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Is it wise to buy the cheapest of cars?

Road test: Dacia Logan (2013)

31/05/2013 05:23 |  Comments: 


Former car restorer, damper designer, rotary-engine guru and also an automotive engineer, but generally doesn’t talk much about his former activities. András is our mag’s Leatherman tool: when there’s a project no-one would poke with a stick, he’s the one usually assigned to carry it through. When he’s in Hungary, he works 16 hours daily, then every once in a while he disappears from the horizon. Last time he’s been seen in Auckland… Has a huge garage, lives with a girlfriend.

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Seven thousand Euro, my friend, seven thousand! Bloody hell, you don’t even get a proper motorbike for that price.

Who cares if it doesn't have electric windows, adjustable steering wheel or even A/C? Who cares if the engine is a piece of shit? For that price you should shut up and be happy to get four wheels. Or are you one of those who don't buy something just because it's damn cheap?

I have visited Istanbul many times in my life, I'm quite used to shopping in the bazaar. Give me five minutes and I'll beat down the price of a pair of genuine Levi's to half of what you'd think is possible. I know exactly when to turn around and pretend to walk away, I know how long it'll take until the salesman shouts after me. Sometimes, when I simply want to buy something, I'm bored of the whole drama, just as soon it starts. But there are occasions when I really heat up and start bargaining just for fun.

It was one of those moments when I met a wicked Turkish man. I went to his shop and asked how much he wanted for the waterpipe. He wouldn't tell. I was baffled for a second. When I asked the usual salesmen about the price, they always responded with some crazy amounts, then we bargained until one of us had had enough. But Mustafa the wise looked inquisitively into my eyes and asked: "Are you sure you want that waterpipe? Don't you like that other one, back there? Or the blue, hand-painted one on the bottom shelf? First, choose which one you like most, then bargain for it. Something you don't like isn't worth bargaining for."

Since then, I always remember Mustafa when I see something really cheap and feel the deeply human urge to buy it, just because its price is ridiculous. And I remind myself that it's stupid to buy something you don't need, just because it's offered for almost nothing at all.

The new Dacia Logan is surprisingly attractive. Okay, its cheek-bone is a bit edgy, you can see that it comes from a rough land, but that's exactly its sex-appeal. Since the first pictures penetrated the web, a great number of specialists have traced back its family tree by the looks: you can see the first-gen Fabia among the ancestors, many of the contemporary Vee-dubs look like cousins, and naturally, the French genes are represented too. I can even see the ruggedness of the Duster in the new Logan, which means the designers did a good job: finally, Dacia has corporate identity too.

But the face that seems as refreshing as the Alpine winds in the spring, has also born out of some pragmatic reasons: after this overdue model change finally the front half of the Sandero and the Logan can be produced with the same molds, which has obvious financial advantages. Of course, the soon-to-be-expected estate will have the same nose, cutting the production costs even further.

So the new Dacia snout finally grants a huge relief to the poor customer, who always had to apologise for the looks of his car and explain how cheap it was - the new Logan looks just good enough, even without the price-tag. The wheel-arches, resembling a wide-body kit, hide well the fact that the car is as elevated as the good old Golf Country, and somehow even the tiny little wheels don't make it look like a clown. He's a simple guy, no doubt about that, only the plastic grille got some chrome plating, but with some ingenious edges they managed to avoid dull looks. I'd go as far as declaring that it doesn't even look cheap.

The Logan is playing a vicious game with these alluring looks. She makes us think she's grown-up. As we're rubbernecking her rustic curves, which are not clumsy at all, the flower of enthusiasm blooms. Love sprouts, as we come closer to her, since even the details are quite well-shaped, there are no disturbing little things that would spoil the romance. But as we open the door, the Caterpillar tractor comes along and tramples the tender shoot into the ground. An evil-smelling grey desert of plastic welcomes us inside.

