Bookmark this page and remember to come back here next time the global economy has a hot curry with a side of laxatives. Lordy-lord, car finance is cheap now. You can get hold of an actual brand new, road-legal car with an engine and space for four or more, in return for under £100 a month. I appreciate our world of iPhones, mortgages and the DFS sale is built around a buy-now, pay-later timebomb, but that’s remarkable, isn’t it?
The Toyota Aygo, Dacia Sandero and Suzuki Ignis are not the only cars that fall in and around the hundred quid a month milestone, but they represent the more interesting bookends.
The Aygo is a traditional city car, pared back to bare painted metal doorskins, but determined to ensnare a young-about-town audience. The Dacia Sandero is a modern-day Beetle, here to get you wheels for the least money humanly possible, and to hell with badge snobbery.
Suzuki does such a strong line in cheap little cars, we had a job to choose between the almost idiotically cheap Celerio and the underrated Swift, so we went for the semi-crossover oddity in between them – the adorable Ignis. But before we clutch-slip and kangaroo-hop away, we’ll deal with The Caveat.
The Caveat is that none of the cars in the photographs are the bargain-basement finance specials we wanted. Take the Dacia. This is not your comrade’s Sandero: it’s the jacked-up, kitted-out Sandero Stepway Techroad. Too many meaningless badges, and a whopping £12,055, or £179 a month. So, the Stepway’s off-roady charms will be lost on us. We’re interested in the core product, the one Dacia will relinquish in return for just 99 quid a month, on a lengthy 49-month deal.
For that, you’re fobbed off with plastic bumpers and a measly 74bhp, along with the finest plastic wheeltrims Romania has to offer. But fundamentally, the Sandero’s a good supermini. The most spacious car here. Big doors. Best infotainment touchscreen (not that you get the latter for a hundred notes a month, you understand). The other two are city cars but this is a Fiesta-sized device, and feels more substantial. No metal-on-metal ‘kerrang’ when the doors are slammed here. Take note, Toyota.
What’s clever about the Sandero is how when it’s specced up, it doesn’t reek of an Armani nappy. The switchgear’s chunky, but refreshingly easy to pinpoint as car controls shrink into complication oblivion. The steering wheel leather’s plush. Comfy seats too. And with an 89bhp turbocharged three-cylinder engine on board, it’s easily the perkiest accelerator of this three, though the gearbox is notchy and has a curious whine to it, as if you’re always in reverse.
Despite riding a lofty 40mm higher up than a boggo Sandero, this Stepway version rides with more sophistication that the similarly jumped-up Suzuki, which is to say that while it’s hardly a Rolls-Royce Cullinan, you don’t hear the bumps as much as you feel them.
It’s the car of the trio you’d be happiest about having to jet up a motorway in. It’s a solid all-rounder, but so is a lower-down, lower-spec Sandero. Something more in the spirit of Dacia’s own-brand, no-frills image. Mind you, Dacia has the data to back up the existence of this range-topper – it sells more top-spec versions of its range in the UK than it does the headline-grabbing povvo versions.
Not so fast, though. Literally. You’d imagine that the payoff for having the only turbo of our triplet would be some respite for your clutch leg, but the Sandero doesn’t convert it to an on-paper power advantage. It’s only an inconsequential couple of tenths quicker to 62mph than the Ignis, and the in-gear difference isn’t yawning, because it’s a heavier device. And what if you’re just about to bin the L-plates? Forget this TCe90 engine, kids. This spangly Sandero is group 9E insurance – the Toyota we’ll come to shortly is way down in group 3. The cootchie-coo cute Ignis? Ah. Group 18E, despite being down on power.
Suzuki makes a cheaper-to-insure city car called the Celerio, and it’s just as plain and watery as the vegetable it’s named after. You can bag one for £59 a month, if you ratchet the deposit to £3k and stretch the payments toward the middle of the next decade. There are, I’m reliably informed, individuals in the Top Gear office paying more for their phone contract than they’d have to shell out for a Celery-oh. So, that’s what to look out for if you need cheaper-than-cheap A-to-B transport.
The Ignis is more than that. It’s a character. Bit of a Top Gear hero, in fact. That determined-hamster face, the Whizzkid-riffing Adidas symbol stamped into the rear pillar, the sheer boxiness of the thing – it’s the most loveable of the three cars, in the same way a Fiat 500 is more idiosyncratically cheery than, say, a demonstrably superior Polo.
