Renault Sandero: big in value

My first car was a 20-year-old Renault 5. Bought new by my parents in 1976, it came with all the decade’s quirks – apple green body colour, faux leather (i.e. plastic) seats, thatched effect for the ceiling, a luxury spec featuring cigarette lighter and one of those analogue dial radios.

But even after two decades, it was easy to see the car’s original appeal: with VW’s Beetle its only real rival, the 5 was tailor-made for young families.

In 2009 so is Sandero.

The first locally-built Renault since then, the newcomer to South Africa is big in size and value. The entry-level 1.4-litre Authentique undercuts the cheapest Yaris by some R20k but offers more interior space and a boot even bigger than Auris or Golf. And no, it’s not from China.

The only real catch is if you want a bigger engine or more than power-steering and driver airbag, the price does go up. But even at R142 800, the 1.6 Expression Plus Pack edition I drove for a week is a viable, cost-cutting, and still more spacious alternative to Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 1.4 (R158 600), Yaris T3 (R156 100) and ageing VW Polo 1.4 (R141 600).

Airbags? Check. Aircon? Check. Front electric windows? Check. Soundsystem? Check. Trip computer? Check. ABS with EBD and EBA? Check. Check. Check.

Frankly, all that’s missing – in this price bracket – is a bit of refinement. Developed by Romania’s Dacia for emerging markets, the emphasis is on functionality rather than flair. So, while the bold curves give the five-door hatch a fun-lovin’ look, Sandero’s exterior styling doesn’t quite have the company’s distinctly quirky visual flair.

Step inside and you won’t find Twingo’s swooping, soft plastic surfaces, eccentric dial layout, or those chunky multi-multi-function stalks behind the multi-multi-function steering wheel. Instead it’s best described as solid but straightforward, with old-school vents, dials and panels unearthed from Renaults past.

The only real gripes, though: no height adjustment for the steering wheel, the awkward positioning of electric window and central locking buttons (just above the gear lever on the centre console), and the less-than-therapeutic sound of the indicator signal. Otherwise, it’s as spacious as advertised with sufficient leg, shoulder and head room for 1.85m tall passengers – even though the rear bench lacks Modus’ nifty to-and-fro sliding functionality.

And the drive? Built on the same chassis as Nissan’s new NP200 bakkie and featuring the semi-retired eight valve Megane engine, the 1600 wouldn’t be Vin Diesel’s first choice for a street race. But although the hatch may not be quite as hot as some of its rivals – especially at lower speeds where there’s a little coarseness and a very short first gear to deal with – at highway cruising speeds, Sandero is very capable. Comfortable, stable and, featuring hydraulic-assisted steering, more responsive than expected of a car offering a such a soft ride, this newcomer looks set to stay.

In 20 years time it will certainly be some 18-year-old kid’s first set of wheels.

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