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Business

Romania's Favorite Car Gets Up to Speed

Friday sees the Dacia -- that infamous icon of Romanian auto production -- go on sale in Germany. And despite its notoriously cheap production, buyers across Europe are looking extremely keen.

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Would you drive this car?

Rumor has it that the Dacia has improved in quality since French carmaker Renault took it over in 1998. But when it costs just 7,500 euros, brand new, it's inevitable that quality might have to take a backseat.

And as they say in Romania, if your Dacia breaks down, you don't have to worry. Because the next person who comes down the road will be driving one and can just give you the spare parts they keep in their trunk. Every Romanian knows how to fix a Dacia, because fixing Dacias is as much a part of life as breaking down in them.

At least, that's the way it was during communist Romania's glory days of car production.

One big happy family

Renault Logan

Dacia, Logan, 2004

But things have changed, according to Alexandru Luis, who works on the Dacia assembly line.

"They threw out the old machines and renovated the assembly halls," he said. "Everything here is new and modern. And the workers' mentality has changed. We feel like we're part of a big family -- the Dacia family."

The basic salary at the Dacia plant is 200 euros a month, not particularly high, even for Romania. With labor this cheap, it's still mostly people, not robots, who assemble the Dacia.

Marketing head Jean-Michel Sicre explained that this is why each Dacia has a human touch.

"Robots are expensive," he said. "You have to take the investment into account, and compare it with the flexibility of the human beings."

Revamped for the 21st century

Renault Logan

The Dacia on sale in western Europe, a model known as the Logan, is based on the same technology of Renault, its parent company. But it doesn't look like a Renault. Resembling a short, squat sedan, it's surprisingly spacious inside.

Iulian Bortos, the automotive editor at the Romanian finance magazine Capital Bortos, says that the new Dacia is a very different car to the old, communist version.

Romanians are certainly convinced of its quality. Sales are up: each day, the factory delivers some 600 Logans.

The talk of the town

Marketing head Sicre expects western Europeans to catch on fast. Why buy French technology for 15,000 euros when you can get the same product for half the price from Romania?

"We believe that in Germany and all of western Europe there will be people who have relatively little money and who don't have particularly ambitious needs in terms of auto electronics and accessories," he said. "I expect that the car will have more sales in the former east Germany and areas which are not doing well economically."

The car will go out over the Nissan-Renault dealer network. But only 250 of the 600 dealers are actually offering it, because they only get a five percent commission on each sale -- which amounts to about 330 euros. But that hasn't fazed the management at Dacia. They're expecting to see four million Dacias gracing the streets of Europe by 2010.

Renault Logan

Renault President Louis Schweitzer, left, watches Romanian President Ion Iliescu, right, unveiling a Renault Logan during a ceremony in Bucharest.

Meanwhile, Bortos says the Dacia is Romania's new national pride.

"Everybody is talking about the Logan," he said. "Even former President Illiescu (photo)! The former prime minister... everyone."

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