If you’re prepared to restrict yourself to 6,000 miles a year and slap a £3,500 down payment on yer Suzuki dealer’s desk, it’s yours for a princely £97 each month in basic, non-hybrid SZ3 trim. For the space, the interior and the sheer character, that’s a bargain.
This, naturally, is an SZ5 SHVS 4WD. In English that’s ‘range-topping version with a hybrid booster and four-wheel drive’. How it packages all that and still weighs comfortably less than a tonne is pretty much alchemy, until you delve into the mechanics and discover the electrical capacity is basically a few AA batteries juiced on the overrun and emptied when the car’s idling or accelerating at maximum attack. Making time isn’t really in the Ignis repertoire, though. It’s tall, the tyres seem to have come from a BMW bike and it matches slow steering with squidgy pedal responses and rattly, skip-across-the-surface handling.
You won’t register any notable kick in the back from the hybrid booster, though instrument display graphics insist the batteries are indeed assisting the 1.2-litre, naturally aspirated four-cylinder, which drives the front wheels most of the time but can, via a viscous coupling, direct some torque to the rear tyres too.
Apparently, the hybrid element weighs about 5kg and helps get the CO2 output down to 127g/km – exactly the same as the turbo’d Sandero, in fact. Canny. That’s a £150 road tax bill for the first registration, then. It almost seems harsh on the Aygo that it’s officially well under 100g/km and saves a measly twenty quid as a result.
To get an Aygo down to £100pcm, you’re looking at a plasti-wheel-trimmed Aygo X, over 42 months, after a £2,500 deposit. That stings next to the Dacia’s piffling £300 initial payment, but Toyota charges zero interest, while Dacia’s is 6.9 per cent. Stay with me, just a little more number-crunching to go. This Aygo is a mid-range X-trend, which starts at just under £13k but comes decked out with handsome 15in alloys, Android and Apple smartphone mirroring (which you’ll need, because the native touchscreen is hopeless), useful tech like automatic lights and wipers and useless tech like a reversing camera. On an Aygo? That’s got to be cheating.
It’s the only car here you simply can’t sit anyone past secondary school age in the back of without them unfriending you, because it’s half a size smaller than the others. You don’t so much park it as pocket it. And that dinky size makes itself known up front too: the driving position doesn’t adjust for anyone taller than 5’ 10” and the cruise control stalk bashes into your knee every time you turn right.
A base-spec Aygo makes do with steel wheels and forces the driver to turn their neck now and again, but there’s still an aux-in for the tinny stereo and the same engine: a 1.0-litre non-turbo triple, delivering a heady 71bhp. It’s all you need. The car weighs under 900kg and the gear ratios are well selected for town-nipping, rather than motorway schlepping, which the VW Up and its cousins suffer from a tad.
It’s a smooth enough, cheery little motor, but it’s hamstrung by a downright agricultural gearbox that’s the opposite of ‘doesn’t like to be rushed’. Slam the gears home and it takes the abuse. Pick your way delicately from second to third and you’ll get lost halfway and turn the cogs to swarf. Ideal for a learner, then.
If the Sandero is the comfy one and the Ignis is the versatile one, then the Aygo is the sporty one. You sit low, the thing corners with ambition and doesn’t roll a quarter as much as the others. The full-length fabric sunroof is a crowd-pleaser too. Doesn’t nick any headroom, and the top-closed refinement is fine.
As a drive, it’s the most fun here, the nicest-sounding, and to most of the curious folk who wandered into the back of shot, it’s apparently the best-looking. Because it’s a conventional shape, with some neat splashes of colour. The Ignis is “a toy” and the Dacia is “Oh, is that a new car?”, we were reliably informed by the good people of Holland Park. Tough crowd.
We should enjoy these cars while we can. As emissions regs clamp down on non-electrified cars, and the industry clamours to get average CO2 output below 100g/km, even Suzuki’s sop to batteries isn’t going to be enough. Packaging plug-in gubbins into cars of this size and weight profitably isn’t going to happen, and so, the ultra-cheap ’n’ clever microcar is a gravely endangered species.
All of these do the job well enough, but as much as the Suzuki is a consistently loveable TG hero, it’s the Sandero that remains, at even its basest price point, the pinnacle of the car-for-peanuts idea.