Dacia Sandero review
The Dacia Sandero is one of the UK’s cheapest new cars, with supermini space for less than most city cars
Buyers who want a cheap, no-nonsense new supermini that gets them from A to B will instantly be drawn to the Dacia Sandero. It grabbed the limelight when it arrived in the UK in 2013 with its sub-£6,000 price tag, and has proven a big sales hit.
That headline figure buys the entry-level Access version, which doesn’t even feature a radio, while it’s powered by a dated 1.2-litre petrol engine sourced from Renault – like most of the mechanical parts and interior switchgear. But you can spend a bit more on a higher-spec Sandero and benefit from more kit and a cleaner, more punchy petrol turbo or a very efficient diesel.
No matter which version you go for, the driving experience isn’t especially sophisticated, and while the interior provides plenty of space, it feels cheap. But that’s how Dacia keeps the prices so incredibly low, and plenty of canny buyers seem prepared to accept these flaws.
The Dacia Sandero has grabbed headlines as Britain’s cheapest car from one of the lesser known brands in the country. Yet while Dacia feels all-new, the Romanian state car maker did sell its product in the UK for a short time in the seventies and eighties.
By 2004, a newly designed Logan small car was up and running and Dacia was making headway as a bargain brand in European markets. But everything changed in 2010, when it introduced the Duster 4x4: this was the right car at the right time, and suddenly Dacia was on the way to some serious success.
The Sandero supermini had been introduced in Europe, as well as in some emerging markets elsewhere across the globe, in 2008. A facelifted version was unveiled in 2012, just ahead of the brand’s relaunch in the UK.
So when Dacia landed on these shores in 2013 with its two-model budget line-up, it was an instant hit. The Duster 4x4 proved popular for offering off-road looks and ability on a shoestring at a time when sales of SUVs were going through the roof, while the Sandero appealed with its simplicity and great-value prices.
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The supermini quickly became something of a cult hit for those wanting a simple, affordable and practical car without the bells and whistles offered by other makers – despite being based on decade-old Renault technology. The basic structure of the Sandero dates back to the 1998 Clio, as do many of the interior components.
Since then, the car has become a little more sophisticated. While the entry-level Sandero Access grabs the headlines with its bargain price, as well as its plain white paint, black bumpers and basic equipment list, there’s now a top-spec Laureate Prime version with colour-coded seatbelts and a touchscreen sat-nav. In between, buyers also have a choice of Ambiance and Laureate trim levels.
Alternatives at this price are difficult to pin down, because the entry-level Dacia Sandero undercuts even the cheapest city cars, such as the Skoda Citigo and Vauxhall Viva, yet offers much more space. Even mid-range or high-spec models cost less to buy than basic versions of the best choices in the supermini class, like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo.
But that’s arguably why Dacia has proven such a success in the UK: the Sandero hits that sweet spot in the market among buyers who want a simple car that takes them from A to B with minimum fuss and for minimum cost.
Engines, performance and drive
On the road, the Dacia Sandero doesn’t really do much wrong, although you’ll never really enjoy driving it. The steering is vague and rubbery, so the car goes where you point it, but provides little in the way of feedback to the driver.
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Still, the ride quality is really impressive. This is down to the relatively small wheels and high-profile tyres, and the fact that Dacia never set out to give the Sandero sporty responses.
When you read the story behind its development, you’d think all the Sandero has to offer is decade-old Renault tech that’s well past its sell by date. But that’s not quite the case.
OK, so the basic 1.2-litre petrol engine is pretty short on sophistication, yet it isn’t as old as you think. This 'D4F' unit dates back to 2000, having originally been used in one of the most iconic cars Renault ever made – the Mk1 Twingo.
Here in the Dacia, it’s just about acceptable as long as you don’t ask too much of it. For those who buy Sanderos for just bumbling around town, or short journeys, it’ll do fine, but start extending it on motorways or main roads, and you’ll soon find that it’s needlessly noisy and thirsty.
The best engine by far is the 898cc TCe turbo three-cylinder petrol. This is a thoroughly modern unit, essentially designed by Renault to replace the old 1.2 in its more modern cars – you can find it in service in the likes of the Clio, Captur and the upcoming new Megane.
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It’s a lightweight, hi-tech engine with advances such as a light-pressure turbo and multipoint fuel injection. And in use it revs freely and is very willing, not to mention refined. Mind you, that refinement from under the bonnet does show up how noisy the Sandero is in other areas, with tyre roar and wind noise letting the side down.
You could upgrade to the 1.5 dCi diesel – again, an engine some buyers will be familiar with from the Renault line-up. This will add a full £1,000 to the price of TCe models, though, and in a car where every penny counts, there’s not really much point spending the extra.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Not surprisingly, the diesel is the most efficient model in the Sandero range on paper. As a relatively modern engine sourced from the Renault range, the 89bhp 1.5 dCi was always going to be a superior performer over the two petrol options.
But before you take the plunge, think about how you’ll be using your Sandero. While the 80mpg official fuel economy for the diesel looks brilliant on paper, most drivers will struggle to match that every day. A figure of around 60mpg is more realistic, and unless you’re doing lots of motorway miles, the 89bhp 898cc TCe petrol turbo probably won’t be far behind.
Around town, which is where most Sanderos will probably spend most of their lives, the gap between the two models’ fuel returns is likely to be far narrower, and we’d expect the TCe to average at least mid-forties mpg. Given the hefty price difference between the diesel and petrol, it’s really a no-brainer to go for the downsized turbo. That £1,000 saving will buy you a lot of petrol…
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You could of course save even more and go for the most basic 1.2-litre petrol Sandero. After all, it delivers 74bhp and still claims 48.7mpg fuel economy – and when the whole point of buying this Dacia is to save money, you’d think the cheapest model in the range would make sense. But after a few hundred miles behind the wheel, you may be wishing you’d spent a little bit more, as the 1.2 is such a wheezy, uncouth and sluggish engine; the more modern versions are well worth the extra.
