Following the wheel tracks of crossover vehicles such as the VW CrossPolo and the Nissan Livina X-Gear, the Stepway adds a bit of SUV macho image to the basic Sandero hatchback. That image is backed up with mechanical changes that suggest off-road potential. It’s not a watered-down SUV with 2wd; instead, it’s a regular car given some harsh-terrain cred.

A 20 mm increase in ride height to 175 mm gives the Stepway, at least nominally, the capacity to dare to head into more challenging terrain than the standard vehicle. Lower gearing should mean better pulling power, particularly at low speed. Expect a cost, though, in drivetrain noise and economy.

For Renault South Africa, there’s no two ways about it. In addition to the ride height and the potential for better grunt when the going gets tough, they are convinced that the Sandero’s relative lightness will make it possible for drivers to head into the bush or onto the dunes. On our test drive, the closest we got to the beach was our KwaZulu-Natal South Coast overnight stop, so we can’t give you feedback on either dunes or bush. Instead, our route took us inland, through the canefields and logging areas of the hilly hinterland. There were enough poor and untarred roads to give us a good idea of the Stepway’s likely performance in typical use.

At rest breaks, the general mutter was clear: the Sandero could do with more oomph than the 64 kW and 128 N.m provided by its 1,6-litre Four. Perhaps the gearing could be lower still. The Sandero Stepway certainly needs a firm right foot on undulating territory if you want to press on. It simply felt reluctant to accelerate uphill. That said, it maintained speed well on uphills, suggesting a usefully broad torque band. In fairness, these were all fairly new units and we are talking about maintaining a steady, fast highway pace. (Combined-cycle economy is quoted at 7,2 litres/100 km, and CO2 emissions at 183 g/km.)

In other aspects there are pluses and minuses to report. Ride comfort, for instance: just driving off, you’re left in no doubt that this is, after all, a Renault. The combination of absorbent suspension and cushiony seats give a plush yet controlled ride. You won’t feel like you’re on tiptoe going through bends at speed; the steering – although not the last word in tactility – is precise and handling is utterly predictable. There’s a characteristic Renault thrashiness from under the bonnet, but it’s well muted. As a result, travel, even over long distances, is likely to be a relaxed affair. So, dynamically the Sandero gets a qualified yes.

In terms of actual nuts and bolts there is also room for improvement. In what is after all a moderately priced car, the plasticky interior can be expected. But lightweightfeeling upholstery doesn’t inspire confidence about how it will stand up to the active lifestyle it’s aimed at. It’s not quite as sophisticated as the audience Renault says it’s targeting. Still, the Stepway has in its favour a formidable standard specification as the flagship model of the range. Stacked up against its rivals, the locally built Renault offers at least comparable and, in many cases, significantly better, value. It’s certainly done very well on emerging markets such as Brazil. Price: a smidgeon under R150 000.