On 20 August 2018, Romanian manufacturer Dacia celebrated 50 years of activity since its very first car rolled out of the Mioveni factory near Bucharest in 1968: a Dacia 1100, a rebadged Renault 8. Since, 8 million Dacias have been sold worldwide, including 5 million since the brand’s revival with the Logan in 2004 and 1 million in France alone. As a frequent BSCB reader you would indeed be very familiar with the continued success of the Dacia brand pretty much everywhere it has launched over the past 15 years. To this day, Renault remains the only carmaker in the world to have managed to create a very profitable low-cost brand, with many competitors admiring its success yet none having taken the plunge themselves.
It’s simple, from 2004 onwards and its 94.720 sales, Dacia has broken its worldwide annual volume record every single year, recording 14 years of uninterrupted growth. The brand crossed the 250.000 annual sales for the first time in 2008, 500.000 in 2014, ended 2017 up 12.2% at 655.228 with 25 markets achieving volume or market share records and is up a further 8.4% over the first 11 months of 2018 at 641.422 aiming at 700.000 for the full year. Its largest markets in the world (11 months 2018 data) are France at 130.741 (+22%) with a new annual volume record reached at end October, Germany at 66.860 (+16%), Italy at 56.167 (+1%) and Spain at 47.356 (+15%). But Dacia’s true success goes way beyond these figures, as its models are also sold with equal popularity with a Renault, Nissan, Lada or Mahindra badge in Russia, India, Latin America and parts of Africa. All-in-all, this “access” lineup offered by the Renault Group is estimated to have reached 10 million sales worldwide in the past 14 years.
At the origin of such a fantastic success story is one model: the Logan. Frustrated with poor Renault sales in Russia where 6,000€ Ladas were still all the rage, then-CEO Louis Schweitzer used the purchase of Dacia in 1999 to set the scene for what would originally be known as “the 5,000€ car”. His brief to engineers was simple: “Modern, reliable and affordable. Everything else is negotiable.” At launch, the cheapest version of the car would end up being priced at 5,900€ (US$6,700 today) and if it shocked some with its overly simplified features, essential for keeping costs down, most were enamoured instantly, so much so that original plans to not launch the model and its “new” brand in Western Europe had to quickly be canned as a flow of grey market “0km” had started making their way to markets such as France. And the rest is, you guessed it, history.
Distributed globally under the Dacia, Renault, Lada, Mahindra or Nissan brands, the Logan is estimated to have now reached over 4 million sales worldwide across two generations: the first one starting in 2004 and still produced to this day in Iran (under the name Tondar 90, the sedan and pickup), Russia (Lada Largus, the MCV variant) and South Africa (Nissan NP200, the pickup) and the 2nd generation born in 2012 and produced in Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Morocco, Romania, Russia and Turkey. It is currently the #1 selling car in Moldova, Morocco and of course Romania where it has held the top spot every single month since its arrival in September 2004 – that’s a total of 171 consecutive months – peaking at a record 44% share in May 2006. In terms of strictly Dacia-branded sales, the Logan isn’t however the historical best-seller for the carmaker, this honour will remain for one more year with the Renault 12-based 1300, produced between 1969 and 2004 at 1.96 million units. It will be surpassed in 2019 by the Sandero who snapped the 2nd spot this year at 1.774.055, edging past the Logan at 1.771.525.
I had been hoping to finally test drive the car that stands at the foundation of one of the automotive industry’s most impressive sales success stories for a while now, and thanks to the teams at Renault France and Dacia Romania I was able to test a Dacia Logan from Bucharest in Romania, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Dacia in August 2018. Such a significant nameplate in automotive history deserved a bit of a challenging test drive, and upon exploration of surrounding Eastern European countries where Dacia has been particularly strong in the past decade, it was decided in common accord with both Renault and Dacia that the concept of “10 countries in 10 days” had a good ring to it. It could potentially also enable us to explore some countries where sales data has been rare or inexistent, such as Montenegro, Albania or Kosovo. Border crossings are a big unknown – both in terms of feasibility and wait time – and as we start this adventure my co-driver Adam Taloni and I honestly don’t know whether we’ll be able to even reach 5 countries in the time allocated. The Logan has to be back in Bucharest on August 24 in time for Dacia’s 50th anniversary celebrations so we have no leeway time-wise. The pressure is on! There will be one article per country, and we start with Romania, with four main stops: the capital Bucharest, Dracula’s Castle in the city of Bran to the north, Sighisoara further north and Timisoara all the way west towards the Serbian border.