The main attraction of a Sandero is that it’s cheap to buy and, if the worst happens, cheap to repair, so insurance groups are correspondingly low. The most basic 1.2 sits in group 4, while the Ambiance and Laureate models take that up through groups 5, 6, 7 and 8. Most expensive to insure will be a range-topping Laureate Prime diesel, which is in group 12.
Not only is the Sandero one of the UK’s cheapest new models to buy, it’s also one of the slowest depreciating cars on the market. Over three years, you can expect to lose only around 55 per cent of its new value, which is as good as some premium brand cars. Better still, given its cheap and sensible nature, you should have no trouble trading it in or finding a private buyer.
Interior, design and technology
Anyone who drove a Renault in the late nineties or early noughties will feel right at home inside the Dacia Sandero. The instruments appear to be taken from a 1999 Clio, the column stalks from a 2001 Scenic, and the hazard lights and central locking buttons from an old Laguna. It would be unforgivable from other brands, but this is exactly how Dacia keeps its prices so low. Everything works fine, so why would you worry about where it comes from or what it looks like?
The same goes for overall cabin quality. The plastics in the dash are functional, rather than pleasing to touch – they’re there to hold the instruments and switches in place, and to cover up the heating and electrical systems. If you want any kind of high-grade, soft-touch materials, you’ll have to look elsewhere and dig deeper into your pockets.
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Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The basic Access version of the Dacia Sandero doesn’t even come with a stereo; to help keep the price down, the company simply provides a pre-wiring set-up so you can install your own head unit.
Move up to Ambiance spec, and things start to get a bit more modern inside. This model features a radio and CD player (which reads MP3-encoded CDs), as well as remote audio controls mounted in a pod on the steering column; once again, this will be familiar to anyone who drove a nineties Renault. There’s even a Bluetooth connection, allowing you to make hands-free calls or stream music from your phone, as well as an auxiliary input if you want to physically connect a music player.
The more expensive Sandero Laureate comes with a seven-function trip computer, but you’ll have to spend over £9,000 on the top-of-the-range Laureate Prime to get a touchscreen sat-nav and infotainment system. The seven-inch display features full smartphone connectivity with the Aha streaming app and live traffic alerts. A more basic Media Nav system is available as a relatively affordable £300 option on lesser models.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
While the Sandero isn’t the biggest car in the world, Dacia’s designers have come up with a good packaging compromise that sees it deliver a reasonable amount of interior space.
The car is four metres long exactly, which is only very slightly longer than the late nineties Clio on which it’s based mechanically. But the Sandero is quite broad, measuring 1.7 metres wide (not including the wing mirrors). This obviously helps cabin space, although it’s still a relatively compact car, and few drivers will have any trouble squeezing it into a tight car park space.
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Leg room, head room & passenger space
One of the major drawbacks of the Dacia Sandero will become apparent to tall drivers and front seat passengers about an hour into any long journey. The front seats – again taken from a Renault Clio from the turn of the century – are quite narrow across the base and force you to adopt a slightly perched up position. This means it doesn’t take long for backsides to become numb.
Shorter, slimmer occupants won’t notice it quite so quickly, but it’s one of the areas where we wish Dacia had invested a bit more; most customers would surely be prepared to pay a little extra for more comfort.
Space in the back isn’t all that great – you can tell that the Sandero is based on an older platform, as modern rivals leave it trailing by some distance in this respect. Taller children will soon complain about the limited space, while it can be a struggle to squeeze in bulky child seats.
The 320-litre boot capacity is very generous considering the relatively small exterior dimensions of the Dacia Sandero. All models get a 60:40 split rear seat, but only the seatbacks split and fold; the base is fixed. Even so, when you drop the backs, you free up an impressive maximum load space of 1,200 litres, which is almost as much as you’d expect to find in a compact van.
Reliability and Safety
Even though Dacia only arrived in the UK market in 2013, its cars use proven Renault mechanical parts, so they should be relatively trouble free. The Sandero’s 1.2-litre petrol engine is quite old now, but the 898cc petrol turbo and 1.5-litre diesel are shared with the latest Clio, as is the five-speed manual gearbox.
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Owners clearly rate the supermini as well: the Sandero finished in a healthy 53rd place overall in the Auto Express Driver Power 2015 satisfaction survey. As you’d expect, the car was praised for its low running costs, but owners also commented favourably on its build and ride quality.
The fit and finish inside may cause you to question the long-term durability of the car, but the evidence tends to suggest that the Sandero can cope well with the rough and tumble of everyday use. Dacia has built up a strong reliability record for its cars.
Plus, despite its budget roots, the Sandero comes with a respectable tally of safety kit. All versions are equipped with four airbags, stability control and Isofix child seat mountings. However, Euro NCAP awarded the car a four-star rating in its independent crash tests, which doesn't compare favourably with the maximum five stars achieved by most modern superminis.
The Sandero is supplied with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, which includes roadside recovery. For £395, buyers can extend this to five years and 60,000 miles, or they can spend £850 to increase the cover to seven years and 100,000 miles.
Dacia’s servicing schedule is pretty simple: you just bring your Sandero to a dealer for a check-up every 12,000 miles or every year. The company also offers a choice of pre-paid servicing schemes, to help keep maintenance bills to a minimum. A £309 package covers the first two years or 24,000 miles of servicing, while for £559, you can cover your dealer maintenance costs for the first three years or 36,000 miles.