They say there’s no such thing as a bad car these days and in many respects that’s true - not least because today’s bargain basement motors are a class above the budget buys of yesteryear.
But as austerity once again stares us in the face, could the car market once again be about to see a budget car renaissance?
I recently had cause to spend some time behind the wheel of a Perodua Kelisa - a Malaysian-built replica of the Japanese Daihatsu Cuore, which was the last car on general sale with 12-inch wheels.
From 2000 until 2006, it was the cheapest motor on the market in Europe. In the UK, it undercut the next cheapest model by £1,000, or 20 per cent, and was about half the price of a Ford Fiesta.
For that, buyers couldn’t expect much, but for one thing. The Perodua was actually quite an endearing little thing to drive - three cylinders and 989cc of raw power, transmitting its 54bhp to the road via tyres the size of furniture casters.
The engine is one of those units that just cries out to be thrashed, while the five-speed gearbox slots from one ratio to another with precision that matches its Japanese design. The gear shifter may be made of polypropylene, but there’s nothing wrong with the shift itself.
Meanwhile, the surprisingly tactile driving experience is accompanied by a thrummy three-pot engine note that’s a whole lot nicer to listen to than the din emanating from its horribly tinny speakers. Whisper it, but this is fun…
Speakers, you say? Yes, indeed. Because the Perodua in question was a 2004 model, and in any year beginning with a 2, not offering a radio was sacrilege (are you listening, Dacia?). Admittedly, the Kelisa’s radio has both the visual and aural appeal of a wedding reception disco, but it’s better than nothing - perhaps.
Yet a decade earlier, the bargain basement car market was in its heyday. Much like when Dacia began its current rise to prominence in 2009/10, the global economy was on the end of a hard-biting recession. Economies were struggling across the world and consumer-confidence was rock-bottom.
Brands that had ticked along in the lower echelons of the sales charts suddenly saw a renaissance as middle-class buyers kept up appearances by buying new, but also by spending their money at their nearest Lada or Skoda dealer. Others came along for the ride - from Malaysia, we got Proton and Perodua, the former enjoying some reasonable sales success with its range of rehashed Mitsubishi Lancers. From Korea, the Kia Pride (from small acorns etc…) and the Daewoo Nexia and Espero, which were reskinned 1980s Opel-Vauxhalls.
These were cars that sold on price and spec - the Skoda Favorit, for example, had alloy wheels a sunroof and even a funky glovebox-mounted detachable torch before it even knocked on the door of the price of a basic VW Polo.
The budget car uprising of the early Nineties was akin to a similar phenomenon a decade earlier than that, but back then it was the Polish FSO Polonez and Yugoslavian Yugo 45/55 that were the darlings of the day, the former finally falling out of favour for being a bit rubbish, and the latter succumbing to Civil War, just weeks after it had launched its first semi-convincing car. The Yugo Sana (or Florida) will always be one of motoring’s great ‘what-ifs’.
Fast-forward to the present day, and once again the world’s economy is entering a slightly wobbly cycle. It doesn’t look like it will contract with the same magnitude as a decade ago, but nevertheless the market is ripe for another budget car boom - and there are plenty of brands ready to capitalise on that.
The darling of the day is Dacia - already Europe’s best-selling entry brand, the base models of the Sandero hatchback (voted the best-ever budget car by Drivetribe followers in a recent poll) and Logan Sedan/MPV don’t even get a radio, though if the speakers match the quality of those in our Perodua, that’s no bad thing.
These are fresh, honest cars that are fun to drive and smartly finished, with no pretentious add-ons, and they’re what cash-strapped consumers want.
But in addition, there are others. Proton is (allegedly) ripe for a return, and low production costs and increasingly decent quality mean that China’s domestic manufacturers are readying themselves for export into other markets.
Could we be on the cusp of a bargain car bonanza? Was GM all-too-quick to kill off GEO and Saturn when that could be just what the market needs over the next few years? And could we finally see a return to cut-price cars that offer everything you need, nothing you don’t and a price tag to match? That’ll be the Daewoo…