First Drive: Dacia Sandero Stepway

DESPITE being a brand defined by the affordability of its cars, Dacia understands the need for models that give the people what they want. The Sandero Stepway is one of those.

Based on the Sandero hatchback, the Stepway is more of a crossover type car, riding higher and with a handful of off-roader styling cues to give a more rugged look. Sales in this sector of the market have been ballooning for the last few years and Dacia would be daft not to get in on the act.

The sub-range is almost identical to that of the Sandero hatch. It’s in the company’s interests to share parts, platforms and equipment as much as possible, allowing a cheaper price to then be passed on to the consumer. There are turbocharged 0.9-litre petrol and 1.5-litre diesel engine options with two trim levels, so the Stepway does without the entry-level engine and trim options you can get in the ordinary Sandero.

Tested here is the Stepway Laureate 1.5 dCi; the priciest Sandero variant you can buy at a likely £10,795 or so when order books open in the spring. For around £1,000 less you can have the gutsy and frugal 898cc turbocharged petrol TCe, which makes it the soundest financial bet for most buyers.

Either way, Dacia predicts a lot of people will go for Laureate spec for its massive value for money. As well as the 40mm ride height increase over the common-or-garden Sandero which improves accessibility and gives a better view of the road ahead, buyers get smart-looking roof rails, an in-built colour sat-nav system, cruise control, a speed limiter and reverse-parking sensors. Not the sort of things you normally expect on a sub-£11,000 runabout, but all of them very welcome.

The 89bhp diesel engine is equally impressive on the value front. Based on the cheaper of the two Renault-Nissan alliance small-capacity units (there’s also a 1.6 in the group), it produces ample power and only 105g/km of CO2, which although not hitting the tax-free heights of some of its costlier Renault cousins is still very impressive – and very cheap to run.

One of the parts shared between all Sandero models including the Stepway is the rev counter, which has no red zone and extends past 7,000rpm. The diesel can’t reach those engine speeds but pulls well between 1,900rpm and 3,500rpm.

The weight difference between the diesel and the petrol is about 60kg, and all of it rests over the front wheels. The Stepway, with its taller stance, is especially susceptible to the negative effects this has on the way the car drives, feeling just a little more ponderous around corners and marginally firmer at the front end. A stiffer suspension setup has been used to account for the extra weight.

But for general biffing around town or country the diesel Stepway is a thoroughly amiable little partner, happily negotiating steep hills and displaying fine cruising credentials. The only issue is louder-than-average wind noise around the front screen and A-pillars.

Its five-speed gearbox is a bit notchy when locating a new cog and if you place your hand on it the gear lever can feel wobbly. It’s not too noticeable during normal gearshifts though, and the Stepway is a car for people who are deeply unconcerned by relatively inconsequential things like that anyway.

A highlight among the practical benefits that the Stepway can claim over the standard Sandero has to be the unpainted plastic trim around the wheel arches, side skirts and bumpers. It helps prevent certain kinds of car park knocks and scrapes from damaging paintwork and offers a cheaper repair solution. Otherwise the car shares the surprisingly spacious boot and ample rear legroom of the Sandero.

Although Dacia has taken an ear-bashing from Euro NCAP over the safety scores its cars are getting, the safety bods are getting a little overzealous with their latest requests for five-star cars and in isolation the UK-spec Sandero Stepway would get a sound four. The official score drops to three because in other parts of Europe stability control isn’t standard on all models. But with our models blessed with stability control, several braking stability and power aids, daytime running lights, seatbelt load limiters, front and side airbags and more, the Sandero platform offers safety enough for anyone.

Although on the face of it the Stepway isn’t the list-price-bargain that the entry-level Sandero hatchback is, when you look at the equipment you get versus its no-frills rivals, you’d have to be mad not to take a closer look.

FACTS AT A GLANCE

Model: Dacia Sandero Stepway 1.5 dCi Laureate, £10,795 on the road (TBC).Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbodiesel producing 89bhp and 162lb.ft.Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox driving the front wheels.Performance: Top speed 104mph, 0-62mph in 11.8 seconds.Fuel economy: 70.6mpg.CO2 rating: 105g/km.

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