Grey bumpers and steel wheels: what do you expect for six grand?

Grey bumpers and steel wheels: what do you expect for six grand?

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Just how good can a sub-GBP 6,000 car be? A lot better than you would expect, Glenn Brooks finds, as he tries out the Dacia Sandero.

I never did drive the first generation Sandero, due mostly to spending most of my life in Britain, a market where the old model was unavailable. Dacia was relaunched here in January after an absence of many decades with the Duster the first model. I had a brief run in this SUV a few weeks back and came away impressed, but the Sandero that was available for testing the same day was far more fun.

If you're wondering how such a cheap car can be anything but deadly dull, prepare to open your mind. Climb in and the Sandero straight away took me back to 1997 and the first time we all saw the X65 series Clio. The door handles and multiple other components from the second generation of Renault's B segment best seller are instantly recognisable.

What made me like the Sandero wasn't the look of the dashboard but the smell of the interior, the feel of the surfaces and its simple honesty. I was shocked and thilled to see manual winders on all windows. Something else: you won't find an atomiser diffusing 'essential' oils into the cabin as you might in pricier B-segment hatchbacks but do we really need such features?

Having thrilled to piloting what feels like a French car from two generations ago (in a good way - soft suspension with lots of travel, loads of interior room), I did think a passenger grab handle would be handy, as would some form of steering wheel adjustment. Therein lies a couple of the reasons why Renault says fewer than seven percent of UK buyers have thus far opted for the stripped out, GBP 5,995 base trim variant.

The euphamism for the cheapest version of this car is Access but let's be honest and call it the poverty pack. There isn't even a choice of paint; it's Glacier White. I won't say 'primer'. All the gear we fill our cars up with when we tick the options boxes means added weight. For that reason, the sub six grand Sandero isn't as slow as you might imagine something powered by a 75hp or 55kW 1,149cc petrol engine might be.

If the DF4 732 motor of the 1.2 [sic] 16v 75 is not to your liking, you may pay extra for the Renault Nissan Alliance's new 898cc three-cylinder unit (TCe 90). That one's engine code is H48 400 and you can guess its output in horsepower, which translates to 66kW. There's a 1,461cc diesel as well, the DCi 90, which, like the TCe 90, is turbocharged. I was surprised that several of the Alliance's most modern powertrains are available in this car but here's the catch: you might well find some of these in the latest Clio but you cannot have stop-start in the Sandero.

Renault says one of the reasons why Dacia has been so successful in the relatively rich markets of Europe is the philosophy behind the brand. As I write this I am just back from the launch of the Audi RS 5 cabrio, a car I would willingly rob a bank for. Yet imagine the disappointment of someone dropping eighty big ones for a fully-loaded example as they feel for the eletric steering wheel adjuster and find a clunky manual lever instead. Or the pic of the A5 cabrio on the MMI screen where they might expect to see an RS 5? A Sandero owner couldn't care less about such things. For them, value is all, and they're getting a Fabia for less than the price of a Citigo.

If I had the money, I'd shell out the necessary GBP 980 for the loud exhaust option on the RS 5 but for a quarter of that, you can have a SatNav system on a Sandero. Truly. The Dacia people told me that prospective buyers can put down GBP 1,845 by way of a deposit and then part with just £69 a month over four years. I pay more than to my thieving mobile phone network some months.

Lest you think Dacia is a brand for cheapskates, here's a stat to store away. If you had said GBP 13,300 in answer to the question 'name the average UK market transaction price for a Dacia model', you'd be bang on the money. That amazed me. Which proves that people like me should continue to get away from their desks as often as possible and keep asking questions about what's going on in the world away from car company press releases.

Every UK Renault dealership is now also a Dacia franchise, while at the time of writing, there were just three standalone showrooms, out of 149 sites. Adam Wood, the brand's product manager, told me that 50% of Dacia customers previously bought only used cars.

What's next for Dacia? Well, the Sandero Stepway has also now been launched, and it's an extra two grand over the Sandero, so from GBP 7,995, and the pricier (GBP 8,995) Duster continues to be the best selling model. We don't get the Logan (codename: L52) in this market, due to the lack of demand for small saloons, but the estate is on its way from the Miovani plant in Romania, following its global debut at last month's Geneva show. I asked Adam Wood had they considered calling it Sandero estate instead of Logan MCV (R52) but while that might be logical for us, Renault seems to prefer one model name globally for Dacia models. UK dealers will have it in stock from July, priced from GBP 6,995.

There is no mention of an RHD version of the Lodgy (J92), the brand's made-in-Morocco MPV, nor have we seen any news of the possibility of the Dokker (K67), the LCV derivative. Maybe if either of those begin to be assembled at the Alliance's Chennai plant - our Duster comes from India - they might also come here.

I've heard that project F52 will be the van variant of the new Logan MCV and that U52 is the replacement for the five-year old U90 Dacia Logan pick-up - expect the nearly identical (B90) Nissan NP200 that's assembled at Rosslyn in South Africa to be similarly updated later this year or in 2014. I shall keep my ear to the ground for other future model news, so keep an eye on just-auto.com.

Back to the Sandero. The usual question then; would I have one? For the money, it's just about unbeatable, though I can't see too many of Renault GB's customers trading their cars in for a Dacia. Perhaps then, it's today's version of the people who five years ago were new to Kia and who propelled that brand to such heights here.

Those who will find Dacia attractive are the UK's greying class as so many retirees must keep a cautious eye on their withering pension funds. So too, many younger family car buyers. Lots of such people now struggle to either raise or justify spending the necessary deposit for any other form of new car. These two big groups of potential buyers do seem to be there for the taking.