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Britain’s cheapest car suddenly looks a whole lot more appealing – but is it?

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While much of the rest of the car industry has been floundering, Romanian budget brand Dacia has been soaring during the last five years - and its biggest-selling model is this - the Dacia Sandero supermini. Now Europe's second best-selling new car, the Sandero arrived in second-generation form at the end of 2020, bringing fresh styling, more practicality, slightly higher equipment levels and a new model platform with it; but keeping much the same value positioning that it had before. Even in our inflation-ravaged Britain of 2023, you can buy it outright in entry-level trim for less than £13,000.

Dacia tweaked the car's grille- and interior design slightly towards the end of 2022, changing its corporate badge logo, but leaving almost everything else about the car unchanged.

Unlike its predecessor, this car has convenience features; niceties, if you like. A reach-and-rake adjustable steering wheel; LED headlights; even a touchscreen infotainment system (on certain trim levels). Okay, it’s easy to be flippant about these sorts of things, but they serve to show just how much Dacia has overhauled the Sandero. It may be the UK’s cheapest car and it’s still called the Sandero, but it’s a total contrast between this version and the 2013-2020 previous Dacia Sandero.

This car sits on Renault's CMF platform. That means it shares its underpinnings with the Renault Clio, and beenfits from greater body rigidity with less weight. We’ll get to what all that means in a tick, but here’s a teaser: it’s good news.

Those new headlights, along with more LEDs at the rear, help to set this car apart from its predecessor. Although the overall dimensions remain the same, the track is a useful 41mm wider and the wheelbase is 15mm longer. Coupled with the new, sharper styling and little touches like the chrome on the grille, this makes the new Sandero less frumpy than before, bringing its style intent closer to mainstream rivals like the Skoda Fabia.

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The increased wheelbase is handy because it means rear-seat passengers get more leg room, but the big news in the cabin is the frankly staggering uptick in quality. It actually looks like someone has taken some care now, whereas before it was cheap and drab.

Granted, there are no soft-touch plastics, but the padded cloth running around the cabin lifts the ambience (who ever thought we would be talking about that in a Sandero?) and even the air vents look as if they’ve had a once-over from a stylist. Previously, it seemed like it was made to look and feel cheap to hammer home the value aspect. This time, it’s a different attitude and sense of quality, and you can tell.

The dominant 8.0in touchscreen looks smart, and although it’s entirely devoid of buttons, there’s a handy set of stereo controls behind the steering wheel.

This infotainment system is standard on the range-topping Comfort, while lower trims have to make do with Media Control, which is basically just your smartphone wedged in the dashboard. But we shouldn’t be flippant: reasoning that everyone has a smartphone these days, Dacia feels that even if you can’t stretch to the top-spec trim, you will still want to run a navigation tool safely, so it offers a Media Control app as a free download for your phone as well as somewhere to keep said phone within easy reach. We haven’t tried it out yet, but the theory seems sensible.

There are two engines to choose from. The entry-level SCe 65 was deleted from the UK range in 2022; but the turbocharged TCe 90 and the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel survive. Dacia is still keen to plug LPG as an alternative fuel but, given the wider current push for electrification, it’s difficult to see this as a long-term strategy. Either way, power ranges from 89- to 99bhp and, in the case of our TCe 90 car, rests at 89bhp and 118lb ft, the latter from a useful 2100rpm. An electric version is due in 2028.

That means 0-62mph takes a leisurely 11.7sec (in the SCe 65, it was a glacial 16.7sec). In the TCe 90, it’s worth sticking to between 2000-4000rpm. Below that it’s a bit gutless and above that it just shouts more without delivering any extra shove. It’s a thrummy little three-cylinder engine, not the most refined but happy enough as you shift between the gears.

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The manual lever is shorter now and has a less rubbery action than of old; it’s still not as precise as that in the Honda Jazz, but it’s perfectly acceptable given the Sandero’s price.

Remember the CMF platform we mentioned earlier? Not only has it helped make the Sandero more spacious but also made it handle better. Grip levels are improved, the car rolls less than the old one and it’s more comfortable, flowing across the asphalt more easily. It’s no Ford Fiesta in terms of its adjustability through the steering and throttle, and the Ford remains the class benchmark. But considering the price of the Sandero, it can be hustled along far more quickly than you would have thought.

It’s a night-and-day improvement over the previous car, to the point that a long journey in this thing is no longer a daunting prospect. With the right road, it could even be enjoyable.

Really, that’s what’s so impressive about this latest Sandero. We all know that Dacia can offer a cheap, value-driven car better than anyone, but now, dare we say it, it’s also beginning to provide a suggestion of a desirable product, especially when you take into account that it still charges bargain prices.

The Sandero used to appeal simply because it cost little; now it’s likeable simply because it’s a really good car.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Dacia Sandero First drives