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In second generation form, the Dacia Sandero Stepway continues to offer a bit of fun for not a lot of money. Jonathan Crouch reports
You know when an idea is a good one when your opposition are looking at each other and wondering why they didn't think of it before. The Dacia formula is really rather simple. It takes tried and tested Renault engineering and recycles it into new cars hailing from Romania. Therefore there's very little research and development expense, low labour costs, minimal tooling outlay and hey presto, you have a line of cheap and reliable cars that are just about pitch perfect for these austere times. Hardly rocket science is it? Renault acquired the company in 1999 and began importing into the UK thirteen years later. The core range is based around the Duster compact SUV and the Sandero supermini, the latter still the cheapest car on sale in the UK and now rejuvenated in new generation, re-designed form. The contender we look at here, the Sandero Stepway, is a spin-off of that model and it's one that has a lot to be said for it.
In order to understand the appeal of the Sandero Stepway, know this. The basic Sandero supermini upon which it's based has been designed to sell into many third world markets and as such is billed as having excellent ground clearance and "robust underbody protection for impressive performance on unpaved tracks". If that's not a great basis for building a jacked-up version with even greater abilities, I don't know what is. Do remember though, that this isn't a four-wheel drive car, so there are limits as to what it can negotiate. For tougher stuff, you'll probably need to buy Dacia's Duster compact SUV. The extra wheel travel seems to give the Stepway a marginally better ride quality than the standard Sandero and the 41mm raise in height hasn't made body control noticeably worse. This fresh generation model's stiffer, more sophisticated CMF-B platform means it can deliver some better engineering. Most Stepway folk will want the powerplant you have to have, one we'd recommend, the 89bhp three cylinder turbo petrol TCe 90 unit, which can be had with either 6-speed manual transmission or a CVT automatic gearbox. Dacia isn't bothering with a diesel this time round, but if you're looking for something super-frugal, you can have the Tce 100 petrol unit in LPG form, with a dual fuel tank situated where the spare wheel would normally sit. With both the petrol and the LPG tanks filled, you'd have a range in this eco-variant of over 800 miles. Dacia promises that this car will now be easier to use around town too, thanks to the fact that the steering is now electrically (rather than hydraulically) assisted and apparently needs up to 36% less effort to turn at low speeds.
As before, the Stepway is styled to look a bit more rugged without actually offering any four wheel-drive underpinnings. Think Ford Fiesta Active or Audi A1 Citycarver and you're not far off the mark. The extra 41mm of stepped up ground clearance gives it a nicely chunky look and might well prove useful when bumping up and down big kerbs in town. This fresh generation version gets a redesigned front end and body features such as proper metal front and rear skid plates, fog lamps, pronounced flared wheel arches, larger 16-inch alloy wheels, longitudinal roof bars that can be turned into a functional roof rack and some smart paint colours. Otherwise, it's exactly like a standard Sandero, which means that this new generation version rides on the same CMF-B platform as a far pricier (and smaller) Renault Clio. That's allowed it to be a touch bigger than before, noticeably wider (1,848mm without mirrors) and 19mm longer. The look's less anonymous too, thanks to a Y-shaped LED front lighting signature. Inside, it's much nicer than before, with a more modern dashboard, embellished on this Stepway variant with fabric finishes. Infotainment's taken step forward too, with an 8-inch centre monitor featuring smartphone mirroring. Access to the rear is easy, with wide-opening doors and reasonable knee room; you could seat a couple of adults there more comfortably than in most other superminis. The boot's a bit bigger too, rated at 328-litres, which is 18-litres more than the old car could offer.
There are three trim levels - 'Essential', 'Comfort' and 'Prestige'. So how much are you going to end up paying? Think in terms of a Stepway starting price of around £11,000 (about £2,000 more than a regular Sandero) and you won't be too far out. That makes this still the cheapest Crossover-styled car you can buy. It undercuts rugged-ised versions of smaller city cars like the Fiat Panda Cross and the Kia Picanto X-line by at least around £2,000 and offers lots more space inside than both. For some perspective, in size, this car is somewhere between a Fiesta Active-shaped supermini (models of which tend to be priced from around £15,000) and a Focus Active-sized family hatch (priced from around £20,000). So you get the idea. It really is hard to argue with this kind of value proposition. Two interior media infotainment options are available, based around an 8-inch touchscreen; 'Media Display', which incorporates 'Android Auto' and 'Apple CarPlay' smartphone-mirroring. And 'Media Nav', which has built-in sat nav with Wi-Fi-based smartphone access. Optional extras if you want to plush up your Sandero include automatic air conditioning, heated front seats, a reversing camera, auto wipers and (for the first time) a power operated sunroof.
Expect a decent step forward in efficiency figures, thanks to this new generation Sandero Stepway model's more modern engineering and lighter, more sophisticated CMF-B platform. Let's get to the WLTP figures. The three cylinder turbo 1.0-litre TCe 90 turbo unit you have to have manages 50.4mpg on the combined cycle and 127g/km of CO2. You still won't get quite as good showing as you would from a pricier mainstream rugged-ised supermini like a Ford Fiesta Active, but there's no doubt that Dacia has considerably closed the previous gap in efficiency that existed compared to the mainstream market. And it's useful to have the rare option of LPG power for the Tce 90 engine, should you be prepared to consider it. On to the warranty. Dacia offers an industry standard 3-year/60,000 miles guarantee from the showroom, backed by three years or 60,000 miles of roadside assistance. For a little more, you can extend the cover by two years or you can up the period covered to a Kia-equalling 7 years and 100,000 miles. Service intervals are every year or every 12,000 miles and since most Renault dealers look after Dacias too, you shouldn't be too far from a specialist workshop. It also helps that there's a timing chain that'll last as long as the engine. Dacia offers a choice of pre-paid servicing schemes covering you for either two years and 24,000 miles or three years and 36,000 miles.
This much improved Dacia Sandero Stepway deserves to do very well. It's a much more interesting and, crucially, more expensive-looking car than the basic Sandero hatch and although the craze for these SUV-styled superminis might have been and gone, it's still a vehicle that will continue to find a ready market here in the UK. With its 41mm raised ride height, it will not only appeal to those looking for something a bit beefy-looking to drive in town, but older buyers might well appreciate not having to sit so far down into the vehicle. The pricing looks extremely good as well. For only a couple of hundred pounds more than the most depressingly basic citycar, you can buy a well-equipped Stepway with a modern petrol turbo engine and miles more equipment. Perhaps Skoda should have been Volkswagen's Dacia, but it hasn't really worked out that way. It's become a bit too gentrified. The Stepway is a case study in how to do budget cars very well indeed.