Be aware that I've tried the most pompous Logan at the local presentation. In that one, you can already adjust the steering wheel up and down, but not in and out, it has A/C and even electric windows upfront, although they've hidden the buttons quite well on the centre console. But you'll be disappointed if you're looking for something to break the monotony of greyness ahead of us, be it some cosy fabric-pads on the door or anything soft. Even the steering wheel feels like sandpaper. Decoration? Well, there's the metallic grey door-puller, the chrome-plated rings around the vents and the stickers on the sills.

That's not just a simple sobering after the drunken rosewood-escapades of the automotive industry - this is going to monastery. Compared to the Logan, the Jetta appears as a luxury carriage, posing among Moulin Rouge dancers with boas around their necks. Even the bloody cheap Peugeot 301 and its twin sister, the C-Elyseé will provide you with a far more amiable, more human interior. The Dacia is an orthodox priest of raw functionality.

Of course, theoretically it's entirely possible to get used to all that grey plastic, but I'm not quite sure that the same applies to the engine. I've driven that 1.2 litre beast in the Twingo some time ago, and it was revving quite well in the midget Renault. To be precise, he was a rebellious character: he did everything he could with one little move of your ankle. They must have tortured him in the soggiest of cells in the Bastille with unparalleled cruelty, because in the Logan, he behaves like a broken, disillusioned, grumpy old man. Surprisingly this was the only engine type at the local presentation.

No wonder they've hidden the base engine until now; it was wise of the French only to show the two new turbo engines to the international press at the launch of the new Dacias. My colleague Zsolt Csikós came home from the event quite delighted, he had a good impression of them. I'm most probably disappointed because of the fact that this sedated 1.2 litre is overshadows even the undoubted merits of the Logan.

“All right, all right, we can start, let's go,” grumbles the 16-valve straight-four, when we step on the accelerator and after just as many seconds as it took to read this sentence it'll start revving up. If you're lucky and didn't accidentally put the undetermined gear lever into third instead of first, you can release the clutch, but be careful: not too quickly if you want to avoid stalling. I was about to say that maybe the gear ratios are a bit too long, but that's not the case: if you push relentlessly, you will reach 80 kph in second gear just before the redline. Just think about a typical Dacia-situation, with five people on board plus a fully loaded boot, starting off to the week-end cottage (btw, did you know that Dacia means cottage?), A/C on and a hill is closing in on the motorway. Dread? Not without reason.

I'm admittedly against the whole downsizing story and an absolute fan of naturally aspirated engines, but there are exceptions. If I had to choose from this 1.2 and the 90 horsepower, 900 cc turbo three-cylinder, it'd take about 3 millisecs to pick the better one. The good old 75 hp 1.5 dCi is a much livelier contender, too. But with those, you always have some uncomfortable uncertainty, how long the tiny little boosted engines will live. In case of the petrol turbo, you also have to convince the conservative buyers that the odd sound of the three-cylinder is normal. Well, if the Dacia-guys had somehow been able to steal the ingenious 1.4 petrol of the Note from the Nissan group's shelf that would have been the ideal engine for the Logan.

If you are about to defend the sluggish 1.2, because you think it has to move a huge body, I have bad news: the factory datasheet says the four-cylinder, petrol Logan weighs a stunning 974 kg, which is less than the Twingo's 994 kilos. So the Dacia is nicely light, but it's hard to tell why it goes much worse with the same engine. You have to be patient for 14 and a half long seconds until eventually you reach 100 kph, while the small Renault can do the same two seconds faster. Only thinking about this and the deadened reactions of the engine makes me feel bad – if you have just a little affection for driving, your hair's going to fall out when driving this Dacia.

And the engine performance is not the sole withering feature of the car. The suspension – possibly optimized for off-road use – reminds me of the 80's: a mid-size pothole can teleport you to the other side of the road, if you're not careful enough. Don't expect a lively steering feedback either – although old-fashioned hydraulic power steering is helping you not to wrestle with the steering wheel – but be prepared for much body-roll and nodding. I imagine, it'll provide good comfort on a Transylvanian village road in the mountains, but even the terrible Hungarian asphalt is too good for the Logan. Its chief merit is that it'll absorb potholes of any size without a bad word, you only have to get back to your lane afterwards.

