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.
Dacia Sandero Stepway Comfort
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 with 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 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 reserved for the super-rich (or the realms of 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 gauge – as well as a built-in 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 doesn’t compare to a Range Rover, or even a 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 – comprising 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, and has more room, and mostly more might, 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 4x4 form, whereas the Sandero is only front-wheel drive.
There’s only a couple of downsides – one serious, the other less so. The first, minor drawback with the Sandero is that the engine, transmission, electrics and so on are all current or previous-generation Renault Clio componentry, the Dacia being Renault’s value brand, built in Romania for the lower-priced car market. 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.
More disappointing is the Sandero’s NCAP safety rating – just two stars out of five. There’s nothing really 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, an unexpected pedestrian or animal in the road. It seems a harsh judgement, 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.