Much of the early evolution of the automobile was driven by two ambitions: to make the fastest car and to make the cheapest. Yet now, those aspirations are by and large ignored. The first because top speeds have passed the point where they can ever be experienced—it's hard to stretch the legs of a 300-mph Bugatti. Affordability is also increasingly neglected, especially by automakers in the U.S., which seem to have less and less interest in inexpensive models. In the States, the average price of a new car has passed $45,000, and there are only three models with stickers under $20K: the (collectively forgotten) Kia Rio, Mitsubishi Mirage, and Nissan Versa.
Things are different in Europe, where Dacia, maker of the Continent's cheapest models, has been enjoying increasing success. The Romanian automaker was founded under communism as an assembler of Renaults built under license, and after the Cold War ended the French automaker absorbed it. It was then relaunched as a value brand in 2004 and has been growing ever since, selling nearly 574,000 cars last year. More than a third of those global sales were of the car you see here, the Sandero hatchback, Europe's cheapest car.
How cheap is cheap? That depends on which market and which model. We drove a right-hand-drive version in the U.K. in range-topping Expression trim. With the optional metallic paint and full-size spare tire, it was 11,612 pounds before the application of the U.K.'s 20 percent sales tax, the equivalent of $14,480 at current exchange rates. The lowlier Essential is $13,450 before options.
But elsewhere, the Sandero gets considerably cheaper. Mainland Europe gets a less powerful stripper version without air conditioning or pretty much anything else. In Germany, this truly basic Sandero SCe 65 costs just 9495 euros—that works out to just $10,330.
The Sandero is cheaper than any other European hatchback, but it's larger than most, at 161 inches long and 72.8 inches wide. And the cabin feels more spacious than the exterior dimensions suggest, especially when it comes to head- and shoulder room for front-seat occupants. Interior materials have been chosen for durability and low price rather than tactile pleasure, and the aroma of cheap plastics recalls the econoboxes of the '80s and '90s.
Still, there are neat details, including a phone holder integrated into the dashboard. Even the stripper model gets power door locks with remote, power front windows, cruise control, six airbags, and LED daytime running lights. Plusher versions get an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The sound quality of the tinny four-speaker stereo is pretty dreadful though.
The Sandero isn't aimed solely at urbanites and is clearly intended for long as well as short journeys, with a good driving position and seats that are supportive over longer stints. The Expression even has a fold-down driver's armrest. The sizable 13.2-gallon fuel tank gives a range of over 500 miles thanks to the miserly economy of the three-cylinder engines.
The transverse-mounted 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine drives the front wheels and is available as a 65-hp standard version and a 90-hp turbo. The former's stated zero-to-62-mph time is nearly 17 seconds, while the brawnier turbo manages a stated 12.2-second time. That's the version we drove. The turbo's 90 horses arrive at a modest 4600 rpm, but it seems unlikely many drivers will regularly encounter it, given the marked reluctance of the engine to rev and the fact that the peak torque of 118 pound-feet is available from just 2100 rpm.
The Sandero doesn't like being worked hard, throttle response is dull, and it takes awhile for turbo boost to build. But once it has, the Sandero proved able to maintain speed up the sort of long, sapping grades that normally overwhelm smaller engines—this despite the manual gearbox having only five ratios with sizable gaps between them. By contrast, the brakes eagerly respond to even gentle pressure.
The Sandero handles with a simple charm that belies its modest limits. The suspension is soft, and the steering is low-geared, with a dead patch around the straight-ahead. Attempts at quick cornering bring noticeable body lean and ready understeer. But the combination of plentiful suspension travel and effective dampers copes well with rougher roads.
The Dacia proved impressively economical too. Pushed as hard as anyone is likely to regularly drive one, on both country roads and highways, we saw the equivalent of 38 mpg over a single tank. Driving more gently would easily push that into the 40s. Given the exorbitant gasoline prices in most European countries, such parsimony is a vital part of the appeal.
A base Sandero can be bought outright for little more than one year's worth of average new car payments in the U.S. Sadly, there are no plans to bring it, or any other Dacias, to the States. Too bad. The Sandero proves that cheap doesn't have to mean nasty.
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