Bucharest is young and dynamic at night, and the main attraction in town, the Palace of Parliament (2nd picture from top above), is well worth walking around just to get a feel of how gigantic it is. Started in 1984 by Nicolae Ceausescu and still unfinished, this is the second-largest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, covering 330,000 sq meters and with more than 3000 rooms. It is my first time in Romania and I don’t know about you but the first thing I was curious to witness was “Are there Dacia Logans everywhere?”. And the answer is a resounding yes. All taxis in town are Logans from both generations but the majority of the fleet has been renewed with 2012 model. Very few MCVs around, the sedan does reign supreme. A little surprising was the amount of Daewoo Matiz, a nameplate that featured on the Romanian podium from 2002 to 2005, so a relatively short time over a decade ago, which shouldn’t have warranted such widespread presence nowadays.
The Palace of Parliament also seemed to attract a fair amount of new generation Dacia Duster (see above), a model already very well installed in the Bucharest car landscape despite launching in November 2017, only 10 months prior to our visit. That would be logical as the Duster commanded 6.6% of the Romanian new car market over the first 8 months of 2018 (+66%) vs. 15.2% for the Logan (+49%). Despite only staying for 24 hours, we managed to spot a rare Oltcit Club pictured above, and this deserves a mini history lesson. In a similar way as Dacia was associated with Renault at birth, Oltcit was a joint-venture between the Romanian government (64%) and Citroen (36%) that had a 15-year lifespan (1976 and 1991) producing the Citroen Axel sold in Western Europe, here in Craiova, Romania. It was sold as the Oltcit Club and Special locally. Why Oltcit? “Olt” is for the Oltenia region of Romania where it was manufactured, while “Cit” is for Citroen. The Oltcit logo also resembled Citroen’s with one instead of two chevrons.
But before we get on our way out of Bucharest, let’s get acquainted with the Dacia Logan we’re driving, which we nicknamed Roma. It’s fair to say we’ve been spoiled by Dacia as we have been given both the most powerful engine (1.5 dCi 90) and the top-end finish called “Black & White” a level that is judged too posh for Western Europe where it isn’t available. As a result, although added on to an old-fashioned and hard plastic dashboard, the car’s equipment is a lot more generous than I expected, including stop & start, rear-view camera, parking sensors and alerts, automatic gearbox with manual setting, hands-free phone audio, cruise control and touch screen with GPS navigation – although this would prove limited as we’ll see shortly. While this will undoubtedly make our trip more comfortable, this over-the-top endowment does raises the question: are we still in low-cost territory? The Logan we’re driving is priced at €12,770, more than double the €5,900 starting price at launch and well over its current €7,790 starting price in France. Even with the luxuries described above onboard, almost €13,000 seems to be pushing it but as the home of Dacia, Romania is the right market to offer this top-end variant as loyal customers would rather stick to their homegrown carmaker than switching to other, potentially cheaper and arguably more modern options, the Fiat Tipo coming to mind. Outside Romania, in my view this makes less sense. Taking the car out of the city and into the highway is like stepping back in time, with engine noise at high speeds (130 km/h) tending to drown most conversations and the shrill sound system, but apart from that, seats are enveloping and comfortable and the Logan is doing its job of taking us alongside the Romanian countryside like a Boss.
