Home » What It Was Like Driving A $20,000 Crossover From A Romanian Car Brand

What It Was Like Driving A $20,000 Crossover From A Romanian Car Brand

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Great News! Actually, let’s not apply the defibrillation paddles to that particular dead horse. The jokes on them. Since Dacia’s relaunch in Europe in 2004, they’ve sold a staggering eight million cars. The Sandero is now the second best selling car across the continent behind the Tesla Model Y. Since landing in the UK market in 2013, they’ve flogged a quarter of a million vehicles to people with a close relationship to a ten-pound note. Somehow when Ford UK wasn’t looking, Dacia reached over and stole their lunch.

Dacia started out in their native Romania building Renaults under license in the sixties, spinning numerous models out of the old Renault 12 until well into the nineties. They spent a few years building their own cars that looked like the sort of thing you’d steal in Grand Theft Auto only if you were desperate, and were then acquired by Renault in 1999. Despite initially concentrating on the eastern Europe and Russia, they were practicing for an assault on more competitive western European markets.

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The first model to roll off a ship onto UK soil was the Duster SUV. With a starting price of just £8995 ($10,905) at the tie in 2010, it was pretty much stark bollock naked in terms of spec: appliance white, unpainted bumpers, steel wheels and not a lot else. Following shortly after came a smaller entry level model,  the Sandero hatch for a startling £5995 ($7289).

Gently termed ‘Access” models because marketing departments have banned the words “base” and “standard,” the super cheap version of the Sandero has now gone due to lack of sales, but the Sandero range still isn’t expensive. In the UK, the Sandero range now starts at £13,795 ($16,796). It’s not quite the UK’s cheapest new car but it’s close: the base Kia Picanto is £130 ($150) less but is a class down in size. If you don’t want to wade into the turd infested toilet bowl of the second hand market, the Sandero is still an extremely affordable brand new car.Dacia10

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The first round of new Dacias were based on tried and tested mechanicals from the old Nissan Renault B platform, which dated back to 2002. Now every model is spun of the up-to-date Common Module Family, an interchangeable kit of parts again shared with Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi. This commonality across models keeps costs down. Apart from paint colors there are essentially no options to be had – if you want more equipment you have to step up a trim level. As well as making things easier for customers to understand, factory workers are not fart-arsing around fitting mind boggling combinations of extras. Line complexity and cycle time is reduced, meaning cars can be built quicker, simpler and cheaper.

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The Sandero Stepway is the ruggedized version of the standard hatch with the requisite black plastic cladding and slightly raised ride height, and it accounts for over 60% of all Sanderos sold in the UK. The mid-level Stepway Expression Dacia lent me will lighten your account by £16,945 ($20,544) on the road including £650 ($788) for the NATO adjacent ‘Dusty Khaki’ paint. The boggo Stepway Essential requires you live without a touchscreen, has keep fit rear windows and does away with the interior trim uplift you get in the nicer models. For a grand more (or an extra couple of pounds on the monthly payment), the Expression looks to be a much better deal. It adds keyless entry, height adjustable seats, front fogs, a rear camera with don’t back into your neighbor’s car sensors, modular roof bars (don’t worry Torch, we’ll get to those) [Editor’s Note: Oh boy – JT], an 8” touchscreen with wired Carplay and Android Auto, electric mirrors, a nicer interior and probably a couple of other bits and bobs I can’t be bothered to look up.

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All models come with the same 1.0 liter triple, making a road burning 90 bhp but more usefully, 125lb ft of torque. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but the Stepway is a featherweight 1077kg (2375 lbs). 0-60 is quoted as about 12 seconds, which on paper sounds gutless but in reality even merging onto the motorway the motor there’s plenty in it. A faint tappety rattle on part throttle happens at about two and half thousand rpm, then it gets into the meat of the boost until about five thousand. You do hear the engine as it doesn’t have a plastic cover  – so you can use your ears as a rev counter. It’s not a fast car but drive on the torque not the revs – and it always responds to your right foot and feels lively, and then you look at the speedo and see you’ve gained all of five mph. Still there’s six gears to row through and the shift is finger tip easy but a bit long of throw. The clutch pedal is a bit light for my ham-footedness and has a lot of travel; changing through the bottom gears meant a bit of surging until I got used to it. Shift like a normal person rather than a Krusty the Clown-shoed klutz like me and it’s absolutely fine.

