The third generation Dacia Sandero could very well completely change the way you think about budgeting for a new compact family car. Jonathan Crouch reports on the improved version.
Ten Second Review
Wouldn't it be good if the Dacia Sandero could feel properly modern as well as being properly cheap. Well, we're promised that this MK3 version is. Really modern that is. It still pretty cheap too - still the cheapest family car you could choose - but at the same time as being a far better quality hatch in this rejuvenated third generation form. If you're just about to buy a mainstream brand city car, supermini or family hatch, you need to stop right here and read on....
From Renault's point of view, it was a great concept. Buy a struggling Romanian car brand using factories with cheap labour. Then take a last-generation Renault hatch design, freshen it up with modern styling and a different badge and sell it at the kind of super-cheap prices that all of these short-cuts could facilitate. So was born the Dacia Sandero in 2013, which was then - and still is now - by some margin Britain's most affordable compact family hatch. With the original version, lightly freshened in 2017, you very much got what you didn't pay for, but loyal owners didn't care.
Some of us though, wondered whether this car's sales prospects wouldn't be considerably improved if just a fraction of that affordability could be sacrificed in favour of creating more modern, efficient engineering. In a cabin that didn't feel quite so much like a Bulgarian thrift store. The rather more palatable product we were picturing has arrived. And this is it, the rejuvenated MK3 model.
Owners of the original Sandero model didn't care too much about drive dynamics - which is just as well because they weren't up to much. This MK4 model's stiffer, more sophisticated CMF-B platform means it can deliver a little bit more - and there's a better engine beneath the bonnet too. It's almost certain that your Sandero will come with a Renault-derived three cylinder 90hp TCe 90 petrol engine, which only comes with 6-speed manual transmission (unless you stretch to the Sandero Stepway model). Acceleration is acceptable, with 0-62mph taking 11.7 seconds, to the accompaniment of a slightly off-beat feel that's unique to three-cylinder engines. You can also have a Sandero with much the same engine in TCe 100 Bi-Fuel LPG form if you fancy a more eco-minded route. In that Bi-Fuel version, with both the petrol and the LPG tanks filled, you'd have a range of over 800 miles.
Built on a contemporary structure that's closely related to that of the current (rather than previous-generation) Renault Clio, the Sandero still majors on ride comfort like its predecessors, but this MK4 version's body movements are much better controlled and the car wanders far less over larger bumps. There's also more grip than you might expect, thanks to the wider track, lower stance and a fresh front axle fitted to this current design. Electric steering was introduced for this generation and the rack is light without much meaningful feedback, but it's precise and predictable enough for everyday driving, and the turning circle is usefully tight at 10.5 metres.
The more modern underpinnings of this MK4 Sandero have made it a noticeably quieter car than before, which emphasises its improved refinement. The result is a supermini that often feels like a car from the next class up. Which is not bad considering that it's still priced alongside cars from the next class down.
Design and Build
There aren't any recent changes to this fourth generation Sandero, save for the addition of the latest brand badge on the grille and the tailgate. As before, it rides on the same CMF-B platform as a far pricier (and smaller) Renault Clio. Also as before, there are two versions of the single 5-door hatch body shape, the standard model and the high riding crossover-inspired 'Stepway' version, which is differentiated with flared wheel arches, 16-inch wheels, roof bars, plastic body cladding and body-coloured skid plates.
Viewed side-on, this MK4 design cuts a contemporary silhouette - it's a world away from the overtly simple, rather slab-sided shape of previous generation Sanderos, with plenty of curves and details that bring it out of the 20th century and very much into the present day. There are strong lines running from the headlights and over the wheelarches, into the front doors. And these are mirrored at the back of the car, making it look planted, rather than perched, on the ground.
The cabins of previous Sandero models also had something of the feel of a Bulgarian thrift store - you were certainly never in doubt about how little you'd paid, and neither were your passengers. In contrast, what's served up here is far more welcoming and warmer-feeling, with greater sophistication thanks to a pleasing combination of materials and more contemporary-looking dials and controls. If you're moving into a Sandero from something like a Fiesta, some of the materials will still feel pretty hard. But the car feels like it wraps around its front seat occupants, with a wide centre console that's angled slightly towards the driver. On plusher 'Expression'-spec models, you get a built-in 8-inch screen perched on top of the dashboard, which offers up an attached 'phone cradle, reminding you to pair your handset with the system' wireless 'Apple CarPlay' and 'Android Auto' smartphone-mirroring systems.
