Britain's best cheap new cars tested

Over the course of a 600-mile road trip, we finds out whether Citroën, Dacia or Toyota makes Britain’s best cheap car...

Citroen C3 with Toyota Aygo X and Dacia Sandero on moors

The contenders

Citroën C3 Origin 1.2 Puretech 83 You!

List price £13,995
Target Price £13,995

Dacia Sandero 1.0 TCe 90 Expression

List price £14,795
Target Price £14,551

Toyota Aygo X 1.0 Edge

List price £17,170
Target Price £15,955

Here’s a surprising fact for you: the average price paid for a new car in 2023 was £37,092 – considerably more than the average salary. And while a decade ago that much money would have bought you something pretty exclusive, nowadays it won’t even get you an entry-level Volkswagen Passat.

Now, admittedly, not many customers are walking into showrooms and handing over almost £40k in one lump sum, but even if you’re signing up to a finance deal, you’re only spreading the cost and you’ll probably pay a considerable sum of interest for the privilege.

So, assuming you don’t have the wherewithal to drop that much money on a new car, or you just don’t think that’s a particularly great way to spend your hard-earned, should you be focusing on the used market? Or are there still some new bargains out there? In short, what is the best cheap car you can buy?

To find out, we decided to round up three of the cheapest new cars on sale and take them on a 600-mile road trip. Our first stop would, rather aptly, be the cheapest place in Britain to buy a house: Shildon in County Durham. The route there from London would give us a good chance to test out our trio’s motorway manners, ahead of an overnight stop in Whitby on the Yorkshire coast. We’d then head back to London via the North York Moors to find out how our contenders handle more challenging roads, testing out their practicality, driving positions and infotainment tech in the process.

The first candidate is the Dacia Sandero, which, ignoring quadricycles like the Citroën Ami, is Britain’s cheapest new car. It sells reasonably well over here but actually tops the sales charts in some parts of Europe, so are thousands of British car buyers missing a trick? When the latest-generation Sandero was launched back in 2021, it could be bought for as little as £7995. That extremely spartan and underpowered version is no longer offered, and we’ve had a couple of years of high inflation, so the starting price has since swelled to £13,795. The Expression version we’re testing here costs an extra £1000 on top of that but adds some welcome creature comforts.

Dacia Sandero with Toyota Aygo X and Citroen C3 in car park - fronts

It also pushes the price above that of our second protagonist, the Citroën C3 Origin. This is the same C3 that’s been around since 2016, with the Origin moniker tacked on to distinguish it from an all-new C3 that’s due later this year. The entry-level You! version we’re testing doesn’t get you much kit, as we’ll go on to explain later, but it costs just £13,995.

The sub-£14k sticker price makes our final car seem rather pricey. The Toyota Aygo X range kicks off at £16,130, and the version we’ve got here, though not a perfect representation of a trim you can currently order, is very close to the £17,170 Edge model. However, saving money in the long term requires more than a cursory glance at some brochure prices.

The motorway leg

Given that even the slowest of our contenders can hit 98mph, it’s hardly surprising that they can all cruise comfortably at 70mph for extended periods. That doesn’t mean the trip up north was an entirely relaxing experience, though, because when you lose momentum, it takes a while to build it back up again.

Dacia Sandero with Toyota Aygo X and Citroen C3 on motorway - rears

This problem is most acute in the Aygo X, which has all the oomph of a garden slug. If you’re forced to drop to 60mph by an overtaking lorry or a traffic bottleneck, you often need to change down a gear (or sometimes even two) in its five-speed manual gearbox (which is what the C3 and Sandero have too) and floor the accelerator pedal to avoid the car in front disappearing into the distance and the driver behind becoming irate.

The C3 is a little quicker but, like the Aygo X, it lacks a power-boosting turbocharger, so you need to work its 1.2-litre engine (and gearbox) hard to keep pace with motorway traffic. So, the turbocharged Sandero is easily the most at home at typical motorway speeds, pulling much harder than the others at low revs – even though it’s still far from nippy by wider modern car standards.