You have to minimize your expectations if you want to feel good in a Logan. If you don't demand it to accelerate as an average car, go around corners properly and make your journey more comfortable with some basic extras, you'll be satisfied. It fulfils the purpose of a car to get you from A to B, and not only that. Look at the boot: there's a huge space, really. 510 litres don't lie, the opening is big enough to squeeze in bulky items and as a novelty, there are even folding rear seats. The Logan also has a longer wheelbase than the Sandero, so two lads of my size (184 cm) fit in behind each other without much pain. The seats seemed okay to me as well, but colleagues who've spent more time in them, complained a bit.

It's worth mentioning that the safety belts are height-adjustable upfront, a feature which is missing in the PSA-twins, and also there are proper rear headrests, another safety advantage over the Peugeot 301 and the Citroen C-Elyseé. The Logan sports ESP as standard, four airbags as well, so I presume it'll get at least 3 stars at the Euro NCAP crash tests.

You can forgive the mediocre performance of the suspension if you prefer comfortable softness, which is rare among the sporty sedans of the new millennium. The average Dacia-owner doesn't complain about the senseless steering and imprecise cornering either. And those who want a stronger engine will buy the diesel – end of story. What do you expect for that price?

Talking about the price, you need to get a better picture. Yes, it's possible to get a Logan for about 7000 Euros in most European countries, and also a Sandero. It's among the cheapest cars, if not the cheapest at all. But for this price you only get the basic version, which, for example, here in Hungary lacks central locking, adjustable steering, split folding seats and electric windows. Don't even think about A/C. I know it's possible to live without those extras, but it'll be extremely difficult to sell such a budget sedan on the second-hand market. And around here, you have to work long and hard to save up 7000 Euros, so after all those years of living on dry bread, you'll expect something for your money. The buyers of the earlier-introduced Sandero verify this statement: 9 out of 10 went for the fully equipped version.

Fully equipped means the Arctic package at Dacia, which is more or less equal to the base-line of the others: manual A/C, radio, electric windows upfront. Oh yes, and the tiltable steering column. But even that one arrives into a vacuum, since you can get it for about 8-9 thousand Euros, if you're happy with the 1.2, and there are not many cars for that price. The most attractive Logan is obviously the 1.5 diesel, for about ten grand. Let's be extravagant and take a touchscreen satnav and cruise control with leather steering wheel – wow, I'm tempted. For 11 thousand Euros we've got a well-equipped, handsome car with metallic paint. A bargain!

Now we've arrived to the key-question: is it a good idea to buy something because it's cheap? If I can trust my own judgement, I have to agree with Anand Mahindra who says the first car for anyone should be a second-hand one. I'd go even further: if you're looking for a cheap ride, go and buy a used car. Humans are mostly composed in a way that they want to step up when there's a chance to move on, and there are not many cars that provide a starting point for stepping up to the Logan. My first guess would be the Škoda Favorit. If you consider a car not just as a means of transport, that is.

You've got to have a really strong desire for a brand new car to choose the Dacia. True, it'll give you all the advantages of a new car: no breakdowns, no surprises, calculable costs, three years of warranty. You can even have two more years, if you don't drive more than a 100 thousand kilometres in total. But 7-8-9-10 grand is quite some money, if you consider how much you have to work for it. Is this really what you deserve?

I can see the buyer when I close my eyes. An elderly man, calm and thinking on long term. He likes the higher seat position, has grown up on Skodas, he doesn't give a toss if the plastic is like granite. He's going to like the Logan, if he keeps it for let's say ten years. But he should never ever try the neighbour's Renault Fluence - from that on then he'll be damn jealous.

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