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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.