Test Drive: Dacia Sandero Stepway 1.5 90 HP image

If you live in Europe, you don’t need an introduction to Dacia anymore – this is the affordable Renault subsidiary that rocked the auto industry with its success. One of its assets – the Sandero Stepway.

If you need a textbook management success in Europe’s auto industry, you could refer to Prosche’s emergence as the biggest profit maker in the Volkswagen Group or simply jump at the other end of spectrum and look at the Dacia – Renault relation. In my opinion – without taking away credit from the Germans – making an affordable brand, which everyone knows should yield low profits, is an even greater achievement. And although Renault managers don’t disclose earnings margins for the Dacia models, analysts and insiders say the Romanian brand is closer to the premium, rather than the mass-market spectrum.

But enough trials and tribulations about European auto industry and economics. The facts are simple: we’ve tested the Sandero Stepway, a crucial model for Dacia across the region. Why is that? Simple: the first generation took home half of the sales accounted by the model even though it’s positioned as the “flagship” Sandero variant.

Design, Interior and Gadgets
Now, the Sandero Stepway has reached its second generation – becoming a more mature car – with a German-like inspiration for design. The Dacia Sandero and Logan lineups are the most teutonic vehicles a French automaker could design – and the backlights of the model are a clear reinterpretation of what Volkswagen’s Polo offers to the public. Nevertheless, the Sandero Stepway is now a clear member of the Dacia family – which has unified its styling across all models, save for the Duster SUV. And toghether with the latter model, the Sandero and its Stepway version represent the tip of the lance for the brand’s European offensive – which has seen monthly sales rising as much as 40%.

The Sandero Stepway design is also a clear hit for European consumers – sales of crossover-like models have skyrocketed in the region in recent years. After all, back in 2010 the “brother from another mother” – Nissan’s Juke – jumpstarted the European craze for subcompact crossovers. The Sandero Stepway offers just the flair of a small SUV, without the added weight or price increase. There’s only a front wheel drive version, but the same is valid for the segment leader – Renault’s Captur. Overall, the appeal of the Sandero is greatly enhanced by the Stepway changes – black and body-colored bumpers with satin-finish chrome front and rear skid-plates and the model looks well prepared to take on the everyday urban life (and its many small accidents that don’t leave marks because of the added plastic protections). It can also overcome mild off-road headaches thanks to the added ground clearance – 40 mm more than what the Sandero offers (in some markets, such as its home region it’s just 26 mm because the standard model features a raised suspension setting).

Inside the car, it’s a lot harder to spot the differences to the other Sandero trims – because save for the different seat texture and Stepway stitching there are none. Anyway, if you saw the previous generation Sandero you could appreciate the jump made by the current generation. It’s not an overly exciting design, but ergonomics have definitely improved and for an affordable car the number of features is astonishing – you get all the modern amenities of (much more expensive) 2014 cars: we have touchscreen navigation, cruise control with speed limiter or a leather-wrapped steering wheel, just to name a few. And with the MediaNav’s 300-euro price (another 100 for the regional map), the system (navigation, MP3 with USB, bluetooth), Dacia has shamed a number of mass-market brands that charge an arm and a leg for it. Of course, cost cutting measures are clear and obvious: the resistive touchscreen feels years away from our fast quad-core smartphones and black, solid but undesirable plastics are everywhere.

But, if you need a no-frills car that can handle daily activities and the occasional weekend adventure hassle free, the Stepway is your man…err, car. The driver’s position is rather high (I’m tall and still lunging for sporty cars, I admit), which will make ladies happy, but the front seats are ample and comfy – although they essentially lack any lateral support. But you’ll see, dynamic driving is not in Dacia’s vocabulary. Getting in the back, the car offers typical subcompact space: we have a 2590 mm wheelbase but the car is just 4081 mm long. So, your knees will rest because they touch the front seat (in my case) and five adults on board is a short-trip affair. There’s one notable exception: the Sandero is very high and headspace is outstanding, both front and back.

Engine, Transmission and Handling
The new Sandero Stepway is powered by a very standard and well-known 1.5 dCi engine from the Renault donor bank – it’s a tried and tested engine, refined over the years and with all reliability issues already ironed out. What’s more important is that it has evolved to offer 90 hp (there are also 75 and 110 hp variants on various models) and it’s a very silent unit. No true diesel detractor could be satisfied, but the little Renault engine is as silent and vibration-free as it would be if BMW used it (actually, Mercedes does, for its A and B Class models). So, unless under heavy loads, the engine is eerie quiet and even if you reach highway speeds you won’t hear it because of the aerodynamic noise coming from the body (which is not really what you call a wind tunnel friend). The engine is mated to a great five-speed manual transmission that only has around 2750 rpm at 140 km/h – another instance when I wonder why so many carmakers (Dacia included when it comes to the Duster diesel with 110 hp) use six-speed gearboxes that are indexed as if they were used on the track.

Thanks to a great little engine, a long gearbox and a curb weight of just 1158 kg, the Sandero Stepway made me wonder if the fuel level gauge was broken – lines stubbornly refused to disappear and I ended up with a flat 5L/100 km average consumption after a mix of urban, highway and mountain driving. It’s actually just one liter shy of the official figure and we all know better than to openly trust them. I really think the French automakers – both Renault and PSA – have some of the best small-displacement diesel engines in the world today.

The Stepway, with its added height is not a driver’s joy and it was never intended to be. Just like a very controversial and famous TV car show host once said, the Dacias are made to get you from point A to point B. Over the years the brand has evolved and matured, but it keeps delivering on that premise: so sporty or luxurious models are not its objective. If you don’t fancy yourself winning the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, using the Stepway is an easy affair – whether you’re a young guy/girl on a budget or a family conscious buyer.
Highway driving is a standard affair, with the direction setup precise enough to cause no concerns at high speeds. The suspension setup is also very silent and gives you the feeling it could last forever because of the traditional mix of McPherson in the front and solid axle at the back. Comfort is the agenda when taking on potholes, so the car’s ample dives will alert you of its limits before the ESP system (which is standard, by the way) has the chance to intervene.

With its small dimensions the car is a joy in the urban environment and because the interior is more than adequate to take on four adults on long journeys (here you really need the cruise control-speed limiter), the Sandero Stepway is a great all-rounder. Frankly, if you don’t need the added flair of the Duster SUV and especially if you lack the money to buy a better-equipped version of the latter, the Stepway is my recommendation as the most sensible choice in today’s Dacia lineup.

Likes/Dislikes
Pro: The looks, interior space if you take four adults and luggage, equipment choice and affordable extras, great engine and fuel economy.

Against: Cheap and unpleasant interior plastics, noisy at high speeds, the outstanding fuel economy is just a memory if you only do high-speed highway driving.

Price
Starting price – Sandero Acces 1.2 75 HP – 7.190 EUR
Tested Car – Sandero Stepway 1.5 90 HP – 12,600 EUR

Engine: 1,5L turbo diesel (1,461 cc)
Power: 90 HP (66 kW) at 3,750 rpm
Torque: 220 Nm (162 lb-ft) at 1,750 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual

Dimensions: length – 4,081 mm, width – 1,733 mm, height – 1,618 mm, wheelbase – 2,590 mm
Weight: 1,158 kg
Fuel Tank Capacity: 50L
Trunk Capacity: 320L / 1,200L

0 – 100 km/h: 11,8s
Top Speed: 167 km/h
Fuel consumption: urban – 4,6L/100 km, highway – 3,7L/100 km, average – 4L/100 km

Rating:
3 / 5

Photos: Gabi Gogiu