Driven, Written: Work Conquers All

Continuing our Foundation Course in Dacia Studies, a DTW writer examines the outgoing model’s textual significances through a year and a half of real-life experience of a Sandero 1.0 Sce75.

Gérard Detourbet 1946-2019. Image: The Hindu Business Line

I have so far yet to drive a Logan or Duster, but over the last eighteen months I’ve run up lots of Sandero miles. Does it keep Louis Schweitzer and Gérard Detourbet’s vision alive?

Our Sandero was a collegiate purchase, and democratic principles applied. My favoured choice of car is made in the factory which gave us the Alfasud, but I was outvoted. FCA’s lack of regard for EuroNCAP ratings did not help my cause. Grim commerce and rules of procurement prevailed and we were treated to this ageing star of the developing world’s carmaking industry.

Image: Automobile Dacia

The selected model, a 1.0 Sce75 in ‘Essential’ equipment level was a judicious choice – cheapest engine, trim one step up from basic. The Sandero range offered in the UK at the time was admirably simple. Three trim levels – Access, Essential, and Comfort – two petrol engines, and a petrol/LPG option. The entry – or rather Access – price was under £7000.

In the past month the Sandero Access has been dropped from the list, bringing the base price up to £7995.  The Access version had manual windows and locking, and black bumpers, but all the safety kit that the law or imposed consensus requires. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, unsurprising given that the Essential specification provides air conditioning, electric front windows, remote controlled central locking, a DAB radio and body-coloured bumpers for another £1000. The Comfort option adds rear parking sensors, integral sat-nav and some things called Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Sandero Access. (c) mirror.co.uk

I have something of a Humean attitude to the visual appearance of cars. When my mind contemplates the Sandero, it is as a pleasing iteration of the universal developing world hatchback genre, functional and inoffensive. First impressions are positive. The bodywork is precisely assembled and apertures close solidly. It’s no Mercedes-Benz, but it is far removed from the biscuit-tin feel of an ‘80s 205 or Uno.

The interior feels spacious and the fitments are solid. There’s no painted metal minimalism of the sort which companies like Fiat, Citroën and Renault did with flair in the past. I’m reminded of just how generic car interiors have become. Not so very long ago, one could tell from which European country a car emanated by the look, feel and even smell of its interior and the design and layout of its controls. Now it’s hard even to identify the continent of origin, the only clue being the extraordinary ineptitude of the Japanese in ergonomic matters.

The Sandero’s rather uncompliant seats have a good range of adjustments. I’m pleased at the inclusion of a rev-counter, and normal, uncompromised window opening and locking controls, including an internal boot release.

So far we are doing well. On the road for the first time I was unexpectedly disappointed. One of the commandments of The Western European Unwritten Rule Book for Small Cheap Cars is that they should be damn good fun to drive.  Those who set up the Sandero overlooked that clause.

The gearing is bizarre. First is effectively a crawler gear, best not bothered with. Overall gearing is surprisingly low – it’s doing 3500rpm at 70mph in fifth. The SCe75 atmospherically-aspirated triple doesn’t feel like a 74bhp engine. It’s smooth and quiet, and even has a pleasing ‘burble’ when pushed, but on the open road isn’t up to hauling the Sandero’s 1127kg, nor pushing its broad and high frontal area. I reckon it’s worth paying the extra for the 90bhp turbo, although it’s possibly stretching the limits of the chassis.

The best engine choice may be the petrol/LPG TCe 100 Bi-Fuel, priced at £9145 in ‘Essential’ form. It must be the ultimate mean person’s driving machine and I salute Dacia for making it available, and for so little.

Seen at the 2010 Paris Mondial. A new dual-fuel Sandero for less than 6000 Euros, courtesy of a French Government grant. Image: R Parazitas

Returning to the road, the Sandero neither handles nor rides well. Responses are desensitised – this is a machine to be operated rather than driven, and certainly not a car to be joyously thrown into corners. Body roll is ever-present, but not of the entertaining Renault 4/5/16 sort. There’s a sensitivity to crosswinds I thought had been engineered out of modern cars, and the inert steering precludes catching directional control with a yachtsman’s instinct. Brakes are adequate, but do not instil confidence.

