If there's a third inevitability after death and taxes, it's most likely that prices will rise. The cold fingers of inflation seemingly always work their way in, no matter how tightly you shut the metaphorical fiscal draw, so it was inevitable that even Dacia prices would have to rise.
When the Romanian brand (long since owned by Renault) broke on to the Irish market in 2013, its arrival could not have been more perfectly calibrated. With the recovery from the 2008 financial crash under way, but still far from secure, the idea of a cheap-as-chips car, backed by the known mechanical package of a major European carmaker, was a slam dunk with Irish customers. The Duster crossover, Dacia’s first Irish launch, quickly got its feet under the sales table, and when the first Sandero hatchback came along in 2017 it too was a smash success.
With prices for that original Sandero starting from €10,190, it was a Fiesta-sized car that actually undercut tiddlers such as the VW Up and Hyundai i10 on price. The downside? Not much in the way of refinement, comfort or dynamism, and you could easily cut your fingers on some parts of the dashboard, so rough and ready were the plastics. Most seemed not to mind, and more than 10,000 Sanderos (and its wannabe-SUV Sandero Stepway sister) have been sold here since.
However, as the new Sandero arrives on these shores (it's our second-generation but actually the third Dacia Sandero in a global sense) that inevitability of rising prices has carried out its dread task. Prices for the cheapest Sandero have risen from that lo-lo tag €10,000 to a more senior €12,990. Is that just too much to ask for a bargain-basement hatchback?
Well, perhaps not. You have to take that price rise in its context – legislation demands that more and more expensive safety equipment be fitted as standard now, and then there is the need for more sophisticated engine-management systems to keep fuel consumption and emissions low. Then you notice that all small hatchbacks have risen, quite dramatically, in price. In 2017, that original Sandero was undercutting the likes of the Fiesta and Yaris and Polo, whose prices usually started between €16,000 and €17,000. Now, €17,000 is the bare minimum for an entry-level supermini, so while the Sandero has become pricier in absolute terms, in context it actually hasn’t really.
It’s also now offering better equipment. Air conditioning now comes as standard, as does a DAB radio, front electric windows, cruise control and a speed limiter. Such luxuries – the cotton lining to a hair shirt – would have been unknown wonders to anyone buying that €10,000 original Sandero.
It also comes, as previously noted, with more safety equipment – ABS brakes, electronic stability control, hill-start assist and a system called interurban advanced emergency brake assist system (AEBS). It’s this that has caused some bad publicity for Dacia recently, as the independent crash-test experts Euro NCAP decided that this radar-based automated braking system was insufficiently sophisticated, and it docked the new Sandero’s safety rating to a meagre two stars (out of five).
"Listen, we want all our cars to be safer," Dacia's head of Irish operations, Paddy Magee tells The Irish Times. "Sometimes the headlines can be misleading, and if you break down the results fully, you can see that in terms of actually protecting both adult and child occupants in a crash, the Sandero is a four-star car. Where we have lost out is in the electronic add-ons."
Certainly it’s true that the safety rating has more nuance than the simplistic star rating, but it might still give some family buyers pause. Should it?
On balance, probably not. The sophistication of the emergency-braking system notwithstanding it’s hard to evade the industrial-chic allure of the Sandero. Slip inside and there’s a new, rather more stylish dashboard that is still made from simple, cheap plastics. It’s much less rough-edged than before (you won’t need stitches when you go looking for the bonnet release) but still reassuringly affordable. There’s no touchscreen (well, there is an eight-inch unit if you upgrade to the €16,290 Comfort model, but this basic Essential version gets a simple set of fingertip stereo controls and a clamp that holds your smartphone, with a USB socket to connect it to.
Simple is the watchword. There’s no complex climate control, just a button for air conditioning (which we think was taken from a 1998 Clio) and a rotary switch for hotter or colder air. The front seats have been dramatically improved (they are actually now bearable for more than five minutes), and more space in the rear for heads and knees. The boot, with 320 litres on offer, is sufficiently useful. There’s more than a hint of cheapo hire car about the Sandero, but with the sun shining and one window down, that just gives you more of a frisson of holiday spirit.
This Essential model gets the most basic engine possible, a 67hp version of Renault’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol engine. With no turbocharger, torque is a pretty tiny 95Nm, but then the Duster in this basic form weighs barely more than a tonne. Performance, which looks hopeless on paper, is actually relatively peppy as long as you avoid too many steep hills. Basically, it rocks along quite nicely, but it does get rather too noisy and thrashy above 3,000rpm, so with only five speeds in the gearbox, long motorway journeys might not be such a good idea. It is economical, though, with 50mpg and higher easily achieved.
If that kind of journey is your daily bag, then maybe consider the Comfort model, with its turbocharged 100hp engine and six-speed gearbox (which feels almost like a hot hatch when you step into it after the Essential model). Handling is okay – the steering is light and easy, but divorced entirely from what the front wheels are up to, and the suspension runs out of travel a little too quickly on big bumps. As with the old Sandero, as long as you go in with your expectations set to a level commensurate with the price, it’s fine.
It has also found a little more in the way of exterior style, with a look that’s more than a little reminiscent of the VW Polo, and neat, slim LED headlights.
You could, I guess, upgrade to the Sandero Stepway, which starts at €15,990 and comes with roof rails, taller suspension and an off-roady look to it. We still think, as we did with the previous Stepway, that it’s probably not worth the upgrade – why, when buying a car such as a Dacia, are you spending extra on things you don’t actually need?
What’s really interesting is that Dacia, instead of becoming a cheap feeder brand for more expensive, more profitable Renaults, has now firmly established itself as a brand in itself, with its own appeal and its own customer base. “We have customers that we simply can’t get out of their Dusters, for example,” says Magee. “It’s about confidence. Because we’ve built the brand in the past nine years, we’re now at a point where the dealers have confidence in the way the product can bring in customers, and those customers have confidence in how reliable the product is and how it holds on to its value. That’s why we’re seeing customer retention numbers as big as 70 per cent in Dacia.”
Safety rating notwithstanding, it would be hard to see the accomplished new Sandero putting much of a dent in that confidence.
Lowdown: Dacia Sandero 1.0 SCe 65 Essential.
Power: 1.0-litre petrol engine putting out 67hp and 96Nm of torque with a five-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.
CO2 emissions (annual motor tax): 120g/km (€190).
L/100km (MPG): 4.4 (64.2)
0-100km/h: 16.7 seconds.
Price: €12,990 as tested; Sandero starts at €12,990.
Our rating: 3/5.
Verdict: Pricier? Yes. But also better.