Renault doesn’t believe South African consumers are getting the most for their hard-earned money. And the new Sandero is here to prove it.
THE French term coup d’état implies a change of leadership as a result of an assault on the status quo. And, in the case of the largest segment in South Africa, Renault believes the time has come for change.
The marques and models of the current establishment in the budget B-segment are well known and instantly recognisable. A combination of traditional brand loyalty, merited trust and comfort in familiarity have seen the likes of Volkswagen, Toyota and the re-invigorated Ford brand firmly entrench themselves at the peak of this increasingly important segment.
Four years since its launch, VW’s re-engineered fourth-generation Polo, dubbed Vivo, continues to outsell all, with the India-sourced Toyota Etios hot on its heels. Ford’s reworked fifth-generation Fiesta (Figo), which won our previous entry-level comparison test (March 2013 issue) thanks to its sure-footed dynamics and relatively generous specification, remains ever popular.
Specification and perceived value for money is what Renault South Africa focused on when it launched the locally produced first-generation Sandero in 2009. Lauded for its spacious interior, impressive ride quality and notable standard-specification list, the Rosslyn-built Sandero sold reasonably well despite (outdated) brand prejudices against Renault and Dacia, the French firm’s Romanian subsidiary that’s credited with developing the car’s underpinnings.
“Less Dacia, more Renault” sums up this Sandero. Armed with even more specification, fresh styling (bringing it more in line with the rest of the Renault family) and cutting-edge powertrain technologies, the newcomer looks set to provide sharper competition to the three contenders tested here.
It’s difficult not to feel frustrated at the lack of specification, standard or optional, offered by Volkswagen on its Vivo range. Even in top-of-the-range Trendline spec (as tested here), the package excludes electric windows, alloy wheels, remote central locking, a comprehensive trip computer and even an audio system. That all of these items were available on the previousgen Polo on which the Vivo is based evidences the cost-cutting lengths VWSA has gone to.
A further deletion from the Polo range (along with colour-coding on the mirrors and door handles, as well as grab handles in the cabin) is height adjustment on the Vivo’s driver’s seat. The impact of this omission is, however, lessened by the inclusion of rake-and-reach movement on the steering column, and a well-calculated default cushion position. Rear legroom is tight but acceptable, while the luggage area is generous. It’s worth noting that the Vivo is the only model in this group that offers a convenient external boot release latch.
Based on a hugely successful existing B-segment contender, the Vivo was always likely to feel that much more substantial than the built-to-cost Etios. But then the Toyota’s price point and relative specification makes no attempt at changing this perception. The cheapest option here, the Etios nevertheless offers standard central locking (on a separate fob), air-conditioning, electric windows and a fairly comprehensive audio system (minus Bluetooth) neatly incorporated into the recently upgraded facia. And although this upgrade hasn’t repositioned the instrument cluster to a more sensible position ahead of the steering wheel, it has made the centrally mounted dials somewhat more legible.
The Etios’s cabin is easily the roomiest in this segment, while rear legroom is on a par with that of models in larger segments. The trade-off, however, is a luggage compartment best described as tight.
Like the Polo, the Figo owes its existence to the success of an outgoing B-segment contender and, as such, inherits much of the comfort and relative sophistication of that model. While the hard-touch plastics adopted by the cheaper Figo aren’t to everyone’s liking, few would complain about the ergonomics or functionality of the cabin.
A similar range of movement on the bolstered driver’s seat complements height adjustment on the steering column, while the list of standard equipment on this Trend model includes front electric windows, a comprehensive audio system (sans a USB port, even though the acronym is printed on the audio system’s face) and remote central locking. A distance-to-empty display incorporated within the trip computer is handy, too.
Until the arrival of the new Sandero, the Figo arguably struck the best balance between rear-passenger comfort and a useable luggage compartment but it’s in those important areas that the French car makes a strong first impression.
That the Sandero offers standard features many buyers in this segment would never expect at this price is a huge statement of intent from Renault South Africa. Electric windows and mirrors, full colour-coding, cruise control, a full bouquet of multimedia and Bluetooth functionality and 15-inch alloy wheels are all fitted to this range-topping Dynamique model. This is not to mention the addition of side airbags, as well as a three-point middle seat belt and Isofix child seat anchorage points at the rear.