I should admit that I was spoiled by the Sandero’s predecessor, a 90,000 mile Peugeot 107, a joyful little ‘Mini Cooper for the masses’ which begged to be thrashed and taken to its modest limits whenever the situation allowed.  The UK specification Sandero has the feel of a car deliberately made miserable.

Another 200 Euros spent making the basic things work, look and feel better would make all the difference, but Renault and Nissan wouldn’t like that, except possibly in places like Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa, where most Renaults or Nissans ARE Dacias. As we are told that Dacia are becoming ever more autonomous within the Alliance, might we hope for a Romanian equivalent of Richard Parry-Jones to sort the chassis out on the new model?

All of which may seem mean-spirited when £8K buys a proper five seater with decent luggage space, air-con, and a higher standard of electrics and infotainment than I’d have expected. For more than Sandero money, the mainstream Europeans (Fiat excepted) and Koreans only offer showroom bait, with 2+2 seating, hinged rear side windows, and a boot that won’t even take a small case of stout.

Image: R Parazitas

Eighteen months on, I’m still ambivalent about the Sandero. The mainstream carmakers don’t do ultra-basic any more, and the Dacia offers a standard of interior appointment far superior to the grim ambience of an early 90’s low-spec Fiesta or Escort. The chassis dynamics are what let the Sandero down most. There’s a feeling that a decent and widely-used Alliance platform has had its abilities deliberately blunted to give the Clio and Micra a chance.

A plank of the post-Schweitzer Ghosn philosophy was to develop good enough products which sold on value for money. Not technically advanced nor stylish, but up to the job and not seriously deficient in the things which matter: fuel efficiency, safety, build quality and reliability. The current Sandero is the perfect embodiment of good enough, yet Schweitzer and Detourbet’s ambitions seem to have been nobler than achieving affordable mediocrity.

Carlos G, as he experiences a different sort of self-isolation from the rest of us, may still take comfort in the Sandero’s sales numbers. In 2019 the Sandero was Europe’s seventh biggest-selling car with a best-ever 223,186 registrations, just below the Peugeot 208 and ahead of the Renault Captur.

Image: Automobile Dacia

That’s four White Hens, and worryingly close to double Honda’s European sales. More pertinently, most of these registrations were achieved in sophisticated nations scarcely considered by the Dacia’s designers and product planners, and Dacia’s profit margin is said to be amongst the highest in the passenger car sector.

For the current Sandero, this is something of a valedictory, given the imminence of the launch of the 2021 Sandero and Logan. Expectations and competitors have moved forwards in the past eight years, and the 2021 Sandero looks set to become positively soignée in an Ibiza-like style. It will be interesting to see if the low prices can be held, and whether the new platform improves the driving experience.

17 thoughts on “Driven, Written: Work Conquers All”

  1. An excellent review, thank you Robertas. The ‘Essential’ trim level you chose definitely sounds like the sweet spot in the range. The ‘Access’ level continually reminds you (and others) of its impoverishment, and higher levels of trim look rather profligate on a car designed with economy of purchase and ownership in mind.

    The poor dynamics are disappointing, though. The additional cost of designing and building a car to handle and ride reasonably well must be negligible. I’m not talking about sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, just a well tuned conventional set up of coil springs and beam axle. Maybe the new Sandero will be an improvement in this regard?

    1. I had a look at the Renault do Brasil site to see what they have done to create the Sandero RS 2.0.

      The chassis story is:

      Ground clearance reduced by 26 mm;
      Spring rate2 increased by 92% at the front and 10% at the rear.
      Stiffer shock absorbers and firmer polyurethane bump stops.
      Front anti-roll bar 17% stiffer and rear torsion beam axle 65% stiffer.
      Electronic stability control with three driving modes: Normal, Sport and Sport+.
      Renault Sport-designed braking system with 280mm discs on the front wheels and 240mm at the rear.

