We don’t normally publish a full road test on a minor facelift. Unless something major has changed, then we have already reported on the vehicle and with the industry as busy as it is, filling up a page with information on a new headlight or a change of bumper just seems silly.
Yes, we know the BMW on our cover this week has new lights, but seriously, there are some major changes beneath its skin.
In recent weeks though, we have driven a number of entry-level models and seen some new entrants to the market. They all differ in so many ways that we decided to spend some quality time with the Renault Sandero Stepway because it stands out from most of its rivals in almost every respect.
The market for vehicles under R200 000 is expanding rapidly. Some are buying their first car in the price bracket, others are downsizing. Regardless of the reason, there are plenty of choices.
A few weeks ago we drove the facelifted Toyota Etios in the form of the Etios Sprint. It’s a decent enough model but nothing about it is exciting. Nothing. The styling is bland and the interior looks and feels as though it was made from a bunch of plastic trim parts found in the back of a warehouse. The engine is okay at low speeds but needs a Zimmer frame to support it as the revs gather.
Another favourite is the Volkswagen Polo Vivo. It might be built in Uitenhage, but it has a German heart and a much better feeling of quality than its Toyota rival. But it is still an old Polo.
The Korean pair of Hyundai and Kia have their offerings in this segment too, but as brilliant as the Grand i10 and the Picanto are, they are much smaller than the Etios and the Vivo.
There are some Chinese options in this bracket too, but generally we are not fans.
This brings us to the Renault Sandero, in this case the pseudo crossover, fake 4×4 Stepway. First, it looks as though someone actually gave a damn about making it look half decent. This wasn’t some Friday afternoon design job. It has been properly designed from every angle.
For us though, it is the interior and the engine that really make it stand out. The interior has an air of refinement about it. The panels in the dash look designed and engineered, dare I say it, perhaps even Germanic. They feel more solid than the ones in some of its rivals and while there are some hard plastics, they still give the illusion of superior finishes.
You also get Renault’s touchscreen infotainment system, complete with navigation and a host of remote controls on the steering column. Again, all stuff that you used to only find on much higher models. We still don’t understand why Renault cannot shift the remote controls onto the steering wheel itself though. That weird box stuck on the side of the steering column seems so antiquated these days.
Another bizarre thing is that the controls for the front electric windows are logically in the door rests, but the controls for the rear windows are in the centre console. Clearly not every design element received the same amount of thought and attention.
The driving position is good and the interior space excellent for a vehicle in this class. The Etios sedan beats it hands down on boot space, but then it probably beats many upper segment cars too.
One area that was concerning was the rear seat belts. If you are one of those who cares about the safety of your infant (if not, why not?) then you will probably have a rearward facing baby seat in the back. The belt was not long enough to go around the seat and secure it properly in place which was concerning for a vehicle that will appeal to young families.
That will not be an issue for all and the Stepway has a wide appeal with its adventure looks, even if they are more about the spirit of adventure than the reality. It does have 193mm of ground clearance though which helps if you are traversing the odd field to park your car and remove the mountain bikes from the back, or if you are on one of our many gravel back roads.
The star for those heading off in search of adventure, or just a weekend away, is the engine. Truth be told, the engine is a star in the urban environment too. We often say that performance can be as much in the mind as it is in the 0-100km/h time. Drive a half-tonne bakkie around town and you will quickly feel as though you are in a sports car, goodness knows enough half-tonne bakkie drivers look as though they think they are.
The Sandero is the same. Its 898cc engine with 66kW might be scoffed at by some, but with its turbo and peak power at 5250 rpm, it is a great little performer. The gearstick could be firmer but you quickly find yourself playing with the gears as you get the most out of the engine and learn where the turbo performs at its best.
The three-cylinder has a fantastic soundtrack, at least until it starts to scream at those upper revs and it is all rather addictive. Not only is it fun, but getting it to drink fuel at any great rate was nearly impossible. Renault claims 5.4l/100km but it is likely to be a little more if you spend your time in the city, but not much more we suspect.
Driving it around town for a week I was impressed by how alive the car feels while also being practical and having a modern feel in terms of design, quality and that infotainment system. It appears to be the leader of the pack by quite some margin. – Mark Smyth
Fast Facts: Renault Sandero Stepway Dynamique
Engine: 898cc four-cylinder turbo
Power: 66kW at 5250rpm
Torque: 135Nm at 2500rpm
0-100km/h: 11.1-seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 168km/h (claimed)
CO2: 124g/km (claimed)
Fuel: 5.4l/100km (claimed)
Price: R189 900