Mimicking its new exterior detailing, the interior of the Sandero now has a distinctly more Renault feel and, while this does include a few skew plastic panels in some areas (including the footwells), there’s a welcome solidity to the cabin.
To lower purchase and maintenance costs, carmakers that compete in this segment generally adopt a tried-and-tested approach. For Volkswagen, this means the continuation of the fuel-injected 1,4-litre unit that was so successful in the previous and current Polo ranges. Delivering 63 kW and 132 N.m (a 55 kW version is also available), this engine is mated with one of the finest five-speed manual transmissions in the market. It’s a refined powertrain that is able to deliver smooth and predictable progress with just enough zest to keep an enthusiastic driver interested.
The most impressive aspect of the Etios is its free-revving 1,5-litre engine. While the output (66 kW) is comparable with those of its rivals, the fact that the powerplant’s bolted to a lightweight body (914 kg) and mated with a slick five-speed transmission, makes it easy to understand why the Toyota is the perkiest performer.
While not quite as strong as the Toyota, the Figo nevertheless continues where the previous-generation Fiesta left off in terms of drivetrain refinement and willingness to test its 6 000 r/min peak-power limit. The five-speed transmission is operated via a precise lever that is easily reachable, but it’s worth noting that the Ford has a poorest CAR fuel consumption index (7,92 litres/100 km).
It’s ironic that the Sandero’s turbocharged three-cylinder engine needs lots of revs to perform. While its 66 kW at 5 250 r/min and 135 N.m of torque at 2 500 r/min compare favourably with the others’ figures, a quick glance at the performance results (0-100 km/h in 14,76 seconds) suggests the Renault’s drivetrain prefers an amble rather than a sprint. A standard hill-hold function is particularly useful while matching revs with clutch slip on inclined pull-aways, however.
There’s no doubt the energy-sapping thinner air at altitude will level the playing field by hampering the naturally aspirated engines of the Vivo, Etios and Figo. That said, experience suggests the turbocharged Sandero might still struggle.
We also anticipate the Renault’s fuel consumption will suffer due to drivers’ attempts to keep its engine “on the boil”. On the fuel run, the Sandero consumed 6,24 litres/100 km, which was better than the Figo, but worse than the Vivo and Etios.
Behind the Wheel
A combination of the aforementioned impressive drivetrains and the experience gained from each model’s adopted platform naturally advantages the Vivo and Figo in terms of dynamics and sure-footedness. Both feature setups similar to the models they’re based on and deliver impressive balances between comfort and versatility.
That said, the Etios is the dark horse in terms of entertainment value. From a tall driving position (on seats that offer little in the way of bolstering), the Toyota is also the most softly sprung of the group. While this affords it one of the most comfortable and absorbing rides in this segment, it also means there’s a bit more roll when pushing on. There’s fortunately grip aplenty once the car has settled, but it is nevertheless a busy little car round town.
The Renault is equipped with a stability control system as standard, which is not a must-have feature in this segment, but will be a source of comfort to first-time drivers (let alone their parents). Still, there’s a welcome predictability to the way the entry-level Renault handles even if its smart 15-inch wheels firm up an otherwise pliant suspension setup.
All four models feature ABS with brake assist and the Figo achieved the best braking times during performance testing.
Regardless of badge bias and/or brand loyalty, it’s impossible to ignore the Sandero’s value-for-money proposition. Backed by a five-year/150 000 km warranty and two-year/30 000 km service plan (it covers a pair of 15 000 km services), the Sandero introduces specification other manufacturers cannot (or will not) match in the budget segment.
It’s a pity then that one of the most modern aspects of the Sandero, it’s engine, is also its weakest element. Simply put, it taints the driving experience by making its driver work hard to keep up with traffic – potentially undoing the frugality that the engine was designed to deliver.
We would suggest a long test drive in the Sandero to ascertain whether you enjoy the “performance” characteristics of this drivetrain. Should you find it a bit breathless for your liking, our default choice remains the Ford Figo.
Road Test Scores
Renault Sandero Dynamique Turbo 66 kW: 74/100
Ford Figo 1,4 Trend: 75/100
Toyota Etios 1,5 Xs: 74/100
Volkswagen Polo Vivo 1,4 Trendline: 73/100