Drive Test – Renault Sandero Stepway

Stepping up

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The Renault Sandero, more famously known as a Dacia of course thanks to the global nature of Top Gear but which is actually now locally-built, is a properly one-dimensional car. The only thing that even its own representatives can honestly say about it that is good, is that it’s cheap. Yep with the demise of the sub-R100K Citi, R124K is the new cheap. Fair enough.

However, I’ve also heard many a tale, already, of dissatisfaction with the car. Stories of units with less than half a year’s mileage on the clock collapsing in the middle of the highway – that sort of thing. And given the tangible “quality” of the vehicle, this is hardly surprising.

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What was a surprise however, was the new Sandero Stepway model. Or, as Renault seems to want to exist, STEPWAY. But that’s just silly. Anyway, I didn’t think that ultra-cheap cars were generally flexible enough to produce alternate versions, so when this Sandero Crossover arrived I was a bit taken aback.

Apart from the sheer audacity of it, what gave me cause to pause the most was that, shamefully, the look of the Stepway intrigued me. It’s just a whole lot better than the basic Sandero, the chunky body looking like it was always meant to ride 20mm higher than the standard hatchback version (175mm vs 155mm), and the standard-fit 16” alloys doing a great job of filling the extra space created.

So the Stepway looks a much more viable option than the standard car, the blocky lines and upright dimensions sitting very nicely in this crossover shape. Even though literally nothing else has changed, this is simply a Sandero hitched up a bit and more generously specced as standard. And yet, it only adds R20K to the price tag, so it’s still comfortably beneath R150K at retail. That doesn’t look too bad.

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Of course, climb into the car and the increased visual effect quickly fades. Only the utterly abysmal Chinese city cars deliver a more grating interior experience. There are huge swathes of plastic, all of them of that ridiculously cheap and scratchy feel. The fabric used to cover the seats is not only cloth, it’s of the type of rough, abrasive cloth that we have trouble giving to our dogs as carpeting in their kennels.

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Then you fire up the engine. Although 64kW and 128Nm aren’t exactly glorious, they also aren’t that bad, on paper, for a 1.6-litre, bog-standard, every day nat-asp runabout. However, the Weber carb-fed 1.6 CVH mill in my first car, an ’81 Ford Escort, feels like a true-blue diamond compared to the cubic zirconia beneath the hood here – all rough, angular, with no shine at all and pretty much no value.

It’s mated to a five-speed shift which again, makes the archaic four-speed manual of that old Ford feel creamy and sophisticated. You have to muscle it through every gate, and you get about as much positive tactile feedback as you do from firmly gripping the business end of a mace (the bit with all the spikes).

It’s not bad on the equipment front, although again, not stellar either. At least in the Stepway you do get the electric front windows as standard, and the upgraded MP3-compatible sound system. The A/C is pretty ineffective at taming our SA temperatures, oh yes, and Renault has been kind enough to fit a tachometer. At least it sort of reads that way if you read the marketing brochures….

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The ride, fortunately, has definitely improved a bit over the regular car, which not only handled appallingly but also managed to drive like a, well, budget hatch. The Stepway thanks to the increased suspension travel still boasts abysmal handling, but is definitely a touch comfier over our rough JHB roads, so that’s good. In fact something about the character of the car enables you to jounce along merrily even when you’ve turned off the tarmac and onto a dirt road – something about the combination of a cheap price and the raised and softened suspension just give you the sense that nothing is off-limits in this car.

And at least every time you park it you can actually look at it without hiding your head and scampering to the nearest shadowy alcove in shame. It no longer looks like a car you only bought because you’ve been recently retrenched and are being forced to downsize from a German saloon. It’s now got that look of something a bit different, kind of funky, and just a million miles more desirable. Of course not that that’s all that much of a trick, considering the hatchback is just about exactly as desirable as being drenched in honey while standing naked in the middle of a farm full of beehives.

Which, in all honesty, makes the Sandero Stepway a vastly better car than the standard model. For not a lot of extra money. And that has to count for something.

Russell Bennett

Liked: Still very cheap.
Much, much funkier than a stock Sandero.
Good 150 000km/5 year warranty offer.

Disliked: Atrociously old-school 8V engine.
Hideous cheap plastics.
Scratchy fabric for seats.
Clunky obstructive ‘box.

Drive stats: Renault Sandero Stepway
Engine: 1598cc four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Power (kW) 64 @ 5500rpm
Torque (Nm) 128 @ 3000rpm
Kerb weight (kg) 1480
Driven wheels Front
0-100km/h 11.5s (claimed)
Price R149 900

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