A budget hatchback with a 1.0-litre engine and an unpopular type of automatic gearbox might unnerve aficionados of premium marques and expensive badges and, on paper at least, the latest Dacia Sandero sounds like the automotive equivalent of a hair shirt – but we rather like it.
We liked it very much indeed on our first acquaintance earlier this year, for its smart styling, inside and out, its well-sorted driving experience and its immense value. And we weren’t the only ones; various specialist motoring magazines bestowed upon the Sandero a shower of awards.
It’s a good car, then. But can it be made even better? Does, for instance, the taller Stepway model, with its rough-and-tumble styling and higher seating position, add something extra to the Sandero recipe? And what about that CVT automatic gearbox – is it a no-go, or a must-have?
Generous equipment list
Poor crash test results
So-so ride and handling
Stepping up to the plate
The Access version, the cheapest in the Sandero range, isn’t available on the Stepway, and neither is the dog-slow, non-turbo 1.0-litre engine, thankfully.
That leaves three versions to choose from; Essential gets you… well, more than just the bare essentials, actually; cruise control, air conditioning and electric front windows are standard, which really isn’t bad for the price.
Comfort upgrades you to a touchscreen entertainment system with smartphone mirroring, auto lights and wipers and electric rear windows, while Prestige adds a rear camera, alloy wheels, LED headlights and even keyless entry.
You can then opt for one of two engines, both carried over from the old Sandero: an 89bhp 1.0-litre three-cylinder, or a 99bhp version of the same engine that also has the ability to run on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). On Comfort and Prestige models, you can also upgrade the former engine by choosing the CVT (continuously variable transmission), option which adds £1,200 to the price.
Thus equipped, the Sandero Stepway Prestige we’re testing is the most expensive and best equipped Sandero you can buy. Even so, at a shade more than £15,000, it’s still cheaper than the entry-level versions of most of its small car rivals.
Step into my office
That price doesn’t mean you have to skimp on space, either. There’s no less room in the Sandero than you’ll find in any other supermini; in fact, we can think of a few much pricier rivals that are more cramped in the rear seats. In fact, the only criticism we can find is that, in the front, there’s less storage for your odds and ends than you might like, with skimpy door bins, miniscule cubbies and a pair of comically small cupholders floating in a sea of grey plastic.
The boot is big, too; in fact, it’s on a par with some of the roomiest in the class. And while the seats don’t slide forward and backward like they do in a Renault Clio, you do get a false floor you can set high to create a load floor that’s flush with the folding seat backs, or low to maximise volume. That said, because it doesn’t fix in place in its lower setting, it does slide and rattle around, so you’ll probably prefer to keep it in the higher position.
Because this Stepway version stands taller than most small cars, it offers the same sort of easy access as you’ll get in even pricier compact SUVs. In other words, for the money, you simply can’t find anything that’s as much of a doddle to load children into, or to climb in and out of if you’re less mobile.
Will it stand up to family life? Well, the quality of the plastics is a fairly good indicator of the Sandero’s cost, which is a diplomatic way of saying they’re pretty cheap and flimsy throughout; the doors feel just as insubstantial, too. Make of that what you will.
Having said that, Dacia has been pretty clever in styling the interior smartly, and adding neat touches that disguise the cost-cuts; a slim swathe of upholstery on the dash adds a tactility and warmth that lift the interior, while silver and bronze accents here and there prevent the interior from being a relentless sea of cheap-feeling plastics.
The big, chunky dials for the climate controls stand in direct contrast to the distracting screen-integrated systems that are sadly growing ever more popular these days, while the touchscreen itself is clear, easy to use and swift to respond.
There’s even an integrated holder for your mobile phone, with a cleverly sited USB charging socket just behind, so that navigating using an app instead of the car’s native system is a doddle; of course, in this top model, you can also sync your phone with the screen, which rather makes the phone holder somewhat redundant, but still it’s a neat touch.
Counting every step
As we’ve already discussed, even this most expensive version of the Sandero Stepway still looks like pretty decent value. And because it starts at such a low price, depreciation is gentle, too – simply because it doesn’t have as far in value to fall.
Also on the Sandero’s side are its affordable servicing costs; even at a main dealer it’s barely any more expensive to maintain than most rivals will be at an independent mechanic. And while you only get a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, you can extend this up to as much as six years for a relatively small additional fee.
There are more efficient alternatives out there – this CVT version in particular is rather less economical than most of its automatic rivals – but unless you do a huge number of miles every year, this shouldn’t be enough to outweigh the Sandero’s affordability elsewhere. In short, it’s still one of the cheapest cars around to buy, run, and then sell on again.
Out of step
If there’s one area in which the Sandero Stepway disappoints, though, it’s its safety rating. It was given just two stars in its Euro NCAP crash test earlier on this year, a score which resulted in What Car? magazine withdrawing its Car of the Year award.
And while it’d be easy to write off this poor showing as a result of the Sandero’s more basic electronic aids, testers also sounded a note of alarm about protection in crash tests, citing scores of 70 per cent for adult occupant protection, 72 per cent for child occupant protection, and just 41 per cent for vulnerable road users; by contrast, the Renault Clio scored 96 per cent, 89 per cent and 72 per cent respectively.
Does this matter? After all, some would say that you get what you pay for; by their logic, a cheaper car will therefore automatically mean lower safety standards.
The counter-argument, of course, is that many people choose a new car for safety’s sake, expecting a certain baseline of crash protection, and that the Sandero Stepway may well fall below that. After all, year-old examples of much safer small cars are available for the same sort of money as this new Sandero, so in this case, buying new doesn’t necessarily mean buying safer.
Whichever side of the argument you fall on, it would be remiss of us not to point out that by saving money buying a Sandero Stepway instead of one of its costlier rivals, you end up with a car that won’t stand up to a crash quite as well.
