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Top Gear's big budget car track test

  1. It may not look it, but the Dacia Sandero is the world’s most advanced car. This is because it’s actually a time machine. Note its unapologetically steel wheels, the absence of any adornment whatsoever, and a key that is just that and nothing else. There’s no central locking (remote or otherwise), minimal seat adjustment, air-conditioning comes courtesy of the windows (lowered on winders), and the radio is proudly unintegrated into the dash. In the Sandero, a multimedia experience is having a conversation with your passenger. It’s the Seventies all over again.

    The entry-level Sandero Access costs £5,995. This makes it Britain’s cheapest new car, a distinction that should condemn it to the darkest recesses of car-dom but instead could turn it, in our wildly over-specified world, into an object lesson in exactly what you need in a car. Is less more? Or just less? Standing on the main straight of Kent’s feisty little Lydden Hill circuit, Stig’s body language suggests that word may have reached him that our Sandero takes 14.5 seconds to get to 62mph. Not such a time machine, perhaps.

    Pictures: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Dacia is also the new Skoda. Clever brand realignment and crumbling prejudices have helped push VW’s Czech wing upmarket, allowing Renault’s Romanian sub-brand to fill the space. Popular in the developing world, Dacias have to not fall apart on the bits of sub-Saharan Africa where there still aren’t proper roads. The Skoda Citigo has to hold its own outside a Notting Hill deli. A rebadged version of VW’s Up, it’s solid, packed with active safety stuff, and has a roomy and cleverly designed cabin, with all the touchpoints a generation of smartphone users look for. You’re meant to actively want this car, regardless of age, social status or whether you’re standing at an airport rental desk trapped in insurance small-print hell. Citigo prices start at £7,990, and, while it’s no Audi, there are lots of ‘funky’ options. A bifocal windscreen isn’t among them.

    Rounding out this year’s Nan Prix grid is TopGear’s reigning Bargain of the Year, the Hyundai i10. Crisp design and quantum leaps in quality have vaulted the South Koreans past industry staples like Renault and Honda, but the real doozy here is the i10’s big-car levels of refinement. It’s a city car that doesn’t punish your parsimony the moment you hit the motorway. Prices start at £8,345.

  3. Purveyors of automotive adventure, the real world has kicked in TopGear’s front door this morning. It’s a two-hour drive to Lydden Hill from my place, it’s 5.30am, and I’m driving down in the Dacia. In this bleary-eyed scenario, it’s possible I could confuse one white consumer durable for another, only to discover there are no pots of yoghurt in the Sandero. Boy, this thing is stripped, transport in its purest form.

    The steering column is fixed, you can’t do much with the seat, and the driving position is lofty but not uncomfortable. There’s a sea of switch blanks, no rear headrests, and 21st-century niceties such as a USB connection and remote locking are reserved for the next trim level up. But beneath the scratchy plastics, the Sandero has an inherent, perceptible robustness.

  4. The Dacia does its time-machine thing on the move, too. For example, it encourages good, old-fashioned lane discipline. Its 1.2-litre four-pot makes 75bhp, and although it’s surprisingly gutsy off the line, it begins to sound and feel agricultural the faster you go (fast being a relative term).

    So while there’s no such thing as a sweet spot here, 70mph is where the Sandero is at its least busy and aurally challenging - at 80mph, it’s turning over at 4,200rpm. Overtaking also requires careful forward planning, and you will quickly find yourself pining for even a modestly torquey turbodiesel. There are a lot of big rigs on the motorway to Dover, and I spend a lot of time sandwiched between them.

  5. At least the Sandero is a reasonable approximation of a proper car, with room inside for five adults and luggage. At Lydden Hill - a secret British motorsport gem, coincidentally - the Hyundai and Skoda sit waiting, different and diminutive expressions of modern. Stig skulks in the bushes. Renault’s design boss, the excellent and excellently named Laurens van den Acker, apparently didn’t just delegate the Dacia to a work-experience kid. I reckon it actually looks better
    with the grey bumpers, and there’s an actual curve over the rear wheel that catches your eye if you look hard enough.

    The Citigo - like Up and Mii, it’s a rubbish name - has acquired a silvery moustache in its transition to Skoda, along with bigger headlights and a smattering of other detail changes. But while the Up is chiselled and chamfered with definite and deliberate shades of Apple-ness, the basic Citigo looks too toy-like to be taken completely seriously. Badge engineering is nothing new (remember how the Riley Elf and Wolseley Hornet corrupted the dear old Mini?), but it still feels opportunistic.

