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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 26, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    Are we ready for simpler cars?

    Neil Briscoe

    I have been spending some time lately with a Dacia Duster. I hand’t intended to spend quite so much time, in fact, but a scheduling snafu meant that it was needed for a couple of long drives, en famille, so by the time I handed it back, I had racked up more than 1,400km in it.

    Now, we all know the headline grabbing bit. You can buy a new Duster for just €14,990 and finance one on a personal lease for just €149 a month, depending on how much of a deposit you can afford and how big a bubble payment you’re willing to leave dangling.

    How can Dacia do it for the money? How is is possible to bring a brand new Qashqai rival to the market with an effective €10,000 discount? Simple really; by building it in a low-cost environment in Romania and making it from old Renault bits whose investment cost has long since been amortised by all those Clio and Megane sales.

    Buying a Dacia is the equivalent of going into a major electrical retailer and finding out which cheap-o brand you’ve never heard of uses the same electronic parts as last year’s Sony or Panasonic. As long as you’re not bothered about the badge, you’re still getting something that works just fine.

    Except just fine doesn’t really cover it. Really quite very fine might actually be a better assessment. The Duster may be cheap and it may use parts from way down the back of the Renault warehouse (I spotted switches and buttons that Is suspect came from a 1990 Clio in there) but it proved mostly comfy (the seats are a bit to narrow if you’re tall and, ahem, broad like me), spacious (plenty of room in the back for the kids) and surprisingly dynamically adept. OK, so no-one is going to confuse its light steering and roly-poly suspension settings for those of a Lotus Elan, but pounding back up the M9 in thoroughly horrible rain, coping with spot floods as we travelled, the Duster felt secure, planted and unflappable.

    It isn’t particularly economical though, and average fuel consumption over those 1,400km of 35mpg wasn’t especially clever. But even this flaw comes with a caveat; our test model was the range-topping four wheel drive version. So not only is it lugging more weight around than its cheaper front-drive brethren, it’s also hamstrung by lower gearing, designed to make it more agile off-road and on rough tracks. So you should be able to pretty easily break the 40mpg barrier in a front-drive Duster.

    Quite apart from the fact that the Duster is arriving at an auspicious time for a car offering such value for money, there is the fact that it is the future. In a big way.

    You see, much has been written about the current crisis faced by the European car makers. Aside from the big premium brands, and Volkswagen (if you can describe Volkswagen as anything other than a premium brand) they’re all making too many cars, in too many expensive factories, for too few buyers. It’s a toxic recipe that makes fixing the banks look like child’s play (ultimately, we all still need banks; we do not necessarily need a car, or at least not a new one) and as it all plays out it will get bloody. Ford has already made dramatic cutbacks, Fiat is considering canning anything but future spin-offs of the 500 (no more Punto, no more Bravo – a shame on both counts) and Peugeot, Citroen and especially Opel are all in deep trouble. Europe’s car industry is looking worryingly like Detroit’s did in the dark days of the seventies. Will we go the same way as Motown?

    “I don’t think that has to happen here, but certainly it’s a possibility” Dr Mia Grey, an economic geographer from Cambridge University told us. “That’s the sort of thing we really want to be careful about, and policy makers need to be aware of. But that route is not one that we have to take. I think we need to look very carefully at the industry and at nourishing the industry and keeping it healthy. And what that means often is really helping these firms pursue non-price competition, help them to compete on things other than price, to move upmarket if you will, in order to retain those jobs.

    “That scenario that I laid out, the permanent shedding of skilled, well-paid jobs, is by no means likely, but at the same time we want to make sure that isn’t the path we take.”

    The Duster though represents the road to some kind of survival, even if it will take a major shift in both marketing and customer perception to make it work. Ever since the early nineties the levels of sophistication in everyday cars has been rising and rising, a trend triggered by the explosion in sales of the premium brands. If BMW, Mercedes and Audi set the benchmark for quality, luxury and toys, then all others must to a greater or lesser extent follow. Sit inside a current Ford Mondeo or Opel Astra and see if you can tell the difference between its quality and that of a 3 Series or A6.

    It doesn’t need to be this way, though. Possibly, it shouldn’t even be this way. After all, as long as your car is reliable, comfortable, economical and has sufficient equipment (let’s set air conditioning, Bluetooth and a decent stereo as a bottom end, shall we?) then do you really care if your plastic have the same soft-touch sheen as a Beemer? Should you?

    No, you shouldn’t and as any of us with kids can attest, the interior of any car swiftly becomes nothing much more than a mobile skip. Hardy, hose-down surfaces are a positive boon.

    Such is the Dacia model. The Duster (and the forthcoming Sandero) has sufficient sophistication to make it a viable modern car. In fact, given its excellent 1.5 diesel engine, its ABS, the fact that it can be specified with air conditioning and stability control (both of which should really be standard, but let’s gloss over that for the sake of argument) it is vastly more sophisticated than any of the cars we were driving when I got my provisional licence almost two decades ago. And I don’t recall any of us thinking our cars were under-specified back then.

    If, as the experts tell us, Ireland’s economy and GDP has reverted back to 1993 levels, then perhaps it’s appropriate to drive a car whose cabin plastics seems to have come from that year. We will need to dramatically recalibrate our expectations of what a car can do and can be if Europe’s car makers are to survive. No car maker, save Volkswagen, has ever successfully negotiated the tricky path from mainstream to premium (and even VW has to keep a couple of stripped out price-point models on its lists) and expecting any of Opel, Renault, Peugeot or Citroen to be able to do the same is laughable at best. We see them as everyday cars, no matter how much sophistication they may tout. The world of BMW-like premium is simply beyond them. Harsh, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

    Their only hope is to turnabout and do a Dacia, do a Skoda. Make simple, effective cars whose desirability comes from their usefulness and their prices, not their shiny badges or extensive options list. It may seem a radical idea, but the success of Skoda and Dacia, and of Hyundai and Kia, proves that it’s not merely possible, it’s essential.

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