I’ve driven more than my fair share of supercars and auto-exotica in my time, and obviously never failed to be impressed by the engineering and craftsmanship that goes into producing a Bentley, a Maybach or a Ferrari, but really the greatest admiration should go to those teams of dedicated professionals who are charged with providing affordable motoring for the masses. Anyone, in other words – even me – could produce the “world’s best car” with an unlimited budget and practically unlimited price tag. Indeed, the now abandoned project for a self-driving seven-seater Dyson electric car with a 650 mile range was just such an exercise, though in the end the economics of it did tell against it. With its hi-tech solid-state batteries (moving on from today’s lithium ion norm), it would probably have needed a £1m price tag to make any sense – which, paradoxically, made no sense at all.
Price:£13,800 (range starts at £11,495)
Engine capacity: 1.0 litre petrol 3-cyl, 5-sp manual
Power output (hp): 90
Top speed (mph): 107
0-60mph (seconds): 12.0
Fuel economy (mpg): 50.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 127
Which brings me to the new Dacia Sandero Stepway. Or “Dacia Sandero Stepway You Do The Maths” as the ads remind us. Here is a much more solid automotive achievement than you’ll find in a Lamborghini or Rolls-Royce showroom, and you can have almost as much fun it. It’s all of £13,000 in the relatively plush “Comfort” trim I tried it in, so about a tenth of the cost of the fancy stuff. It’s still roomy enough for five, with its basic five door hatch design, complete with its versatile split-fold rear seats, and it has more than enough useful kit to keep you happy. Granted there’s no heated steering wheel or plush leather upholstery, but you will be in possession of things that were confined to the super rich or science fiction only a few years ago – a rear camera and sensors to help you park, basic cruise control, stop and start to save on petrol (no diesel these days), and even a tyre pressure garage, as well as in-built six speaker sound system and sat nav (or sat nag as I like to think of it).
They’ve styled this latest version to look more solid and beefy, too. It’s no Range Rover, or even Seat Formentor (a seriously muscular beast), but it’s smart and stylish with its heavily grooved bonnet and swept up styling lines and no one should be too ashamed to be seen alive in this Dacia. The “Stepway” SUV styling touches, being the raised ride height, black plastic cladding around the body and roof rails are just that – cosmetic alterations to the regular Sandero hatch. It competes fairly and squarely on price and offers. Ore room and mostly more mit than the likes of the smaller VW Up! or even the Hyundai i20. Its closest rival, is probably the Fiat Panda Cross – though that can be had in proper 4×4 form, whereas the Sandero is only front-wheel drive.
There’s only a few downsides, one serious, the other less so. One minor drawback with the Sandero is that the engine, transmission, electrical and so on are all current or previous generation Renault Clio componentry, the Dacia being Renault’s value brand, built down to a cost in Romania. It’s also probably less durable than, say, a VW Up! and not as sophisticated mechanically. If you like thrashing your cars to get the best out of them – and who doesn’t? – then the Dacia offers its own satisfactions as you attempt to better the official zero to 60mph wait of 12 seconds. A little more power and economy can be extracted from the recherche bifuel version, mixing LPG and petrol as a factory-fitted option.
The more disappointing drawback in the Sandero is its NCAP safety rating – just two stars out of five. There’s nothing actually much lacking in safety for driver and passengers as such, but the Sandero’s more primitive radar kit means it’s less able to brake quickly to avoid, say, a pedestrian or animal unexpectedly on the road. It seems a harsh judgment, and the brand has promised to do better, which we must all hope it will. Still and all, for a range that starts at £7,995 in truly basic trim it remains something of a motoring wonder. Definitely more fun than it looks.