At £5,995, the Dacia Sandero is Britain's cheapest car, and a surprisingly able all-rounder too. But there's a catch – add a few options and choose one of the new engines and the prices start to rise...
What: Dacia Sandero
Where: Malaga, Spain
Date: December 2012
Price: £5,995 - £9,795
Available: January 2013
We like: base price, ride, performance, economy, three-cylinder engine
We don’t like: can become pricey, likely safety rating
Find a used Dacia on Auto Trader
Read our review of the Dacia Duster
Such was the air of anticipation as we flew to the welcome sunshine of Malaga, you'd be forgiven for thinking we were about to test the latest metal from Stuttgart or Maranello. Instead, we were about to review one of the most talked about cars of 2012 – the Dacia Sandero.
The pre-launch buzz surrounding the Sandero couldn't have been better for Dacia. Being the centre of a long standing joke on Top Gear helped to catapult the Sandero into the living rooms of millions of people across the world.
Dacia is a dormant if not dead brand in the UK. But the Romanian firm, now owned by Renault is an increasingly important player in mainland Europe, shifting 350,000 cars in 2011. What's more, a survey of 30,000 motorists in Western Europe voted Dacia as the most reliable brand, knocking Honda and Kia into second and third place.
Dacia is no timid new kid on the block
Make no mistake, Dacia is no timid new kid on the block. It intends to make a huge impression with its rebirth in the UK. And what better way to make an impact than announcing prices starting from as little as £5,995?
Disappointingly but perhaps predictably, the headline-grabbing Access model wasn't available at the launch. The entry level Sandero is a real case of take it or leave it. If you don't like white, black bumpers, 15” steel wheels or Renault's long in the tooth 1.2-litre 16v engine, then you'll either need to upgrade or visit another showroom. The spec is spartan – you don't even get a radio.
The mid-level Ambiance model adds a CD player, remote central locking, electric front windows, Bluetooth, body coloured bumpers and, pushing the boat out here, 15” wheel trims. Prices start at £6,595.
The top-spec Lauréate is lavished with air conditioning, heated mirrors, cruise control and electric windows. You'll need to fork out £7,995 plus a further £250 if you fancy the integrated 7” touchscreen navigation and multimedia system.
The problem is, to take advantage of the more appealing new engines, you'll need to spend a minimum of £7,395. Opt for the diesel, add metallic paint, alloy wheels and the two option packs and you're not short of doubling the headline price. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
The budget 1.2-litre 16v engine isn't a bad engine as such, but in the company of the two other engines on offer, it's hard to make a case for it. Which is why it's a shame the Access model isn't offered with the new 900cc turbocharged three-cylinder engine or 1.5-litre diesel lump.
Pick of the bunch is the peppy three-cylinder engine that recently debuted in the new Renault Clio. It's a lively, almost tenacious unit that presents itself as a brilliant all-rounder. Off-the-line pace is good and the Sandero covers ground at a brisk enough rate.
Effortlessly keeps up with the traffic
At motorway speeds it never feels off the pace, effortlessly keeping up with traffic without needing to change down a gear. It's also eerily silent, thanks largely to extra sound deadening on the bulkhead. Sadly, this does mean your ears are more tuned in to the Sandero's excessive wind and road noise.
The diesel engine is less convincing than the petrol. Many buyers will be turned on by its frugality, but at times it feels a little breathless. Overtaking manoeuvres and inclines often need to be accompanied by a shift to a lower gear, making progress laborious and tiresome.
Face it, the vast majority of Sandero buyers won't be interested in how well it can tackle a good B-road. So they won't mind that the steering feels far too light, especially at higher speeds. They also won't mind that fast cornering results in a fair amount of body roll and a significant amount of understeer.
Instead they'll revel in the fact that the ride quality is really rather good. On the pitted roads of Andalucia, the Sandero swallowed all but the very worst of bumps. At times it can feel a little bouncy, but it's as good as if not better than other superminis.
It's only when you push the Sandero hard where it begins to feel less accomplished. Under heavy load, an excessive amount of vibration can be felt through the pedals, steering wheel and cabin. It's more noticeable in the diesel engined car, incidentally.
You'd be forgiven for expecting the majority of the cost-saving measures to be most apparent on the inside. And to a certain extent, you'd be right. But it's not as obvious as you might think. What's more, the penny pinching is actually rather clever.
The interior has been stripped back
The grab handles are fixed, rather than spring loaded. There are no covers on the sunvisor mirrors. You don't even get a cigarette logo on the cigarette lighter. The interior has been stripped back to the bare essentials and it's a rather refreshing approach.
Those looking for soft plastics and beautifully engineered switchgear are likely to be disappointed. But given the price of the Sandero, it's hard to criticise it. Less forgivable is the lack of adjustable reach on the steering wheel, which makes it hard to find your favourite driving position.
But the Sandero offers a decent amount of head, leg and shoulder room and feels noticeably bigger than other superminis. There's also 320 litres of boot space, which can be extended to 1,200 by folding down the 60/40 split folding rear seats (standard on all models).
Super scrimpers will opt for the diesel Sandero. By emitting just 99g/km of CO2, it's exempt from road tax. Plus, it will also deliver 74.3mpg on a combined cycle.
A stumbling block for some buyers
That's not to say the three-cylinder petrol engine should be ruled out. A CO2 figure of 137g/km means that the road tax is a far from bank-breaking £30 a year and it will still return 54.3mpg. Throw into the equation a £1,000 saving over the equivalent diesel and, depending on how many miles you do in a year, the three-cylinder may be the wise choice.
Dacia's claim that it's aiming for a three star Euro NCAP rating for the Sandero may ultimately become a huge stumbling block for some buyers. Faced with narrowing down the options for a small family car, some people will naturally seek the reassurance of a five star car, even if it means spending more cash.
Dacia will counter the argument by pointing to a list of safety features that includes driver, passenger and front side airbags, ISOFIX points in the rear seats, ABS with emergency braking assist and traction control. It's hardly an extensive list, but it might satisfy those upgrading from a 15-year old hatchback.
Coming to a conclusion on the Dacia Sandero is trickier than you'd first think. At £5,995, the Sandero Access with a three-year warranty presents a compelling proposition. The problem is, it comes with the wrong engine. Choose the better petrol engine and you'll fork out an extra £1,400. Opt for the diesel and you'll need to spend £8,395.
It's not that the Sandero suddenly becomes a bad car once you spend more money, it's just that it edges closer to its more mainstream rivals. Some of which will offer longer warranties and a vastly superior interior.
That said, someone looking for a cheap and unassuming means of getting from A to B without worrying about going via C, could do a lot worse than the Sandero. A car where the smart money goes on spending less.
Find a used Dacia on Auto Trader
Read our review of the Dacia Duster
Specific model rated: Dacia Sandero TCe 90 Laureate