Saw my first Logan this week. Romanian readers will instantly say, "Ah! A Logan." Everyone else will be saying "Do what?" So, skip the next few paragraphs, Romanian friends, while I explain. Back in the bad old days of Communism, Romania had its own car brand: the Dacia. (Well, actually it had two car brands, but the Oltcit probably deserves a post of its own.) Dacias were boxy little sedans made at the Dacia factory in Pitesti, about 100 km west of Bucharest. They were originally made by Renault under a licensing agreement, and right up to the end they had a vaguely little-French-car-from-the-1960s look. Originally, I am told, the Dacia was a decent car. Small, simple, and completely lacking in frills or luxury, but not bad. But like a lot of things in Ceausescu's Romania, it tended to get worse with time. Renault's license expired in 1978, and the state took over the factory. Lack of foreign currency meant that more and more of the parts were made in Romania. The quality of the car gradually dropped, until by the end of the regime it was iffy even by the low standards of Communist Eastern Europe. (But Romanians seemed to keep a certain affection for it anyway. Or so I'm told. They were bad cars, but any car at all was a luxury in those days; you had to wait three to four years for delivery, and that was after you'd already paid for it. And since all Dacia models were essentially the same car, made in the same factory, they tended to be bad in the same ways. So you knew where you stood, and everyone was in the same boat.)
After 1989, of course, things changed. Romanians discovered second-hand European cars. The Dacia factory in Pitesti went through the same economic convulsions as all the other big state-owned enterprises. And eventually, in 1999, it was privatized -- ironically enough, to Renault. Now, Renault had big plans for the Dacia factory. They didn't just want to make Dacias. They wanted to launch a massive assault on the Eastern European car market, building and marketing a cheap but reliable car that would be attractive, not just to Romanians, but to Bulgarians, Poles, Turks, Serbs, Ukrainians, you name it. They wanted to make "a western car at an eastern price", and sell it to a market of hundreds of millions of potential customers. Still with me? Okay, so: the Logan is that car. It's built in that same old factory in Pitesti. But it's a whole new car, and much of it consists of Renault components manufactured elsewhere, shipped to Pitesti, and assembled. And the quality, it's already clear, is far beyond that of the little old Dacias. If the preliminary reports are correct, then Renault may have done something. According to the first set of reviews, the Logan seems to be a decent car -- small-ish, somewhat underpowered, bland in appearance, but cheap, cheap, cheap. A new one runs about 5,700 Euros ($7,000); add all possible frills, and it only goes up to about 8,600 Euros ($10,500). That's a car that an average Romanian -- or Ukrainian or Bulgarian or Turkish -- family could imagine owning. Of course, it'll be a while before we know for sure. The big questions -- is the Logan safe? Sturdy? Reliable? How will it handle Romanian driving conditions? -- won't be answered for months or years. The Logan looks good at first glance, but it might yet turn out to be a lemon. And in the meantime, Renault has invested five years and over 600 million dollars in retooling the Pitesti factory. So it's not yet clear whether this gamble will pay off. But anyway, Logans are starting to appear on the streets of Bucharest. More on this in a bit.