All three are fairly noisy on the motorway. The 1.0-litre engines in the Sandero and Aygo X thrum away at a cruise, while the C3 and Aygo whip up quite a lot of wind noise. Overall, the C3 is the quietest at a steady 70mph and the Aygo X the noisiest, although the margins aren’t huge.

Toyota Aygo X with Dacia Sandero and Citroen C3 on motorway - fronts

Soft suspension means the C3 is the most comfortable when you’re driving along a straight stretch of motorway. The Sandero, meanwhile, is smooth 80% of the time but gets upset by expansion joints, which tend to send shudders up through the steering wheel. The Aygo X isn’t nearly as troubled by these sorts of obstacles, but its firmer suspension and shorter wheelbase (the distance between its front and rear wheels) mean there’s a slightly choppy feel to its ride at all times.

But what about the comfort offered by their driving positions? Well, the Sandero impresses most, thanks to plenty of adjustment, a reasonably supportive seat and a fold-down central armrest. The latter is something you can’t have on the Aygo X and is exclusive to range-topping trim Max trim in the C3. Even if you splash out on that range-topping trim, though (and there are much better ways to spend nearly £20k), you still won’t enjoy a comfortable driving position. 

That’s because the C3’s driver’s seat is so soft that you sink into its base like you might a cheap sofa; this lack of support can quickly lead to an achy back. To make matters worse, the footwell is pretty cramped, so if you wear anything larger than size nines, you’ll be cursing every time your left foot gets caught between the footrest and clutch pedal.

Toyota Aygo X dashboard

The Aygo X benefits from a much more supportive driver’s seat – even though things aren’t perfect, because, as with the other cars here, there’s no adjustable lumbar support. A much bigger issue is the fact that the steering wheel adjusts only for height (not reach), so although none of our testers found it hard to get comfy, some drivers doubtless will.

A solid four and a half hours on the motorway gave us plenty of time to appraise each car’s interior, and while there’s nothing to get particularly excited about here, things aren’t as dour as you might imagine. Yes, there’s plenty of hard plastic in all three, but the Sandero has fabric inserts on the doors and across the face of its dashboard to lift the ambience. Throw in some chrome-edged air-con dials and the result is a car that feels more upmarket than its bargain price would suggest.

The C3 isn’t far behind when it comes to visual appeal. From the art deco air vents to the grey material door pulls, everything has been designed to be interesting to look at rather than purely functional. The C3 lets itself down when it comes to material quality, though, with its plastic steering wheel feeling very cheap and the air-con controls lacking any real damping.

Citroen C3 dashboard

Things are a little more conservative in the Aygo X, with the main highlights being the gloss black housing for the infotainment touchscreen and the exposed painted bodywork on the tops of the doors. However, what it lacks in visual
pizazz it makes up for with the best integrity of the bunch; everything feels extremely well bolted together.

The road to Shildon

Pulling off the A1(M) near Darlington and onto smaller roads gave us a chance to test how effective our cars’ sat-nav systems were at getting us to the centre of Shildon. In the case of the C3, the answer was ‘not very’, because it’s the only one of the trio without a proper infotainment system. There’s a small (5.0in) monochrome touchscreen in the middle of the dashboard that’s used to control the radio and make phone calls, but no navigation software and no phone mirroring. If you want the latter, you’ll need to upgrade to at least Plus trim. 

There’s no integrated phone holder, either, meaning we had to pull over, enter the destination in Google Maps and then prop the phone against the dashboard where it was visible – hardly an ideal solution. Any owner will want to invest in a proper phone cradle.

Dacia Sandero - behind the wheel

One of these is standard in the Sandero, which is doubly handy because the USB charging socket is located right behind the cradle on top of the dashboard. As with the C3, if you go for the cheapest trim (Essential) on the Sandero, you’ll need to rely on your phone for navigation, but our Expression model gets an 8.0in touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto phone mirroring. It’s still pretty rudimentary, but it does the job and is quick to respond – plus it’s mounted high on the dashboard, so it’s easy to see without diverting your gaze far from the road.

