the manner of the Škoda Octavia, half a size above the C-segment competition, but significantly cheaper. I think that would be a really strong seller.

    3. Marco

      Perhaps was just thinking of a more suitable replacement for the Lastun even if its appeal would be limited.

      Daniel

      Would a small Dacia A/B-segment car sharing significant mechanicals with the Logan and Sandero (along with the mk2 Clio/etc) have helped spread out the costs even further?

      Dacia could have definitely done something with either/both the mk2 Clio given it was produced in France and Slovenia until 2012-2015 as well as the mk2 Renault Twingo or a related 5-door hatchback, positioned either like the mk2 Clio (that was IMHO better than the mk3 Clio) or between the mk2 Clio and mk2 Twingo in terms of size.

      Would have to agree on also being perplexed about Dacia not developing an Octavia-like 5-door hatchback, it must have been feasible for such a car to be built on the basis of how many models the basic platform has underpinned.

    4. Hi Bob, Daniel,
      for me a car like Skoda Octavia is already the Lodgy,

      The Lodgy is not a typical station wagon but offers the same space, keeping the range simple gives the possibility to reduce complications in production management.

  13. I could be wrong but I think that for the first generation Logan the door glass for all four doors was interchangeable, to keep costs down. I remember that the first generation Ka had a tailgate that only needed to be aligned in two dimensions for fitting, again to simplify the production process. For me this kind of thinking and intelligence is much more interesting than the latest iteration of endless 911 variations.

  14. The Dacia philosophy indeed turned out to be a big win in a world where every single automotive CEO is obsessed with quality and premiumness, however Renault oddly arrived at the point when it has to sell a lot of Zoés to keep the Dacia brand profitable because of it’s excess CO2 emission /state of things in 2020/. It’s really a question of whether their no-thrills E-TECH hybrid introduced in the Clio will deliver the promises of being simple and efficient, Dacia will have to adapt that in a few years if they want to survive on their core market.
    As for the Tipo: the price of Turkish manufacturing have been attracting both suppliers and assembly lines for decades, but it’s really since the 2016 coup attempt that the country’s high instability risk started yielding high income for investors (I believe that’s the appropriate economic wording to express that we are using them as a source of cheap motorcars). The ruling Turkish political party is in love with automotive companies, so to say. I’m sure the Tipo was designed to supplement the Panda’s price tag, but now it’s even more affordable due to the environment it’s made in. Much like most Dacias, it’s also surprisingly capable.

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