Remember when a touchscreen in a car was the height of luxury? It may be hard to recall today, but high-res, full-color, touch-sensitive displays weren’t always as cheap to produce and as commonplace as they are now. It’s even standard equipment in a brand-new, $15,000 Nissan Versa.
But should it be? Dacia has caused me to reconsider with its new Sandero. In its Access trim, the Sandero is the most basic of basic motoring, being offered only in white paint with matte-black plastic bumpers and selling for £7,995, about $11,005. Step up to the £8,995 Sandero Essential and instead of a full-on touchscreen, you get a flip-up compartment with an integrated smartphone mount.
As someone who daily drives a Ford Fiesta, I know from experience that infotainment displays in really cheap cars are pretty meaningless. The screens themselves tend to be small — not significantly larger than those in modern smartphones — and they’re pretty much used only to mirror your phone’s display anyway, through software like CarPlay or Android Auto.
It’s redundant. Both the manufacturer and customer could ideally save money by ditching the crappy built-in screen altogether and just letting your phone do the heavy lifting. Which is exactly what Dacia’s done with this Sandero.
Now, Dacia isn’t the first to try this; Volkswagen actually offers something similar in the Up city car. However, VW’s mount looks more like an afterthought, as if the company bulk ordered a bunch of third-party suction-arm gizmos off Amazon and stuck them to the top of every Up dash. The Sandero’s rendition is cleaner and goes away when not needed, leaving the center stack far less cluttered.
In tandem with the integrated mount, Dacia has also developed a Media Control app that offers quick shortcuts to music and navigation services of your choosing as well as good old-fashioned radio. This app is available for both iPhones and Android devices judging from a video Dacia released. It appears to communicate with the Sandero through Bluetooth, considering there’s no visible plug connecting the handset to the vehicle. Steering wheel controls allow you to play and pause media without moving your hands, like you could when routing phone audio and calls through Bluetooth in the days before mirroring.
The lack of a plug to hassle with is a nice convenience, though plugging in is never something that’s bothered me in vehicles I’ve owned. In most cars CarPlay and Android Auto still require cables anyway, and they’re well worth the quick fuss given how much more pleasant they are to use than some automakers’ own interfaces.
Battery life would be a concern for me, though. Bluetooth can decimate a phone’s longevity on a charge — especially over long trips — which is why an integrated cable and/or wireless Qi charging built into the dock would be useful. Fortunately, there’s a USB port situated immediately to the left of the phone, offering a way to keep your device topped up.
The other problem I anticipate with Dacia’s solution is one that would likely prevent the Sandero Essential from being sold as-is in the United States — and that concerns the backup camera. A primary reason why every car today has a full-color display is because drivers need a way to see the feed when shifting the car into reverse, and those cameras are of course legally mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Take that screen away, and the system doesn’t work.
Perhaps an automaker could develop a workaround that sends the reverse camera’s feed to a connected phone screen, but ensuring it works reliably and seamlessly with every make and model of handset is a tall order. And if there’s lag, or if the images from the camera are choppy, it certainly wouldn’t suffice.
All this would likely prevent an automaker from trying Dacia’s solution in a car sold in the U.S. And that’s a shame. As it happens, aftermarket car audio companies like Pioneer sell replacement head units with integrated phone mounts. Head units with touch screens are still reasonably expensive, so using your phone as an external display again helps keep the cost down while also offering many of the same features, even if your car has space for only a single DIN stereo.
Building a car that’s somewhat compelling despite an extremely low price takes ingenuity. That’s what separates vehicles like the Sandero from your average econobox — and this phone mount idea is a perfect example of clever design in action.