Speed isn’t a strength of the 9.0in touchscreen in the Aygo X; there’s often a long pause between you pressing an icon and anything happening. It’s a shame, because in many respects it’s the best system here, with a few more features than the Sandero’s,   including detailed fuel economy information, and more sophisticated graphics. You get this system even if you go for entry-level Pure trim. 

As we meandered through the centre of Shildon – where the average house value is an inflation-defying £69,000 – it soon became apparent how well suited the Aygo X is to urban driving. It has a tighter turning circle than the others and can nip through even tighter gaps in traffic. Only the shortage of low-rev pull frustrates, because it forces you to rev the engine quite hard and slip the clutch to pull away with any real vigour.

Citroen C3 with Toyota Aygo X and Dacia Sandero in town

In town, the Aygo X remains firm but well controlled, while the Sandero soaks up minor imperfections a little more adroitly. However, the C3 isn’t nearly as smooth as it is on the motorway; it tends to lollop over bigger bumps, bouncing you skywards and then seemingly sucking you back down to the ground again.

Through the moors

After an overnight stay in Whitby, we headed for the North York Moors and its miles of meandering Tarmac, picturesque views and sparsity of traffic. Now, you might imagine roads like this would be better suited to a selection of hot hatchbacks than budget runabouts. However, it’s important that these cheap new cars aren’t completely out of their depth on challenging country roads.

The Aygo X definitely isn’t. It turns in to bends surprisingly eagerly, helped by relatively tidy body control and that short wheelbase. The steering is also well judged, giving you a decent sense of connection with the front tyres. Those tyres are pretty skinny, so there isn’t a huge amount of grip, but in some ways the fairly low handling limits actually add to the fun, and the Aygo X has by far the most satisfying gearshift of the three. The only thing you’ll wish for is a bit more power.


The Sandero’s extra oomph is handy when accelerating out of slower corners, allowing you to cover ground quicker than in the Aygo. The process isn’t as rewarding, though, because the steering is vague and doesn’t naturally return to centre on the way out of corners, plus there’s way more body lean than in the Aygo X.

Not as much as in the C3, though; that car’s spongy suspension causes it to sway about like a small rowing boat on the open seas. The sloppy body control means it takes real concentration to place the nose of the C3 with any degree of precision through corners, and the steering is far too light, making it difficult to gauge how much grip the front tyres have. The C3’s gearshift is vague and imprecise, making it the least pleasant to use – especially when you’re trying to change gears quickly.

However, while the Aygo X offers the most enjoyment for the driver, the opposite is true for anyone sitting in the back – especially on a long journey. A couple of six-footers will just about squeeze into the rear, but expect to hear a fair few grumbles – especially when they realise the side windows don’t wind down (they just pop open by a few centimetres).

Dacia Sandero boot being filled with luggage

The C3 and Sandero are far more accommodating for two adults in the back and can seat a third person in the middle at a pinch, whereas the Aygo X is a strict four-seater. The Sandero has the most head and leg room, though, so it’s the one to buy if you regularly need to carry more than one tall passenger.

It’s a similar story with the boot; the Aygo X’s is tiny and can swallow only three carry-on suitcases below its fabric parcel shelf. The C3 can take five, while the Sandero holds an impressive six, so again it’s the car to choose if you’re looking to lug around lots of luggage.

The money

Now we come to arguably the most important bit: the money. As we said at the beginning, there’s far more to consider here than the headline prices, but let’s start with those, because a small number of buyers will choose to pay the whole lot in one go.

Cheap cars willing up with petrol

Those who do that will spend the least on the C3, even though our mystery shoppers weren’t able to haggle anything off the £13,995 price. The problem is that you don’t get much kit for your money: no automatic headlights, rain-sensing wipers, rear parking sensors or a reversing camera. And because the C3 is the priciest to insure and service, it’ll actually cost you the most to own over three years. 

True, a greater proportion of buyers will choose to sign up to a PCP finance agreement, but a shocking APR rate of 11.9%, combined with no deposit contribution from Citroën, means you’ll be paying a hefty £250 a month over three years. That’s assuming a £1000 initial deposit and an annual limit of 8000 miles.