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Something that might seem a bit counter-intuitive to the Dacia’s clever money saving is that it has drum brakes on the back. I find it hard to believe these days that they are cheaper than discs, so the logical conclusion is such a light car doesn’t need them. The pedal action is great – there’s no slop or delay and plenty of power to stand the thing on its nose when you’re driving like you’re trying to scrape the paint off the door handles. You might think that the handling in a cheap car goes to shit the minute you start leaning on it, because development miles cost time and money, but the Stepway hangs on well and remains reasonably flat. I wouldn’t say no to some more feel in the steering though. It’s too free and easy in the twirling and you don’t get any messages about what the front tires are up to, but it is accurate and responsive.

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So although the Stepway can misbehave a bit when required, that’s really not where it’s happiest. It’s much more about comfort and the urban assault, and here it excels. The tires are a generous 60 profile  on a 16” steel wheel (yes, those are wheel trims. I didn’t spot them at first either) so you hear bumps but don’t really feel them. It’s not quite the loping French ride you might expect given Dacia’s parent company is Renault, but it’s not far off. Countering the fact the steering is on light side is the hilariously tight turning circle – easily the best I’ve experienced since the Honda e (which is RWD). Shuffling the Stepway around a tight British supermarket car park is a total doddle. Loading up with enough alcohol and cat food for the week is no problem either – the boot (trunk) is a class leading 328 liters (11.5 cu ft). It’s a regular five door hatch, not a stupid crossover coupe so visibility and space for passengers is great – I was a bit short on knee room sitting behind myself, but my desperately-in-need-of-a-trim hair remained unruined. You get slightly jazzier seats in the mid-range and top trim levels and again this is another area you might reasonably expect corners to have been cut to save money but not so. Non-adjustable lumbar support just nuzzles the small of your back nicely and the cushioning was perfect for my bony ass. There’s even a decent bit of side support. Sort of matching the seats there’s a funky soft touch swathe of fabric running between the dash upper and lower, replicated on the door cards, which does a lot of heavy lifting brightening up the interior.

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You used to get rows of switch blanks as standard in a low cost car to remind you what a cheap bastard you were. The Dacia is much better than that because it makes a virtue of its simplicity – HVAC controls are by old fashioned cooker knobs, and there isn’t bags of equipment optional or otherwise so there’s only a couple of other buttons needed. The touchscreen is clear, unflashy and straight forward although wired Carplay was hit and miss; in the interests of science I had the stereo up to 11 on Sunday afternoon and ‘Dying Star’ dropping out constantly got really annoying really fast. No that wasn’t the car rejecting my taste in music before you ask. You have to connect your smart phone as there’s no built in native navigation, but bizarrely there’s a built in phone cradle right next to the touchscreen. At high volume there wasn’t enough thump to rattle the door cards but the sound separation was decent to my cloth ears.

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It used to be Skoda was the clever budget brand but they’ve long since buggered off upmarket with the usual VW Group array of identikit crossovers, and Dacia have gleefully taken their place. The intelligence in the Stepway extends not just the to roof rails, which can be unbolted in seconds and then refitted widthways across the car to make a roof rack. [Editor’s Note: That’s incredibly clever. I love it! How has no one figured this out before? – JT]

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There’s a ‘curry hook’ in the passenger footwell for your Friday night takeout dinner as well. But what’s really smart about the Dacia is the way they’ve kept the purchase price down without making it feel like it’s a hollowed out tin box. When the UK market started to be infested with cheap east European imports like pre-VW Skodas, Yugos and Ladas in the seventies and early eighties they were on any level, cheaply constructed, harshly engineered Soviet shit. Buying one over a second hand Ford Cortina told the world you were a tight arse and didn’t care who knew it. Only the shamelessly stingy bought the cursed things. The Dacia isn’t like that at all.

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The window switches on the doors are not sided, so they can be swapped between LHD and RHD versions. Aside from the faux leather on the steering wheel, there’s only one grain of plastic used on the interior. Ok, it’s not the highest grade but it’s solid and well put together. There’s no rubber inserts in the cup holders or gaiter on the (non-electric) handbrake. The trim doesn’t cover the full width inside the tailgate – it’s as wide as needs to be to cover the latching mechanism, provide two handles for closing and no wider. Panel gaps are a bit inconsistent, but the body panels themselves are simple shapes without unnecessary feature lines and complex curvature, reducing tooling costs. The rear wheel arches are only half lined. It’s built in Romania and Morocco, where labor costs are lower. I could go on. Dacia have made lots of clever small cost reductions like this all over the car. This will all be invisible to normal car buyers – you need to know what you’re looking for.