Visibility is very good, with reasonably thin A-pillars and a deep glasshouse, so the view behind and over-the-shoulder is generally unimpeded, despite the black surround of the shallow rear window and the thick rear pillars. The interior is lifted by cross-hatched fabric trim across the centre of the dash, on the door armrests and on the upper part of the seat backrests. And storage is also decent, with 21-litres of it dotted about the cabin.
Access to the rear is easy, with wide-opening doors and reasonable knee room; you could seat a couple of adults there more comfortably than in most other superminis. The boot's a bit bigger too, rated at 328-litres. The 1,108-litres of capacity with all rear seats folded down is competitive for this segment, comfortably beating the 947-litres of the Toyota Yaris and not far behind the Renault Clio and SEAT Ibiza.
Market and Model
The Sandero is nothing like as cheap as it used to be, but it's still one of the most affordable cars available on the UK market. Prices start from just under £14,000, which gets you the core TCe 90 petrol engine and base 'Essential' spec. £1,000 more gets you plusher 'Expression' trim. For the same price either way, Dacia will alternatively give you their TCe 100 Bi-Fuel engine.
In size, the Sandero is somewhere between a Fiesta-shaped supermini (models of which tend to be priced from around £19,500) and a Focus-sized family hatch (priced from around £27,000). So you get the idea. It really is hard to argue with this kind of value proposition. There's only a single five-door hatchback body style but it does come in either standard form or as the 'Sandero Stepway', a variant that dresses up this design with a bit more SUV-style attitude and offers a 41mm higher ride height. The Stepway model (which isn't our focus here) requires a model-for-model premium of £1,500.
Three interior media infotainment options are available, the most basic system - called 'Media Control' - includes Bluetooth and a DAB radio, but no screen. Instead, you get a dock for your smartphone which can run a purpose-designed app for in-car use. Further up the range, you get two options based around an 8-inch touchscreen; 'Media Display', which incorporates 'Android Auto' and 'Apple CarPlay' smartphone-mirroring. And (only for the top Stepway 'Extreme' variant) 'Media Nav', which has built-in sat nav with Wi-Fi-based smartphone access. Optional extras if you want to plush up your Sandero include automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, a reversing camera, auto wipers and a power operated sunroof.
Cost of Ownership
Of course, a low starting price would not be as meaningful if the Sandero was expensive to run. Earlier versions of this model fell down a little here, but Dacia's gradually been rolling out more modern Renault engine technology in its more recent models - and that features in this third generation design. Don't (yet) expect the full-Hybrid engine option you can have in the brand's slightly larger Jogger estate model, but the three cylinder petrol units on offer here are economical little lumps. The TCe 90 variant manages 53.3mpg on the combined cycle and up to 119g/km of CO2. For the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel LPG version, the figures are 52.3mpg and 123g/km for the petrol part of the engine and 42.2mpg and 109g/km when the powerplant's running on LPG.
On to the warranty. Dacia offers an industry standard 3-year/60,000 miles guarantee from the showroom, backed by three years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance. For a little more, you can extend the cover by two years or you can up the period covered to a Kia-equalling 7 years and 100,000 miles. Service intervals are every year or every 12,000 miles and since most Renault dealers look after Dacias too, you shouldn't be too far from a specialist workshop. It also helps that there's a timing chain that'll last as long as the engine. Dacia offers a choice of pre-paid servicing schemes covering you for either two years and 24,000 miles or three years and 36,000 miles.
This is probably the compact family hatch that many people currently choosing Fiestas, Polos and the like should actually be considering. Those mainstream superminis aren't only vastly more expensive than this Sandero; they're also significantly smaller inside too. With previous generation versions of this Dacia, those two Sandero selling points, though considerable, weren't quite enough to convince the relatively few prepared to consider it. These folk should think again.
If, for you, a car is simply a functional implement, a domestic tool that, like any other, must justify its expenditure, then this one fits the bill perfectly. Solid, spacious and family-friendly for the kind of money you'd pay for a tiny city scoot, it offers pretty much everything you need and nothing you don't. Yes, products from the established market players are still more sophisticated - but the gap isn't huge. Except, of course, when it comes to what you have to pay.