Photograph By Sandeep Rathod (SanDev)

Life certainly isn’t getting any cheaper. On the face of it, neither are cars. Thanks to SUVs taking over the market and most brands significantly reducing or even terminating their car selection, the cost of financing an automobile seem to have risen considerably. Were have the golden days of the industry gone when everyone could just drive around in a Beetle?

If you are currently looking for a car, maybe these are the thoughts running through your mind. But here’s a surprising fact that you may not be aware of:

If you’re looking for cheap cars, the times have never been better.

Car enthusiast site Jalopnik writes: “In 1968, the biggest year for Beetle sales in America, a new Beetle would cost you $1699, which is about $12,156 in today’s money. (…) A Ford Model T, to cite another famous example, was $825 back in 1909; that’s about $21,748 today.”

At these prices, you can get a great car these days. In fact, depending on where on this planet you live, you can even get two or three cars instead of just one.

This begs the question: How cheap is cheap?

In the UK, our idea of cheap is delineated, roughly, by the £10,000 mark. We usually consider anything around that price tag or below it, as cheap. In 2021, there is currently just one car that falls below that benchmark.

The Dacia Sandero has held the coveted spot of the cheapest car in the UK for quite some time now. At just under £8,000, it doesn’t even have a serious competitor anymore. In the past, Skoda and Dacia would battle over first place in most major European markets. Since then, Skoda has taken its models quite a bit upmarket, with the most affordable version of the Fabia still priced at £14,000.

The Citroen C1 and Kia Picanto trail £2,000 behind. After that, prices rise considerably.

Further Reading:
Buying a used car on a £7,000 budget: Avoid these MISTAKES
Used Dacia Duster: How to Pick the Right One!
Buying a cheap car: Strategies that work
Warning: Most cheap cars aren’t cheap at all! Check these 5 points!

In other parts of the world, meanwhile, no one would be able to afford these ‘super cheap’ cars.

This has been a major problem for the car industry for the past decades. Most managers are well aware that China and India have come catching up to do. In both countries, scooters, small motorcycles and electric tricycles remain exceedingly popular alternatives to the automobile.

And yet, the big European, American and even Japanese manufacturers have, so far not yet managed to bring down their production costs enough to build a car with true mass appeal, similar to the one the VW Beetle had at the time it was introduced.

To bridge that gap, local manufacturers have stepped in. They have come up with fully functional cars at prices which seem unreal to our Western eyes.

The Maruti Suzuki 800, Geely MR, Chery QQ and Tata Nano are the best examples of their efforts and they seem to question the development and production process we have become accustomed to.

Let’s take a closer look at these cheap cars.

Dacia Sandero: A class of its own

The Sandero is a class of its own. Not a single car on the UK market even remotely challenges its bid for the cheapest car in the country.

In a way, it is easy to see, why: The Sandero does so many things so well at its remarkable price tag that the competition has simply given up. This is especially true after Dacia gave in and made its starter model a tiny bit more expensive, but included electric windows, air-conditioning and a radio. Which means you get a fully equipped car at what is still a rock bottom price.

So what can you expect from the UK’s cheapest car? Quite a lot, actually, if you can believe the press.

Top Gear awards the Sandero 8/10 points and writes:

“The new Sandero – and we’re talking all new, here – sits on the same platform as the current-generation Renault Clio and Nissan Juke. It uses efficient, modern engines compliant with the latest EU emissions standards. Most versions have a six-speed gearbox. It looks smart, and inside has more than enough space enough for five people and their luggage. The outgoing Sandero, which we like very much, looks and feels cheap. This new one just… doesn’t. Not as much, anyway. It’s bewildering.”

Auto Express calls it “the UK’s value king”. And WhatCar gives it a perfect 5/5.

In many respects, Dacia have done the unthinkable and created a car that is almost impossible not to love. The only problem is that the Sandero is so popular, that it depreciates very slowly. So when it comes to the used market, it is suddenly no longer the cheapest option.

Citroen C1: Not perfect, but still excellent

The Citroen C1 is an interesting proposition. It shares its platform with the Peugeot 108 and Toyota Aygo, but comes at a considerably lower price. Although it is quite a bit more expensive than the Dacia Sandero, it, too, doesn’t have any real rivals. In its case, the only option for price-conscious buyers is the Kia Picanto. The next cheapest car after that is the MG 3, which is almost £2,000 more expensive.

So, is the Citroen C1 the perfect car for anyone who feels that the Sandero is just a little bit too simplistic? Not really. Yes, the C1 does feel a bit more luxurious, if that’s the right word for this still very minimal automobile. And yes, in terms of performance is it is probably also a step up. But perfect is isn’t.

