Though PH tends to focus on the more exotic, esoteric side of automotive, it’s easy to admire the Dacia way of doing things. As the quest to make cars ever fancier, more complex and increasingly baffling to use continues, so a simple supermini with a lack of pretence is a real breath of fresh air. Because sometimes cars are just transport, and the Dacia Sandero promises to do just that.
You might have seen this week that there’s a new Dacia Sandero coming, going on sale in the new year and promising “more modernity, roominess and versatility”. It going to cost from £7,995, which will bestow upon the Dacia the status of Britain’s cheapest new car come 2021. And while some will be aghast at £8k, fondly recalling the days when a new Mini could be had for three shillings and a bag of chips, it still looks damn cheap when the RRPs of most cars are considered - a new VW Up is 50 per cent more again, for example. Of course, your £8k Dacia will be basic - going without Bluetooth, air-con or remote central locking - but then that’s surely got to be part of the appeal as well.
So that’s the Dacia. But we all know that new vs. used is one of the best games to play on PH, even with all the obvious pitfalls. So that’s exactly what we’ll do: the best secondhand buys we can find on PistonHeads, for £7,995. In addition, to give this some semblance of real world validity, there are criteria; these should prevent the boys being too silly, returning from the classifieds like Jack from market with a rolling Mk2 Escort shell or part ownership of a Dino. Five doors is preferable and five seats are essential, to ensure the choices can at least carry people like a Dacia can - no roadsters here. We’re keeping it contemporary, too, so that safety and running costs aren’t completely absurd. We can do almost serious consumer advice every now and then, you see. Here goes…
I rather liked the last Sandero. It was okay in a bare-bones, humble sort of way. And the lack of airs and graces was obviously marketing genius. Not quite sufficient to disguise the fact that something like a Ford Fiesta was eminently nicer to drive, of course - but enough to make you wonder if you really need all the tinsel which is heaped atop otherwise humdrum superminis.
The new one is endowed with the latest Clio platform, which ought to ensure that it drives better than ever. Thing is though, it probably isn’t going to drive as well as an L322-gen Range Rover with the 400hp 4.2-litre supercharged V8 aboard. And sure, you’ll have peace of mind and a comprehensive warranty, but you won’t have the satisfaction of impressing you friends and relatives, or of bossing it about the place like a Premiership footballer from 2006.
This one comes with the vaguely satisfying knowledge that it was furnished with a lady owner for the past six years. Slightly more pertinent is a full service history and below average miles. The Sandero will last longer and cost a comparative fraction to run, naturally. But it won’t be the kickstarter for an anecdote or a purchase to regale your grandchildren with. In other words, choose life.
Confession time. Call me a heretic, an ignorant millennial (30 is looming; please do) or just plain wrong, but I’ve always quite like the current Renault Sport Clio. You know, the turbocharged, automatic, five-door one that has car enthusiasts frothing out of the mouth they’re spitting feather from. Why? I think it looks great, I think the chassis is very good - comfier than an equivalent Fiesta’s yet just as adjustable - and, put simply, I’ve always had a good time driving one. For the benefits of this challenge, too, it seems the perfect fit: five doors, five seats, a perfectly practical supermini with a hot hatch edge and the Renault link as well - gold star student.
I know what you’re thinking - that EDC dual-clutch is no substitute for a good manual. And you’d be right, because it isn’t. But I’m convinced (or my memory tells me so) that it wasn’t as bad as people said, and later cars like the Trophy improved the gearbox, with specialists like KTR now offering software updates for early 200s. This particular Clio Cup is approaching 100,000 miles already, but there are loads of services to back that mileage up and Liquid Yellow remains a stunning colour. Likewise, I’m no tremendous fan of the modifications, though I am - for my sins - keen on the car underneath. Despite what everyone says.
Given that the Dacia Sandero comes with a three year or 60,000-mile warranty, a realistic used alternative will have to be reliable to not bankrupt you with unforeseen bills in that time period. You might think me mad for going with the most heavily equipped car in this list, bearing no shortage of digital tech and a stonking great V8 engine under its snout – but thanks to the Lexus badge on its nose, that lot needn’t be of much concern. The big LS 430 saloon is considered to be bulletproof, and this particular car affirms it. 16 years of life and 90,000 miles, yet every one of its features still works.
And it’s not like those additional years over a shiny new Sandero leave you lacking kit compared with modern stuff; there’s an infotainment system with satnav, a reverse camera and climate control, as well as all-round heated seats, cruise control and even a rear passenger control panel. There are wood veneers (as per early noughties requirements) and leathers and plentiful leg room, but best of all, that variable valve eight delivers 282hp and 308lb ft of torque lazily through a six-speed torque convertor. Luxury and effortless progress in an unimposing package that only those in the know will notice. All for £3.3k less than you need to buy that Dacia.
If you're really in market for a Dacia Sandero, my deepest sympathies. And secondly, let’s be honest, in the real world you're never going to consider an old V8 barge or a thrashed hot hatch as a Sandero alternative. What your sensible tastes will demand is a Ford Fiesta; there’s good reason it is one of the most popular cars sold in Britain, after all.
As far as normal cars go, the Mk8 Fiesta is a decent looker, and it wins hands down when it comes to specs against the humble Sandero. I’m a Mk1 MX-5 owner, so I totally get the Dacia's rustic charm. But the Sandero isn’t exactly packing much in the fun department (like my little Mazda) to counter the fact it’s short of kit. The Fiesta offers both – it handles great and this one comes with satvav, cruise control and aircon, as well as Bluetooth, DAB and Ford’s standard-fit heated windscreen, and more. It ticks all the boxes – even if the motor under the bonnet is a 1.1-litre triple. Tell me I'm wrong.
My Dacia alternative had to be something that is fun to drive, as well as being reliable and not ancient in terms of spec. And you know what, I think I’ve cracked it with this one: a 15-year-old Subaru Outback 3.0R. Even if, as an American, I still find the Subaru image a bit confusing in this country.
Back home, you’d see a Subaru proudly featured on the cover of an L.L. Bean catalogue, loaded up with kayaks and a golden retriever. The Outback fits that image perfectly – while being the antithesis to the boy racer image that seems to adorn certain Scoobies this side of the pond. The 3.0R isn’t boring though, with a naturally aspirated 3.0-litre engine, of six, horizontally-opposed cylinders. Turns out the EZ30 motor has a bit of a cult following, not least because of its smooth delivery of 245hp.
This particular example has low miles and appears to be in really good condition inside and out. In some of the pics, the cabin fabrics look brand new, so you’re not losing out in freshness. The Dacia admittedly has more modern features, like an infotainment touchscreen, but I’d much rather have a six-cylinder boxer and all-wheel drive.
As I ponder the day that I may eventually return to two car ownership, with an uncompromised toy for the weekend and a sensible daily that won’t break down on the way to the station, it’s hard to look past something like a Sandero. Simple, no frills and peanuts to run, it’s a car you could reluctantly commit to a life of commuting and car park dings.
When I try and apply the same thought process to something a little less tepid, the first car that springs to mind is a Suzuki Swift Sport. Available with five doors and five seats, it too can be had cheaply, and that buys you a lightly used car that’s less than five years old. More importantly, it’s also something that can be entertaining to drive, too.
The Swift Sport has nothing to prove; it barely has enough punch to be considered a warm hatch by 2020 standards, and it comes with no fancy gadgets to brag about. The little Suzuki has about as much brand appeal as supermarket dried coffee. Yet it’s those exact points that make the car so appealing here. This four-year old example is just the ticket. That’s one half of the driveway sorted; now I just need to find the other £30k for that Exige I've been dreaming about…
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