Photography by James Lipman
These are the four cheapest cars in Britain. Anthony ffrench-Constant is the lucky man to find out which is best...
You'd think a quick Interweb rummage would suffice but, truth is, it’s easier to make love standing up in a hammock than to establish which four cars are, at any given moment, the cheapest in Britain.
At the time of writing, for instance, Peugeot is offering £900 off the 107 and Mitsubishi £1000 off a Mirage, whilst Suzuki will sell you a bottom drawer Alto for less than six grand until the end of the year. Citroën, of course, has been coming over all Iacocca and shifting the tin through furious discounting for so long that C1 list prices remain consistently haggle-prone.
Today, however, even if it is for one day only, the four cheapest full-list price jalopies at our disposal are (in a shouty discount sofa advert voice irritatingly expunging the words ‘and’ or ‘pounds’ from the prices): the 8045 Kia Picanto ‘1’, the 7720 Skoda Citigo 1.0, the 7199 Suzuki Alto 1.0 SZ, and the Dacia Sandero Access for just 5995.
Out of interest, the Aygo/C1/107 axis misses out by merely the contents of a miserly child’s piggy bank, the Illustrated Man MG3 clamours for attention at £8399, and the Chevrolet Spark, Mitsubishi Mirage and Ford Ka all weigh in at under nine grand. Oh, and yes, we did consider Renault’s £6795 plug-in-pop-out-and-get-tittered-at-a-bit Twizy, but it fell too short in the fenestration department to make the cut.
All of which, pedals a vicious blur under the dashboard, leaves me out-moaning my ride en route to a midnight Mayfair rendezvous in easily the cheapest car on sale in the UK today: Dacia’s Sandero Access.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the Dacia is here presented in Telephone White, because it makes it even harder to think of it as anything other than white goods; the cheap British fridge you buy with your fingers crossed because you can’t quite stretch to the chillingly efficient German triumvirate of Neff, Bosch and AEG.
The Sandero may be a fridge, but it’s a surprisingly spacious one – easily large enough to accommodate the mother-in-law whose last words were ‘What are you doing with that hammer, dear?’ without recourse to the Marigolds and hacksaw.
Indeed, in this company, the Romanian looks like a cuckoo chick in a sparrow’s nest. However, that extra size does bode well for those in the back, and also means it’s the only car here with a loadspace large enough to accommodate a reasonably sized pooch without having to fold it one too many times.
Now, Kia and Skoda have, it rapidly transpires, been cheating. Because whilst the Sandero and Alto arrive suitably pared to the bone, the Picanto and Citigo boast specifications of unseemly grandeur; the former attempting to sneak £2500 worth of extra kit past the adjudicators, the latter a rather more blatant £2570 worth…
So, in the section wherein you’d usually discover what goodies you get, we must, instead, list those you shouldn’t have here, rip them out and leave them in a tangled heap in the middle of The Mall, returning the cars to the base specification reflected in their cheaper-than-cod ‘n’ chips prices.
From the Picanto we blowtorch the metallic paint, lose the chrome door handles and replace alloys with plastic-capped steel wheels. On board, the air-con has to go, along with the posh upholstery and leather steering wheel, and Hollywood dressing room-style vanity mirror illumination. The electric windows, however, stay put.
So ruthlessly pimped I wouldn’t be surprised to see it, fag on, in laddered fishnets croaking ‘Hello Big Boy’ on a King’s Cross street corner, the Citigo loses a plethora of tasteless ‘Sport’specification addenda including lowered suspension, diverse spoilers (so named, presumably, in honour of the disservice they do the car’s basic looks), alloys, fog lights and, given a sharp enough scalpel and a spare week or two, go-faster stripes.
On board, the ‘Portable Infotainment Device’ must go, along with the leather-rimmed helm, gearknob and handbrake, fancy floor mats, sports upholstery, and the rev counter. Whilst I remember, though the surprisingly well-appointed Suzuki gets off scot-free, the Sandero must shed a £250 wireless – somewhat appropriately branded ‘Kenwood’ – and a £95 spare wheel.
Suitably stripped for action, then, the other three cars appear even more diminutive alongside the relative bulk of the gently bland Dacia Smeg. In this company, the job of disproving the adage that small is automatically cute falls to the Pokemon-faced Suzuki, which is hardly the best-looking jelly bean on the block.
The Suzuki may be ugly but, from the front, the Dacia is, frankly, just dull. And though inoffensive, the Skoda suffers from its place in the VAG pecking order, lacking the flair of the VW Up’s faux ’70s Aston V8 Vantage radiator blanking plate. By comparison, the Picanto’s hooter is positively lively, and easily the most appealing here.
It also does the best job of disguising collective headlamp technology ostensibly on a par with that of the Austin 1100; the bulb from a cheap chandelier rolling about in the bottom of a polished wok. The headlight clusters all look huge by today’s increasingly sinister-slit standards, the Suzuki’s offerings passing muster as the eyes of a Japanese Manga teen heroine.
Perhaps it’s just because they bumble about on 14in shirt-button wheels, but – recalling the Rolls-Royce proportion premise that overall vehicle height should be only twice that of the wheelarch – both Kia and Suzuki offer over-much blob in profile, and the eye must traverse acres of fallow metal before the roof line hoves into view.
The Picanto’s wheels do at least fill its arches quite well, but that’s only because the latter are about the size of rhinoceros nostrils. The Sandero and Citigo fare a little better on 15in wheels but, if looks are to seal the deal, then the Picanto alone might just stir my own pulse to wallet-prising pace.