On identical terms, the Sandero will cost you £221 – and that’s the monthly price whether you go for the Expression or the Essential, due to a £500 deposit contribution from Dacia on the former. The Expression adds the 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system we mentioned earlier (without this you just get a DAB radio and Bluetooth), keyless entry, automatic lights and wipers and rear parking sensors, so it’s a no-brainer.

Dacia Sandero with Toyota Aygo X and Citroen C3 in car park - rears

Even if you’re buying the Sandero with cash, it’ll work out slightly cheaper than the C3 in the long run, thanks to a £244 discount (if you buy through our free online New Car Deals service), and cheaper servicing and insurance bills.

However, the cheapest option in the long run for cash buyers is the Aygo X. Yes, it costs the most to begin with – even after a generous £1215 discount – but it’s predicted to depreciate much more slowly than the other two and, on our 600-mile road trip, proved far more economical than its rivals. It averaged a very respectable 52.4mpg, compared with 48mpg for the Sandero and 47.2mpg for the C3.

Those lower fuel bills will also take the sting out of the Aygo X’s higher PCP repayments; go for the Edge version and you’ll be paying £268 a month, although £239 will get you the entry-level Pure model. The latter is reasonably well equipped (including a rear-view camera and adapative cruise control), but it misses out on rain-sensing wipers, front foglights and the fetching two-tone paint of our test car (although metallic shades are £590 extra on the Edge).

Citroen C3 vs Dacia Sandero vs Toyota Aygo X costs

Our verdict

Let’s be honest here: take money out of the equation and this isn’t a line-up of the world’s greatest cars. Our contenders are built to a price and, quite understandably, they all show signs of cost-cutting. So, the question is, which offers you the most for your relatively small outlay?

Well, it isn’t the C3. Its tempting entry price belies a stingy kit list and an eye-watering APR rate for those taking out finance. Indeed, mid-rung Plus trim makes more sense than You!, bringing lots more useful equipment for around a tenner extra a month, thanks to a much more reasonable interest rate.

The C3 isn’t a brilliant buy in any form, though; you’d be better off with the Sandero or Aygo X. Both are genuinely good cars with very different strengths; the Sandero gives you more space, stronger performance and lower monthly PCP bills, while the Aygo X counters with sharper driving manners, cheaper running costs and a more generous roster of safety kit. Which is better depends on your priorities.

Toyota Aygo X with Citroen C3 and Dacia Sandero front static

Still, we reckon the Aygo X is better suited to more buyers. Sure, it’s cramped in the back and has a tiny boot, but our research tells us practicality isn’t a priority for most small car buyers. And while the list price of the Edge model we’d recommend is way above that of a Sandero Expression, it’ll work out cheaper in the long run. Even if you buy on finance, the difference isn’t huge. Plus, there’s Toyota’s reputation for reliability and a warranty of up to 10 years, if you get your car serviced annually at a main dealer.

So, the answer is that new car bargains do still exist – particularly when you consider long-term ownership costs – and the Aygo X is the best of them.

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Specifications: Citroën C3 Origin 1.2 Puretech 83 You

Engine 3cyl, 1199cc, petrol
Power 81bhp at 5750rpm
Torque 87lb ft at 2750rpm
Gearbox 5-spd manual
0-62mph 12.5sec
Top speed 103mph
Fuel economy 51.4mpg (combined)
CO2 emissions 123g/km

Specifications: Dacia Sandero 1.0 TCe 90 Expression

Engine 3cyl, 999cc, turbo, petrol
Power 90bhp at 4600-5000rpm
Torque 118lb ft at 2100-3750rpm
Gearbox 5-spd manual
0-62mph 11.7sec
Top speed 108mph
Fuel economy 53.3mpg (combined)
CO2 emissions 119g/km

Specifications: Toyota Aygo X 1.0 Edge

Engine 3cyl, 998cc, petrol
Power 71bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 69lb ft at 4400rpm
Gearbox 5-spd manual
0-62mph 14.9sec
Top speed 98mph
Fuel economy 58.8mpg (combined)
CO2 emissions 110g/km