Unexceptional Classics

Cheap to buy, dreadful to drive, the Yugo Sana bombed

by Giles Chapman
13 June 2022 3 min read
Cheap to buy, dreadful to drive, the Yugo Sana bombed
Photos: Yugo

In 1990 a new Yugo Sana cost a paltry £5495 when a Mini Mayfair was £5775. In place of Britain’s cramped, wheezy buzzbox conceived well before Cliff Richard had clinched a record deal, you got a pacey, voluminous five-door hatchback with a five-speed gearbox and electronic fuel injection.

Of all the bargain-basement family cars to emerge from Russia and other former Soviet-controlled or communist Eastern European countries in the 1980s, the Yugo Sana was the best thing since shredded cabbage. Or, at least far superior to the dismal offerings from Lada, Dacia and FSO, if not quite as surprisingly alright as the Skoda Favorit.

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It seems scarcely believable to recall now but the Yugoslavian car industry enjoyed an oddly successful 1980s. The state-owned Zastava had been churning out licence-built Fiats since the 1950s, and in 1980 finally felt assertive enough to design its own car, the Yugo 45, a cautious attempt at a Fiesta clone that carefully concealed its 12-year old roots in the Fiat 128.

UK sales started in 1982. But the ‘potential’ of the car had also been spotted by serial US entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin, and he launched it in North America, where the Yugo’s numerous shortcomings were offset by the fact it was by far the cheapest brand new automobile you could buy there. Its considerable success prompted some quite ambitious thinking, and a power-top cabriolet pulled even more people into Yugo’s mom-and-pop showrooms, even if a mid-engined Yugo two-seater roadster schemed with Bertone didn’t get off the ground.

Instead, and sensibly, Zastava engineers concentrated on Project 103, a Golf-sized family car to properly capitalise on the company’s unexpected boom. It would be called the Yugo Florida, on whose sun-kissed roads they hoped to see it roll, while for Europe it would be the Yugo Sana.

Cheap to buy, dreadful to drive, the Yugo Sana bombed

The 1.4- and 1.6-litre engines, transmission and the rest of the drivetrain were licensed from the Fiat Tipo, and Giorgetto Giugiaro was hired to come up with an alternative bodyshape – not one of his slickest but very much in his Renault 21/Seat Ibiza mould of inoffensive Eurobland. Whether Giugiaro had any input on the clunky plastic ‘fingertip’ switchgear and ugly interior isn’t clear.

The rest of the work in productionising the design was left to Zastava. And a thoroughly awful job they did of it too. The car could reach 60mph from standstill in 13sec and bellow on to 97mph, largely because there was very little to it; almost no sound-deadening fillers at all, and ill-fitting panels so low-grade they almost seemed to be sucked inwards as you pressed hard on the accelerator. The trim rattled and the dashboard creaked.

The statement in the press release announcing the Sana to UK buyers at the 1989 Motorfair in London that it was ‘…a quality design matched by a comprehensive specification and destined to set new standards in this competitive marker sector’ was risible. The spec had a few things you couldn’t have on the more costly Mini Mayfair, like a rev-counter and rear wash/wipe. Those ‘new standards’, meanwhile were depth-plumbed rather than height-scaled.

Autocar magazine described the gearchange as ‘appalling’, the steering ‘woolly’, and the whole car as ‘flimsy’ although they did concede the engine was ‘willing’ and the brakes ‘work well enough’. Mind you, at the price the complaints were irrelevant as the car just about functioned okay; like the very best of market stall trainers when you really can’t afford Sports Direct, let alone the Nike Store.

If you’ve ever wondered (you probably haven’t) why you never saw any Sanas in the UK, the answer is simple and also still shocking. When war and genocide broke out in the Balkans region, following the collapse of the Yugoslavian federation, UN sanctions from 1991 soon put a stop to exports as the bloodshed mounted; Yugo’s American adventure came to a sudden halt. The conflict also halted imports of crucial components, which made completing the Sana difficult in the Serbian plant. The factory had been founded in arms manufacture, and to this it now returned, until NATO bombing raids largely put it out of action.

Zastava GB finally folded in 1993, as its dismayed dealers were forced to almost give away the remaining few Sanas of the low thousands imported, to clear their forecourts. It’s certain the 1.6 never arrived here, yet the factory did manage to put the car back into shoddy production in Serbia, building a few thousand annually right up to 2008 which included some crude-looking vans and pick-ups. An aura of total worthlessness descended on the world of Yugo cars, and the Sana has not been able to redeem itself through nostalgia because none of the few survivors here appears to have turned a wheel on UK roads since 2017. For a Festival Of The Unexceptional, any that are rejuvenated will prove a grimly fascinating draw. Don’t hold your breath, though. Oh, and the Mini Mayfair sailed on for another seven years after the Sana had gone.

Read more

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  • Stephen Pye says:

    I remember the yugo sana .Russ Rigby Motors of Hindley Wigan were our local Yugo dealership they did really well selling loads of Yugos even opened another branch in Wigan centre

  • Roger Blaxall says:

    Last saw one sitting unloved on a driveway on a side street in Southport, Lancashire at least ten years ago. I usually buy ‘future classics’ with a card under the wiper but foolishly (?) passed this one by. Our local dealer was in Eccleston near Chorley. Hub Nut’s recently passed one on to be restored on an online car restoration channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8HPe4bOlZI
    According to how many left there are 4 left on SORN.

  • Matt Pink says:

    Nice piece summarising this – Proud to have recently purchased a ‘survivor’ Sana which I am slowly bringing back to life. Procuring parts is tricky so may have to get over to Serbia for some essential trim pieces just not available here. Possibly even a donor car if I can find one. I certainly had FOTU in mind when purchasing – I can’t confirm for which year though!

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Hello Matt, great to hear you’re saving a Sana, and it would of course be more than welcome at a future FOTU!

  • Byron Andrew Blissett says:

    This article states you never saw the Sana in the UK but it was sold over here

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