      I reckon all of that would do the trick, although there’s no mention of steering changes.

      That rather alarming increase in front spring rates is probably down to the weight of the iron-blocked 2.0 litre F4R engine, which gives a useful 150bhp on ethanol, without the help of a forced induction device.

      It’s all rather like the European hot-hatches of the ’80s and ’90s, before they evolved into obscene 300bhp+ oafs’ chariots.

    2. Those changes to the Sandero chassis for Brasil I find interesting. Apart from accommodating a heavier engine, I would have expected beefing up of the various bushes and pick up points, along with some strategically positioned reinforcements, to cope with Brasil’s frequently battered road surfaces. Lowering the car seems an odd choice to me in these circumstances, but I’m no chassis engineer, so maybe someone better qualified could offer thoughts on Renault’s/Dacia’s thinking here?

    3. Michael – I’m certainly no chassis engineer but I was surprised at the even modest lowering of the suspension for Brazil, given the extreme cambering of their roads. The reasons, as far as I can work out, are dispersal of floodwater in heavy rains, and the way in which roads are resurfaced. Most standard production cars are conspicuously high-riding by European standards as it’s easy to bottom-out at junctions because of the level differences and convexity.

      I’d like to think the pick-up points on the Dacia platform are strong enough for the purpose. An attraction of a “developing world” car is that it should be built to withstand far worse roads, and harder use that European sophisticates would impose on it. Also, given its NCAP performance, the Sandero monocoque is likely to have very high torsional and beam stiffness.

  2. Didn’t VW dispense with a former Skoda boss because his cars were becoming too ‘premium’ – or is that just an urban myth ?

    1. It reminds me of a skoda engineer who asked for the 6-cylinder for a superb and the answer was “no way” otherwise you can´t tell an Audi from a Skoda anymore.

  3. Hi Robertas, thank you very much for your article, thank you very much for the article, the design of the seats has become generally very boring, variations of black or grey in a fabric that is basically always the same for all companies, I remember that the first Fiat Punto could also have the interior in velvet in the ELX version.

    1. Ah, velour. I miss that stuff. There is no woven cloth on the market now with the same atmosphere and feeling of velour. Both Skoda and Ford have done some lovely interior colours with the L&K and Vignale options. Their wings could fly more freely if other materials could be chosen. Down at the cheap end of the spectrum woven cloth is acceptable though. Does it have always to be black or grey?

    2. Car seat coverings today seem all to be made from a very tough synthetic material, which is stain resistant and retains its tension very well. Back in the 1970’s, even low mileage cars often had very saggy and creased upholstery. On the top edge of the rear seat back, which was exposed to sunlight through the rear window, the fabric sometimes rotted away and turned to dust or split.

      The downside of current fabrics is that they are often not pleasant to touch and feel unnaturally ‘oily’ or ‘plasticy’. I’ve occasionally wondered why car manufacturers don’t use a variation of the moquette upholstery fabric found on buses and trains, which has a short pile, is brightly coloured and appears to be highly durable. Someone has even written a book about London bus and Underground seat upholstery patterns:

      Some of those patterns would certainly enliven the ubiquitous ‘greyscale’ interiors of modern cars!

    3. A random quiz for current or former London residents: how many of the fabrics illustrated on the book cover above can you identify? I think I recognise two:

      Bottom-left is the fabric that was used on the Northern Line carriages back in the 1970’s. I think it was also used on the Drain, a.k.a. the Waterloo and City Line.

      The orange, yellow and black rectangular design two up from bottom-left was used on new District Line trains introduced around 1980. That one would look rather fetching in our Mini!

      Time for my Friday G&T.

