Day one: This is Britain’s cheapest new car. It costs £5995 for which you get a five door hatchback with no central locking, no radio, no electric windows and only available in white. What it does have is an engine to make it go, brakes to make it stop and windows to keep draughts out. Trivia nerds will note that the actual glass is common across all Dacia models. It’s one of they ways they can afford to sell their cars so cheaply. The interior plastics are grey and stark, the doors are big and hollow-sounding, there are very few buttons. It feels a bit like a van. There’s nothing wrong with that. Vans are quite functional. This is too.
Day two: An early conclusion about the entry level Sandero: Central locking turns out to be the single greatest invention in the history of mankind and having a four door car without it is a total pain in the arse. Mind you, you could just leave it unlocked all the time. What’s anyone going to steal? Apart from the seats. Another early observation; this particular car has a squeaky clutch pedal. Maybe a quality glitch, maybe just a clever attempt to make it feel like its closest rival. Which is a knackered second hand Focus. In all other respects it feels quite well made. And there’s not much to rattle in the first place.
Day three: The Sandero sits quite high on chubby tyres so you might assume the ride is soft. Actually the suspension is quite unusual. It’s firm but doesn’t smash into potholes in a way that makes you worry about something important falling off, such as the engine. It skips over normal road zits pretty well but it doesn’t like big speed bumps. I think the springs are soft but the dampers are hard. Or the other way round. Either way, it’s okay. Truth is, I thought the Sandero would be a bit crap to drive. It’s better than that. And you can operate it in that smoothly fluent and brisk way that all good French cars allow, as if you’re a Breton farmer and you’re extremely late for an appointment with some smoking and shrugging in a village square 20 kilometres away.
Day four: Driving down a narrow street in North London I stop to let through a man in a Citroen C1 coming the other way. As he draws alongside he stops and drops his window. I assume he’s about to moan that I didn’t leave much room for him to get past and get ready to tell him to shit off. ‘Have you just bought this?’ he says excitedly. ‘What’s it like?’ I tell him it’s fine. Then someone comes up behind and hoots before I can start ranting about central locking. When I park the Sandero on my street, one of my neighbours comes out and starts asking me about it. He says the salesman recommended them when he took his Merc C-class for a service. Now there’s a cross-promotion I did not see coming. On a sample size of two I have to conclude that people are quite interested in Dacia. Or Datcha as they insist on calling it in the TV ads. I know it’s the Romanian pronunciation but since when did that count? British Renault ads don’t say the company name as if it’s spoken entirely with the nostrils.
Day five: The squeaky clutch is getting on my nerves. I find some WD40 and give the pedal mechanism a squirt. It doesn’t seem to help. In all other respects, the Sandero isn’t irritating at all. I quite like its simplicity. This morning a woman in a BMW tried a shitty low speed lane change right in front of me. For a brief moment I thought about not touching the brakes and just driving into her. I’ve got black, unpainted bumpers. She’s got 26 payments left on that 318i and the deposit was more than the value of my entire car. But that wouldn’t have been very nice. And the Sandero isn’t mine.
Day six: You might assume this is a car for people who have no more than £6000 to spend on a car. In truth I think it’s for people who have rather more than that but are choosing not to spend all their cash at once or who don’t want to get up to their eyes in credit. It’s not a car for people who are badly off; it’s for well off people who want to remain well off. A station car or a nipping into town, don’t bother getting out the Royce sort of car for people who want to spend as little as possible on something that will start every time. They could have a second hand car but the satisfaction of knowing no one else has sneezed over the steering wheel or farted into the seats would make the six grand Sandero appealing.
Day seven: It’s my birthday. For unrelated reasons a no-nonsense Eastern European man is taking half my house apart. Seems like a good excuse to get out of his way by going for a drive in a no-nonsense Eastern European car. What did you do on your birthday Richard? I drove across Hertfordshire in a Dacia Sandero. And here’s the thing; it was really good fun. If you drive it normally, the Sandero is a dated and pretty saggy thing. If you put some effort in and thrash the crap out of it, it’s really quite amusing. The 1.2-litre engine is plucky and the gearchange doesn’t mind being slammed around. It rolls a lot in corners but there’s plenty of grip. I hate to sound like a tedious helmsmith but even the pedals are uncommonly well placed for heel and toeing. I didn’t give it a dab of oppo.
Later on it turns out that the no nonsense Eastern European man working on my house is Romanian, just like the Sandero. ‘Is new car?’ he says. ‘Is Romanian car?’ he continues. Yes it is, and it’s… really good I say in a way that I hope didn’t sound patronising. ‘Is 90 percent France,’ he grumbles, pulling a nonplussed face. I didn’t know what to say after that. Don’t worry mate, we sold all our car industry to foreigners too and now our cars aren’t crap either? Maybe that would have done it.
Goodbye: The Sandero is one of those cars that isn’t technically top notch but is quite likeable nonetheless. It may be as luxurious as a Turkish prison but there’s something very endearing about it. The only thing it needs is central locking. As it turns out, if you spend an extra 600 quid on the next model up you get it as standard along with electric windows and a proper built-in stereo with Bluetooth. It also has body coloured bumpers so it doesn’t look like an unfinished prototype. If you need a biffabout car that can be run for pennies and that hasn’t been tainted by four previous owners that would be the one to buy. It’s likeable, and not just because it’s cheap. I think you might even grow to love it. Just remember to drive it like you hired it.
The car talked about here is a Dacia Sandero Access 1.2 75. It has a 74 horsepower 1.2-litre engine, it can do 0-62 in 14.5 seconds and tops out at 97mph. It feels a bit faster than that sounds, maybe because it only weighs 941kg. It costs £5995.