On board – doors shut, piecemeal, with a quality ‘bong’ – what universally galls is not so much scratchy dashboards and a symphony of switchgear blanking plates, but plastic steering wheels…
Only motoring writers and pedants grizzle about the tactile quality of dash-tops which owners will never actually touch, whereas – with the notable exception of the woman whom I passed yesterday on the M40 – we all have an intimate relationship with the helm. In this department, the Alto’s hardened Play-Doh rim is by far the worst offender.
With the Dacia enlivened only by recognisably last-generation Renault switchgear and instrumentation, and the Suzuki only by its relatively lavish standard specification, classiest interior design honours are shared between Skoda and Kia, the former’s predictably clean, well-made and practical layout a Teutonic counterpoint to the added whiff of flair and enthusiasm displayed by the latter.
The Picanto and Alto thrill with electric front windows fitted as standard. Thanks, however, to a rather wonderful device fitted to my own body known as an ‘arm’, I don’t actually mind winding a handle. But I do miss the days of a properly geared cam, such as that fitted to my old Morris Minor…
It took but one single revolution of the handle to slice the window fully south at executioner’s-axe speed. You could have it down, opinion-as-to-parentage issued, and up again, long before your victim could spot the source of the abuse…
The driving positions of all but the Sandero are abetted by vague rake adjustment to the helm – the Alto’s wheel crashing south on release at the velocity of a red-hot casserole inadvertently removed from the oven without gloves.
More an assemblage of frame, foam and fabric than a seat as we know it, the Dacia’s spongy front accommodation would be a deal more comfy if the seat base was long enough. So, despite boasting a fractionally roomier driving position than the others, the larger Sandero loses out to both Citigo and Picanto, the latter’s really very comfortable seat affording it the finest driving position here.
Sharing a four-door format with the Suzuki, the Dacia offers the most space astern. Rear seat occupation of all four cars is, however, best reserved for alcopop-soused teenagers being driven home from parties by parents desperately hoping they’ll pass out before they puke. Especially in the Skoda or Kia, neither of which have opening rear windows.
In the engine room, we find three 1.0-litre three-pots pitted against the might of the Sandero’s 1.2-litre four-cylinder lump. Despite its extra cubic capacity, this aged Renault unit generates little more power, a benefit more than washed away by the Dacia’s extra weight. With acceleration times all mithering around the 14.0sec mark, none of these machines will dislodge your fag ash. Sensibly, though, all four are geared for smartish off-the-line performance, surging to 30mph with acceptable alacrity, and only thereafter dawdling on to 60mph like the child determined to miss the school bus.
The Suzuki unit boasts a relentless enthusiasm for revs, and it’s patently the most eager, and vocal, offering here. However, push any of these cars much beyond the national speed limit in the quest for further acceleration and you’d be better served straddling a wounded bumblebee.
All four sport MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension systems. With Citigo adjudication hampered by unsolicited sports suspension and the Picanto displaying adequate aplomb, it’s the Sandero and the Alto which polarise straight-line prowess.
Whilst the former proves remarkably comfortable and composed, the latter is just shocking. At speed, the Suzuki exhibits all the straight-line stability of a cow on ice and must be constantly persuaded to stay on course. Over-reacting alarmingly to even cats’ eyes, the thing hops about like a Morris dancer at a Wurzels concert.
Steering, like all controls, is universally light, with the Dacia shading it in the meatiness stakes by the measliest of bacon rashers, and the Skoda displaying the greatest accuracy and feel. The Kia’s steering is the only system here which demonstrates notable peculiarities. And I can’t put it better than Ben P, who said: ‘The helm is definitely connected to both front wheels, but I’m not sure they’re actually connected to each other…’
As to handling… Well, there’s no point strapping any individual down and shining an Anglepoise in its face. Confront any with a corner and a cursory interrogation will quickly reveal predictable, largely vice-free handling with hovercraft levels of understeer available on demand, the Skoda and Kia displaying the greatest poise up to, and beyond, the loss of traction.
Brakes give only bizarrely inverse cause for complaint. With little attendant mass to modulate the power of the servos, the brakes of all three smaller cars feel so ridiculously on/off switch-sharp on first acquaintance that it’s all too easy to set ABS systems chattering like a stitch ‘n’ bitch knitting soiree. And so, if we’re really not allowed to spend the money on a secondhand Fiesta, we must choose…
Ugly as a bucket of smashed crabs and utterly unable settle in the cruise, first to fall – despite a rev-hungry powerplant, respectable specification and Dacia-parity discounting until January – is the Alto.
Next to go, and not without regret, is the Dacia. With price and size firmly on its side, the Sandero’s dreadful seats, droning engine and relatively dire fuel economy prove too alarming a counterpoint to the best long-haul ride quality here.
Choosing between Picanto and Citigo is harder than expected. Typically VW, the Skoda (once you’ve blurred your vision to remove the bolt-on goodies unfortunately proffered here) does everything it says on the tin; well engineered and easy to live with without blowing any frocks up.
The temptation to penalise the Picanto for the peculiarities of its steering is strong. Then again, none of these machines merits forensic dynamic appraisal, and the Kia is the easiest car here to chuck around the city. Moreover, it makes a stab at stylish, both inside and out, is easily the most comfortable behind the wheel, and feels a touch more grown-up and leisurely to drive than the Skoda.
Assuming, then, I live no further afield than SW19, I’ll be going home in the Picanto.