Especially in a class with as much competition as this one, the C1 has a few notable disadvantages: Not a lot of trunk space, a small and rather disappointing interior, and, as Top Gear put it, not enough ‘cleverness’.

That’s not to say it doesn’t make for an enjoyable ride. In a telling statement, Autocar write: “It’s still not up there with the VW Up, Seat Mii, Skoda Citygo and our other favourite city cars.” That may be so, but then these cars are many thousands of Pounds more expensive than the C1. For what it costs, this is a fun and good looking car that’s excellent for city driving.

Kia Picanto: Small, but respectable

The Picanto has always been one of the UK’s cheapest cars. That said, it is gradually edging up the price ladder. Its latest versions have become quite a bit more expensive. So next time we compile this list, it may no longer be on it.

For the moment, however, the Picanto offers an impressive package:

  • Low price
  • Seven year warranty
  • Respectable reliability
  • Very nice, recognisable design

On the inside, it is very small. This can either be a disadvantage (if you’re looking to fit a big family and a dog, a Sandero will probably make you happier) or a benefit (if you’re looking for a parking space in the city centre), depending on your needs. The fact that it’s still petrol-powered in a class where most brands are making the switch to electric, too, can either be regarded as a plus or a minus.

All in all, the Picanto is no miracle car. But it has enough going for it to probably make it the better choice than the C1 if you’re looking for something just a little posher than a Sandero.

Chery QQ: Severely lacking

Despite not being available on most Western markets, the Chery QQ gained a bit of notoriety over here because of claims that it copied the design of the Daewoo Matiz. Needless to say, Chery did not agree, although, truth be told, in China, the terms ‘copying’ and ‘borrowing’ are more closely related than here. That said, we won’t hold its design issues against it.

We don’t have to, either. Because the functionality of the QQ is bad enough to do that for us.

On the Mycarforum, users posted their experience with the QQ. Their comments did not sound particularly appealing:

“the gearstick and clutch are rotten”
“cheap feeling materials”
“engine vibrates too much”
“the clutch feeling and the manual gears are quite Thumbs Down not to mention about the seats”
“the car has several years of catching up to do. Its body betrays shutlines wide enough to hold magazines;”
“noise insulation is so bad that it may be quieter to drive with the windows down”

As has been suggested, the Chinese are only just getting started with building cars. They’ll need a decade at least to catch up with the rest of the world. As some of the more positive comments show, once they do, the results may well be impressive.

Geely MR: A promise of things to come

Geely is one of the most exciting success stories in the automobile sector in the last two decades. Which is remarkable, because very few people outside of Asia or the industry will ever have heard the name.

Geely is the vision of Chinese entrepreneur Li Shufu. When he started the company in the early 1980s, his move to build cars in China was bold to say the least. At the time, very people in the country drove a car and there was no car manufacturing tradition to speak of. Still, Li believed that, given time, demand would come. He was right.

Patiently, he built Geely into a mid-size manufacturer building strictly for the domestic market. But he had his eyes set on something bigger. When the opportunity presented itself, he bought the struggling Swedish Volvo brand from its equally struggling parent company Ford. The deal was backed by a consortium of Chinese banks, eager to support Li Shufu’s plan of building an internationally competitive giant.

The Volvo deal turned out to be a surprise success. While turning the brand around, Geely gradually also strengthened its own profile. Today, even many Western experts acknowledge the car maker deserves respect. Its cars are in an entirely different league than the Cherys and with the immanent launch of its Geometry brand, it is certain to shake up European and UK markets as well.

It is very hard to ascertain how good the MR really is. But it is is certainly looks a lot smarter and better than most of its immediate competitors.

That said, it probably makes sense to forget about the MR for the moment and wait for the time that Geely makes its biggest move – and enters the UK market.

Tata Nano: A labour of love

It will be interesting to see how history will evaluate the Nano: A pioneering, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at making personal transport accessible to the world’s second biggest market? Or a case in failed marketing that cost its parent company many, many millions?

Perhaps both are true. The Nano is no longer in production, which seems to support the pessimistic interpretation. Only ten years after one of the world’s most eagerly awaited product launches, Tata gave up on a product it not only held high financial hopes for, but which was also truly a labour of love.

This, despite the fact that the entire industry was rooting for it. Although Western companies should theoretically have been afraid the Nano would ruin them, they were counting on the exact opposite: By introducing Indians to the joy of driving, it was supposed to create a vast billion Dollar market from which all brands would eventually benefit.

Consumers in Europe, too, must have been disappointed.