  4. Thanks for the Sandero report. I think most people don’t “really” care how it drives as long as it goes when required. Millions of Cortinas were sold in the 70’s even though in the eyes of CAR et al they were crap!

    Regarding the desirability of more adventerous coloured seats… I guess its a question of scale and optimised costs. Those grey seats are inoffensive to most, but cheap. I can’ t imagine the Sandero brochure has pages and pages of customer options like a MINI. I for one love coloured interiors (a result of growing up in the 70’s?) and would love to see some more variety. For those in search of more info on train and bus seat patterns here’s a great article from the BBC:
    http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20160804-why-are-trains-seats-so-hideous

    Keep up the good work!
    Andrew

  5. More on that RS 2.0. The interior even has a bit of colour. Not Golf GTI tartan, or deckchair stripes, more ’70s rally jacket:

    The sheet metal’s been differentiated a bit too, more for the Renault identity than the RS specification:

    No Clio to compete with in Brazil. But for the Kwid, Zoe, and Global B0 platform Captur, all Brazilian Renaults are Dacias; Sandero, Stepway, Logan, Duster, Duster Oroch.

  6. Daniel,those are some wonderful seat patterns on that cover! I think Andrew Martin has written quite a bit on railway matters, including quite a good series of whodunits whose lead character is a 19th century engine driver turned detective…
    I occasionally buy railway magazines (the sad truth is, I find almost any self propelled device on wheels interesting) and they always seem to be full of complaints about the hardness of the seats in the UK’s new trains. What is the perspective of the car – as opposed to the train – enthusiast community?

  7. Today I read about the VW fox that for a period of time was put on sale in Europe, cannibalizing sales of Skoda Seat and Polo 3p, so that VW then concentrated on UP, this is to say that Dacia in France maybe cannibalize sales that would otherwise go to Renault. In short, the volume is there, we have to see if profit remains in the end.

  8. The Fox was a curious case; intended to fill the space – price rather than size – left by the Lupo. The 5 door was not brought to Europe as it was too close to the Polo. For most of the time the Fox was on European VW price lists sales were discouraged as the Euro to Brazilian Real exchange rate was so unfavourable.

    Groupe Renault are better placed in this matter with several large-scale Dacia production bases: Romania, Morocco, Brazil, Turkey, Algeria, and Tamil Nadu.

    In ‘sophisticated’ Europe, Renault and Dacia seem to co-exist on the same forecourts more easily than might be expected, although I’m sure the Sandero and Stepway killed off the Twingo’s slender chances in the UK.

  9. Robertas,
    I fully agree on the Twingo being the first one to be ‘swallowed’ by the warm UK acceptance of the Sandero.

    What with myself running a Ph.2 Mk1 Logan as a second car
    (a long-legged,
    mile-munching dCI 70 ‘Ambiance’ on oversized, tall Toyos on 7×15 alloys), I can attest that their reliability is certainly not
    a myth. One of the few cars I have owned that feels better the worse the roads are. Sturdy as nails.

    Basically, their success is founded on three pillars:

    -sheer size (almost an American architecture, styling conceals their true sizing)

    -sturdiness & perceived safety.

    -perceived reliability.

    Apparently the above is what makes them a bestseller despite their prices not being close at all (in mainland EU markets, that is) to what they initially were.

    Dynamically, they are dull on purpose, and with slight mods (wider wheels and more toe-in), they reveal their “Clio inside” hidden charms, to an extent. Steering is awful by Clio standards, but does not really stand in the way of making (diesel-torquey) smooth and fast progress.

    The mods on the RenaultSport badged Sandero 2.0 R.S. reportedly turn it into a full-blooded hot hatch of old-school appeal.

    The “hunger” for slight mods the stock Dacias have is charming,in a way, as these days there are few cars out there one can fiddle with & “enhance” without encountering various electronic hurdles.

    And finally, no other car in the comparable price bracket feels as safe and cocooning as the Dacia B0 platform, probably being the decisive one of all other success parameters.

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