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In some ways Dacia’s low prices seem almost incidental. You won’t feel like you need a shower after visiting a Dacia dealership. They’re a proper car company that’s part of an established OEM group. This was a bit of a stroke of genius on Renault’s part – if the brand had flopped the wider Renault Group wouldn’t have been tarnished. But they didn’t flop, and judging them as good for a cheap car feels like damning with faint praise. The Skoda Fabia, however long it has left, starts at £19k ($23k). A base VW Polo is – fuck me sideways – nearly £21k ($25.5k). The Vauxhall Corsa kicks off at again £19k. The Ford Fiesta is dead – a killing so outrageous it actually made the national news. Legacy OEMs are bitching and whinging they can’t make money on small cars and threatening to drop them from their ranges – in the process disenfranchising a whole class of buyer, and yet as we have seen with the Picanto and now Dacia, it’s possible to produce a cheaper car if you leverage your global footprint to give you an advantage in how and where you build and sell it.

Is a Corsa or a Fabia a better than a Stepway? In some ways that don’t really matter, maybe. They’re probably a bit more soft touch and refined, but six grands worth? I doubt it. Think of it like this. The Dacia is a very competent, smart little car that just happens to have a great purchase price. The beauty for enthusiasts is buying one as a daily gives you enough wiggle room in the finances to run something else for weekend fun. Everything you need and nothing you don’t. I’m sure I read that somewhere.

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World24
World24
9 months ago

Those roof racks make me want them, and I have no use for ’em.
It’d be a neat party trick only I’d likely and constantly get a kick out of!

Jho'nuquas
Jho'nuquas
9 months ago
Reply to  World24

2012 Subaru Outback did the same thing

Máté Petrány
Máté Petrány
9 months ago

Regarding the top shot, I would argue that Romania is not part of the Balkans. Otherwise, it’s great news. And I love the Jogger.

Máté Petrány
Máté Petrány
9 months ago
Reply to  Adrian Clarke

Great colour as well!

R Rr
R Rr
9 months ago

I was born in Romania (Transilvania, to be precise, one of the areas hungarians like to claim as part of their old empire, kinda like Russia with Ukraine), and even if geographically it can be debated, culturally it most definitely is part of the Balkans, same as Hungary is.

Máté Petrány
Máté Petrány
9 months ago
Reply to  R Rr

Hungary is certainly not part of the Balkans, neither geographically or culturally. I just came back from the Balkans, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, was lovely as always. Franky, Hungarians don’t claim Transylvania as part of their old empire any more as they must historically, given how Transylvania was part of Hungary. It remains loaded with people speaking Hungarian, despite strong efforts by Ceaușescu and more to relocate and replace the entire Hungarian population. Get to know the Balkans, it’s worth the trip. Perhaps use a Dacia, they are great for the job.

R Rr
R Rr
9 months ago

Nah, that “relocate & replace” story is a myth hungarian nationalists like to spread, even today there are a couple of provinces in Transilvania full of people who speak hungarian exclusively, the only relocation was done by the Habsburgs who moved them there back in the Empire days.

My grandma was born in Budapest, part of a slovak family who was also forcefully relocated by the Empire, she taught me hungarian when I was little.

Last edited 9 months ago by R Rr
Eric Smith
Eric Smith
9 months ago

Yes I already know the myriad of reasons for why those of us in the USA can’t have the option to actually buy a decent cheap auto anymore, BUT I still think those beancounters are missing a winner here.

There’s still a large, obviously lower margin market for a sub-20k bit of transport with 4 wheels. It pisses me off that we’re almost completely out of non-CUV or SUV options here in the States. Whoever decides to bring back the equivalent of the Honda Fit (or something along the lines of what Dacia offers) won’t win the revenue and profit contest, but will kill on some volume here. (And again, I realize that from a pure capitalism standpoint why would any automaker bother to offer such a thing here when they can instead just ignore the bottom of the market and make tons selling SUVs and F-150s).

As has often been brought up here though, we’re another 2008-style crisis away from those automakers that don’t have a low-margin, high-MPG model available for sale from seeing all those high-margin SUV sales drop through the floor and lead to some bankruptcies yet again. Did no one in the US market learn anything from the last time?

Davey
Davey
9 months ago
Reply to  Eric Smith

Agreed, we need to stop pretending like 20-25 grand is a small amount of money for a basic vehicle. Even the Hyundai venue is $23,000 (CAD). As someone who’s not having kids, I truly don’t care about things like power windows or heated seats (I can buy heated seats on Amazon). Give me the basic car that doesn’t cost half my pre-tax salary.

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