Certainly, the quick demise of the Nano was bad news for anyone hoping that this quirky little car could become available over here as well. At a price tag of somewhere just over £2,000 it would have made the Sandero look like a luxury vehicle.

But just how good was it? Reports of bad safety are all over the Internet, with shocking images of completely shattered Nanos emerging from a frontal collision floating around on the Internet. Without a single doubt: No way was this car going to be street legal on Western markets.

And yet, in many respects, it was a lot better than anyone could have hoped or expected. With a few improvements, it could easily have been made into a perfectly safe car. In an almost moving article, Jalopnik’s senior editor Jason Torchinsky wrote a love letter to the Nano, which makes us feel a little sad the miracle didn’t happen.

The Nano will forever remain the perfect cheapest car in the world – even though none of us will ever be able to drive it.

What can you expect from a really cheap car?

The good news first: All of the cars we just mentioned can perform the basic functions we expect of them. Some are clearly more fun to drive than others. But overall, for the millions of people in countries like China and India looking for a cheap mode of transportation that is more comfortable than a scooter, these models do the job just fine.

In terms of space, Indian and Chinese manufacturers have found inventive solutions. The Nano has a tiny body, but its motor is placed underneath the passenger compartment, similar to how some buses deal with the issue. This creates a tiny space under the front hood which fits a spare tyre, as well as in the back for at least a few luggage items. The Chery, meanwhile, has been described as among the most spacious cars in its class.

Naturally, none of them can do much more than that. Materials are an essential part of cutting costs and almost everything about these cars looks and feels flimsy, rickety and, well, cheap. This will become most obvious in the interior, where thin slabs of plastic are only barely holding things together. All of these cars are very light as well, reflecting the considerably less sturdy metals and components. With some, too, moving parts like windows or doors can feel wobbly and prone to easy breakage.

In terms of the design, the QQ or Maruti may look a bit outdated, but certainly not in an embarrassing way. The Nano actually looks quite charming in a way and has its fans even outside of India.

What about fuel consumption of these cheap cars?

Being green has become some sort of a mantra for almost all big car companies. Rightly so, since the days of gas guzzling trucks should long be over. With each new model generation, motors have become more efficient, with average fuel consumption dropping remarkably over the past two decades and catalytic converters filtering out all but the finest particles.

Yu’d expect those ultra cheap Indian and Chinese models to be sub-par in the ecology department. Curiously, this is not the case. All of them, in fact, have more than reasonable fuel consumption. How is this possible?

For the same reason that cheap, but small cars over here consume less fuel than expensive, but bigger cars: They’re lighter. And when it comes to the Nano, for example, it is both extremely small and extremely light. The flimsiness works to its advantage in this case.

Of course, the same can not be said when it comes to the safety records of these cheap cars.

Safety – how bad is it, really?

Safety, next to interior space, has quickly become one of the most important selling points for any contemporary vehicle.

This is because engine technology these days can either be bought from established companies or developed at a reasonable cost in house. Safety technology, on the other hand, is a whole lot trickier.

As an example, take the Chery QQ. As we mentioned earlier, this car is so much to the Daewoo Matiz, that Daewoo’s mother company GM sued the Chinese manufacturer for breach of copyright. On the outside, the two do look almost identical. And yet, the Matiz tested reasonably safe in tests (a three star rating), whereas the Chery scored a devastating zero stars.

The same goes for the Nano and, essentially, all super cheap cars. These vehicles are currently not street legal in any Western markets and for a good reason: Their materials are not stable enough, their construction is lacking and their crumple zone is not even remotely big enough.

The real problem may be that we’re spoiled.

It goes without saying that there should be no compromises when it comes to safety. If Indian and Chinese manufacturers really want to impress European consumers, they will have to rise to the occasion. One could argue that their cars simply weren’t built for the speeds at which we drive. Most Indian and Chinese roads will allow only a very moderate pace. But even at lower speeds, their safety ratings have been abysmal.

This isn’t the only issue, however. Even in India, where money is even more of an issue than it is here, the Nano seems to have failed mainly because it was perceived as a poor (wo)man’s automobile. Although it was highly practical and worked amazingly well, not enough people wanted to be seen driving around in one. And so, they opted for their traditional modes of transportation instead or went for a Maruti or Geely which, despite still being super cheap, carried less of a stigma.

In the UK, we can laugh at these stories. But are we really that different? We all profess to find ecologic considerations important. We all claim that we have budget restrictions and can only afford the bare minimum. And yet, when we step into the dealership we fall for the charms of an SUV.

Only if enough drivers really put their money where their mouth is and opt for simple, functional and safe cars instead of the latest trend, will the industry change. Only then will we get the truly cheap cars that the silent majority has been waiting for for so long.