Stepping out of Bucharest and examining the country’s car park, one very interesting element becomes progressively clear: there are not that many pre-Logan Dacias around, such as the almost 2 million (!) various generations Renault 12-based 1310 that were sold over the course of 35 years until 2004. In fact, they are strikingly rare. Not absent, but rare. My reading is that the gigantic success of the Logan at home has “cleaned up” the local car landscape as almost every 1310 owner replaced it with the new-and-much-improved Logan. This is one observation I wasn’t expecting to make. One of our Romanian readers confirmed this, adding that the process was facilitated by 1,000€ scrappage schemes put in place from 2005 on that enticingly brought the Logan’s starting price in Romania below 5,000€. Let’s also get one thing out of the way: as I sensed in Bucharest, the Logan MCV version isn’t that popular at home, representing roughly 8% of all new generation models on the road. Sedan versions are by far the most popular variant in Romania and not just for the Logan, with the new generation Renault Megane almost sold exclusively in that format here, and with rarities in other markets pointing their bonnet such as the Hyundai i30 liftback. I did also spot 3 Fiat Tipo sedan taxis outside Bucharest, already frequent VW T-Roc whereas almost no Tiguan and a lot of luxury SUVs such as the Mercedes GLC, GLS, BMW X6 and my very first new generation VW Touareg – after having spotted none during one month on the French Riviera, that tells you how addicted to premium fares some Romanian drivers are.
If you need to know one thing about driving in Romania, it’s this: apart from a 150 km stretch north of Bucharest and a similar length cut up with unmaintained rural roads before reaching Timisoara to the west later that day, there are almost no highways in the country (and it would be the case in most countries we would explore on this trip), making seemingly short trips last at least twice as long as you’d expect in Western Europe. Definitely factor that in if you are planning any trip in the region that requires long distances covered such as… attempting to explore 10 countries in 10 days. Ahem. Now we’re in Bran Castle just in time for the 15 August public holidays after braving hefty traffic jams. The castle itself does look the part, perched on a rocky promontory, but nope this isn’t in fact the advertised Dracula’s castle, as Vlad Tepes or “the Impaler” is unlikely to have even passed through town. Never mind, an entire souvenir industry is thriving at the foot of the castle and Dracula-costumed convivial chaps make this family destination an endearing stop. Getting to the village of Sighisoara further north requires climbing steep and windy – yet two-lane – roads through the mountain and the Logan’s automatic gearshift is struggling. But we get there in the end.
Traveling through the Romanian countryside is like coming to Europe in the sixties with horse carts on the road and houses getting cuter as we get closer than Sighisoara, an explosion of lovely pastel-coloured buildings congregated around stony lanes and an impressive citadel tower. Restaurant waiters remain polite but stern, the town is both bucolic and a little rough around the edges, in fact symbolic of the entire country. Driving the 360 km westward from Sighisoara to Timisoara at night isn’t for the faint-hearted: when on the highway, Romanians seem too proud to let themselves be overtaken and will accelerate to match your speed as you try to pass them, triggering Fast and Furious Hollywood-style stern looks on each side, albeit both while driving Dacias. Switch to secondary roads and overtaking road trains (as we call them in Australia) aka lorries on single lanes gets really hairy, something that would become a daily struggle on the trip especially with the under-powered Logan. Some cars take huge risks to overtake, ignoring blind spots, then slow right down in front of you when freed. Driving in this part of the world is a piece of work.
Timisoara is Romania’s third-largest city after Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, and its architecture around public squares and lavish parks and gardens earned it the role of European Capital of Culture for 2021. To me, Timisoara’s first claim to fame and interest is as the theatre of some of the most violent protests against the Ceausescu regime in 1989, eventually becoming the Primul Oras Liber, the First Free City. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to experience this setting, having arrived in town well into the night after 12 hours of driving in what turned out to be an exhausting fight with speeding trucks and reckless local drivers. It’s a demanding Day 1 for our Dacia Logan which, once the noisy cabin and pushy engine have been absorbed, has its own way of keeping you awake: after a Peugeot 3008 repeating directions so many times it was actually annoying, the silence of the Logan’s GPS has you keep your eyes peeled on the screen as left and right turns are cleared without a single alert.
But all-in-all, the Logan is turning out to be the faithful companion we need on this demanding adventure, maintaining its focus on getting us there with painstaking authority. The overall functioning of the car – its commands, buttons and switches – are for the most part intuitive and all run like clockwork, so that the vehicle erases itself from your immediate thoughts. The “modern, reliable and affordable” brief Louis Schweitzer uttered almost 20 years ago is taking shape right before our eyes. This car is reliable, in a core, “set and forget” sense. You can rely on it, forget it’s there, and enjoy the journey.
Next stop: Serbia!