  6. It’s doubtful that Stig is an aesthete, but, if he were, he’d agree that the Hyundai is the car here that tickles up the city-car thing best while dodging the one-foot-in-the-grave bullet. Back in 2011, the inaugural TG Nan Prix featured the previous i10, the Suzuki Alto, Chevrolet Spark and Renault Twingo - a quartet with barely an ounce of visual inspiration between them. With its oversized grille, daytime running lights and neat graphics, even a Shoreditch app designer might deem the latest i10 acceptable. (Besides, isn’t Seoul the new Tokyo?).

    Design isn’t the only area in which huge progress has been made. Historically, my cheap-car criteria - mainly based on holiday-hire-car field research - has focused on a facility for handbrake turns and whether you can go from third to fourth gear without using the clutch. As Stig sets off in the Dacia, I try to keep up in the Skoda. A difficult prospect at the best of times, the Citigo’s 59bhp triple is outpointed by the more powerful Sandero, although this is a reasonably fun little car to punt along.

  7. Having done a 20-mile sandwich supply run earlier, I’ve already established that steering feel in the Citigo is non-existent to the point of being apocryphal. Its gearbox isn’t much cop, either, although it does require a clutch throughout. But on the track, its chassis proves unexpectedly entertaining, to the extent that there actually is some adjustability with little sign of the terminal understeer that usually blights underpowered tiddlers. And it’ll flip round perfectly on the handbrake. (We do it a few times to be sure.)

    The i10 definitely prefers the road to the track. It seems like an odd thing to say, but this is the Nan Prix, after all, so we’re looking for as much fun as we can wring out of them. Powered, like the Skoda, by a three-cylinder engine, the Hyundai thrums along sweetly enough and has the best gearbox, but is markedly less enthusiastic in the bendy bits. Lydden Hill is well-named and enjoys a thrilling change of elevation, but you can feel the i10 huffing and puffing on the steep section. It’s the only car whose electronics throw a strop, a protest perhaps at our exuberance. The power steering also briefly goes on the blink, which improves its front-end bite no end. It’s the most refined on the motorway, though, and feels like a scaled-down midsize hatch rather than a city car with delusions of grandeur.

  8. All three use MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion beam rear, to noticeably better effect in the Skoda and Hyundai than the Dacia. The 941kg Sandero lollops a bit on B-roads, and its primary ride is only average at best everywhere else. Various decommissioned Renault components have staged a comeback, which might explain why the Sandero is perversely good fun on the circuit. Watching Stig hammer it round the track - a Thing doing battle against a fridge with an engine - is a reminder that the Dacia, if nothing else, is built to last.

    It’s also my favourite of the three. Not the best overall - that’s the Hyundai - but a car that stands in proud defiance of the modern world’s ceaseless obsession with ‘stuff’. The Sandero doesn’t tweet, post pictures on Instagram or give a toss about Facebook. It’s not a WiFi hotspot. While everyone else is honing their brand across multiple platforms, the Dacia gets the job done in spectacularly unspectacular style. Spending time in it is an almost monastic experience. It’s good for the soul. It’s not as frugal as the other two, and it chucks out too many CO2s, but it’s a fantastic value-for-money, anti-fashion statement.

  9. Skodas are mostly impressive, but I can’t see the point of the Citigo. It’s a great little package, with (cliché alert) lots of cheeky charm, but then so is the VW Up. It shades that car on running costs, has some highly welcome safety features, but really there’s not much in it between the two. There’s also not enough of the differentiation that bigger Skodas deliver. A brand fail? Possibly.

    We shouldn’t hold the Hyundai’s inability to do handbrake turns against it. In the context of the TG Nan Prix, that and its distaste for committed track activity is a downer. But even the cheapest i10 gets six airbags as standard, looks and feels pricier than it is and behaves with a sense of composure and refinement that sets new standards in a market segment that was still serving up pretty thin gruel until recently.

  10. We commend the i10 heartily. But we also recommend that it watch its back. Renault’s eye-catching new Twingo arrives later this year, rear-engined and rear-drive. Now that sounds like a Stig-spec city car.

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