Step on it
Armed with this knowledge, you might choose to drive a little more cautiously. You won’t have much choice but to do so, mind you, because this automatic Stepway really isn’t fast, as a glance at the performance figures below will attest.
Having said that, while the gearbox can be a little slow to respond away from the line, the little three-pot gives of its all, and that means the Sandero feels perfectly pokey enough for the cut-and-thrust of urban traffic. Even on the motorway it doesn’t feel out of its depth, providing enough throttle response to allow you to mix it in the fast lane.
Only if you really nail the accelerator do you start to notice its shortcomings, but frankly this is all but unnecessary given your rate of acceleration proves to be barely any greater than it was when the throttle was open three-quarters of the way. You do get a bit more noise, but not that much; yes, the engine sounds a little strained, but it never becomes intrusive.
This is a surprise, given the reputation of the CVT gearbox for promoting engine noise, but in fact the CVT in the Sandero is quite clever, optimising the engine revs when you’re just pootling along, but adopting a series of artificial “steps” when you need to push it harder so that you don’t get the monotone drone so typical of this type of transmission.
So you’re left with the benefits of a CVT gearbox – seamless acceleration with no perceptible gear shifts, and smooth take-up from a standstill, albeit after that initial delay. This, in other words, is a CVT you won’t hate – and given this is about as far from a performance car as it’s possible to get these days, it feels entirely appropriate, and ideal for bimbling around town.
The suspension feels a bit wooden; there’s a bit of background vibration at town speeds and you get thumps and clonks over divots in the road, especially if their edges are sharper. But it’s comfortable enough to live with, and as the speed rises, it grows even more so, that low-speed tremolo disappearing as the tyres pass over smoother motorway surfaces.
Yes, there’s a bit of tyre roar, yes, you can feel the three-cylinder engine thrumming through the steering and pedals, and yes, the breeze rustles around the door mirrors too, but these are the sorts of foibles one can let slide given the meagre price.
Handling? Well, the same goes, frankly; the Sandero Stepway isn’t up there with the best, but you’d expect that for the money you’re paying. Having said that, it can still raise a smile, even if only because it’s too gutless to ever get into trouble.
So you can drive everywhere with your foot mashed to the floor, enjoying the scant power that eager little engine has to offer; happily, despite its tall stance, the Stepway doesn’t lean too much in corners, and while there isn’t much feel from the steering, the way the chassis pitches and rolls slightly gives you plenty of feedback.
The nose turns in precisely, too, and because there’s nowhere near enough power to overwhelm the tyres, traction and grip both feel plenty enough. Of course, the gearbox isn’t really game for such antics, but given the gear ratio you’re in doesn’t really have that much effect on your forward momentum, it doesn’t really matter.
In fact, the whole experience is very much akin to driving a holiday hire car – unexpectedly entertaining, not despite its lack of power but because of it.
The Telegraph verdict
It comes as something of a surprise to find we like this taller Sandero just as much as the standard hatchback – if not more so. The raised ride height makes it easier to climb in, easier to see out and much easier if you’ve a pair of child seats to deal with.
It’s even more unexpected that we reckon the automatic gearbox is a perfectly decent option. Usually, an automatic gearbox in a small car is jerky and uncouth, but this CVT is well-mannered – for the most part – and makes the Sandero Stepway incredibly easy to drive.
Elsewhere, the same is true as of the standard Sandero – it’s a great all-rounder and terrific value, with one notable exception. You may be prepared to accept the Sandero Stepway’s crashworthiness as an expected by-product of its lower price, but we find it hard to recommend a budget option if it means cutting a corner on safety.
Which is a shame, because with a spacious, practical interior that’s nowhere near as joyless as you might expect, and a comfortable, easy-going driving experience, this is otherwise a great little car.
Who’d have thought it? Here, at last, is a bargain basement hatchback with a tiny engine and an automatic gearbox that you might actually want to own.
On test: Dacia Sandero Stepway 1.0 TCe 90 Auto Prestige
How much? £15,095 on the road
How fast? 101mph, 0-62mph in 14.2sec
How economical? 45.6mpg (WLTP Combined)
The oily bits: 999cc three-cylinder petrol engine, 89bhp, CVT automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
The electric bits: N/A
Electric range: N/A
CO2 emissions: 139g/km
VED: £220 first year, then £155
Warranty: 3 years / 60,000 miles
Boot size: 328 litres
Spare wheel as standard: No (optional extra)
Skoda Fabia 1.0 TSI 95 DSG SE L
94bhp, 47.9mpg, £18,905 on the road
We’re big fans of the Fabia, but a new model is due soon, and you have to spec it up to this quite posh SE L model to match the Sandero’s equipment level, which makes it almost £4,000 more expensive. You don’t get the taller ride height, either, though the Czech car is just as spacious – not to mention safer, too.
Suzuki Ignis 1.2 Dualjet Hybrid CVT SZ5
82bhp, 51.3mpg, £15,999 on the road
The short, narrow, upright Ignis is immensely characterful, and about the only thing that really compares with the Sandero Stepway on price. But it’s more cramped inside, with only four seats instead of five, and a much smaller boot. It is more economical, though, thanks to that hybrid engine.
Ford Fiesta Active 1.0 EcoBoost Hybrid 125 DCT
123bhp, 51.4mpg, £23,105 on the road
Want a jacked-up supermini with an automatic gearbox that isn’t a Dacia Sandero Stepway? Then this is what it’ll cost you. At £8,0000 more the Fiesta Active is much more expensive – but in this form it’s also more economical, faster, more plush, better equipped, much more enjoyable to drive and stands up better in a crash. You pays your money, you makes your choice...
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