The Dacia Duster continues to offer a trendy compact 5-door SUV Crossover for supermini money. Key recent improvements have kept it current. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
A new car for the price of a secondhand one is always a tempting prospect and when it's as smartly styled and capable as Dacia's Duster, the concept becomes particularly appealing. Undercutting rival models in the Crossover and small SUV 4x4 segments by an enormous amount, this Romanian budget brand uses proven Renault engineering to create a very likeable product that could prove ideal as back-up family transport. Recent improvements include the addition of an optional EDC dual-clutch automatic gearbox, plus the availability of a more powerful 125bhp TCe petrol engine at the top of the range. Otherwise, the basic recipe's pretty much unchanged. Dig down the back of the sofa for some money and join the queue to try one.
Romanian maker Dacia's modern era really started in 1999 with the purchase of the company by Renault. The French marque's master plan was to create a nameplate able to take Renault technology and apply it to modern products saleable at astonishing low prices. Cars like this one, the Dacia Duster.
Old-era Dacias were Renault models built under licence. Modern ones have unique Dacia design with Renault running gear under the skin, this particular car targeting the growing market for Qashqai-like Crossovers designs and RAV4-style compact SUVs. These are vehicles which tend to be priced anywhere between £18,000 and £30,000 depending on your preferences, figures way beyond the frankly astonishing entry-level price for this Duster. Less than £10,000 gets you a baseline model, with even the top 4x4 diesel version costing 25% or more less than comparable rivals.
Which would be irrelevant if cheap also meant 'nasty'. But it doesn't. It can't. Dacia knows that the opposition can't get near its pricing but it's also aware that if the quality and execution of this product isn't up to snuff, many potential buyers will rightly see a comparably-priced secondhand late low mileage Crossover or small 4x4 as a better bet. So will that be true? Or is the UK's most affordable 4x4 as impressive in practice as it is in price? It's certainly better equipped to win over the doubters now that its been equipped with the option of EDC auto transmission and at the top of the range, a far more modern 125bhp 1.2-litre TCe petrol engine.
Cut back on cost and you also cut back on expectations. Admit it - you didn't think the Duster was going to be any good at all to drive. It may well come as quite a surprise then, to learn that this Dacia has the sort of ride/handling compromise that would shame rivals many thousands of pounds more expensive.
2WD is standard fare unless you pay an all-wheel drive premium for a variant like the one we tried. It's well worth considering. The extra cash gets you an impressive Nissan-engineered three-mode system, selectable via a rotary controller in front of the gear stick. Most of the time you'll be in '2WD', but in wet or icy conditions, there's the peace of mind of being able to switch seamlessly to 'Auto' so that extra traction will automatically cut in when necessary. For mud-plugging meanwhile, you'll want to keep all wheels turning permanently by switching to the 'Lock' setting. It's in these kinds of conditions that you'll appreciate the useful 210mm of ground clearance and the impressive clearance angles.
As for engines, well the entry-level 1.6-litre SCe petrol unit is these a better bet in Euro6 115bhp form. That's if you can't stretch to the 110bhp 1.5-litre dCi diesel we tried which, when mated to 2WD models, now comes with the option of EDC auto transmission. At the top of the range, a 125bhp 1.2-litre TCe petrol unit is now an option on upper-spec variants.
Design and Build
As for the design, well not a great deal's changed with the latest versions of this car. There's quite a stylish chrome front grille made up of two layers of four small intakes surrounding the brand logo. And all versions have 'Duster' branded roof bars - chromed on Laureate models. At the rear, a black tailgate trim with 'Duster' branding sits above the number plate. Laureate versions have smarter alloy wheels, body-coloured door handles and dark metal door mirror casings. As ever, the look isn't typically compact-SUV generic, with a glasshouse shallower than that of some rivals, a kicked-up rear window line and a wheelbase that appears longer than it is.
At the wheel, there's smarter trim and upholstery than you might expect for the price - it's been recently upgraded - and, as before, you sit in front of a basic two-dial instrument binnacle with orange LCD bar graphs for temperature and fuel level. On seats that are very comfortable and offer decent all-round vision limited only by the upswept rear windows and thick pillars.
Of course, if you look for them, there are signs of cost-cutting, but everything's been decently put together and the boot's a decent size, offering 475-litres in the 2WD model, much bigger than the 416-litre litres you'd get in a rival Skoda Yeti. Bear in mind though that with this Dacia, that figure that falls to 408-litres if you go for a 4x4 model, courtesy of this variant's proper full-sized spare wheel. Drop down the rear bench (which split-folds only on plusher models) and you can increase that figure to 1,636-litres.
As for rear seat accommodation, well, there's actually more space here than you'd find in most compact 4x4s, with reasonable levels of head, leg and shoulder room for two and, on shorter journeys, even for three.
Market and Model
While the thought of owning a trendy compact SUV/Crossover-style model for less than £10,000 might be the thing that gets people into Dacia showrooms, the car that satisfied prospective buyers end up driving out of them will probably require a very differently-sized cheque. Still one though, that'll offer a considerable saving on comparable models from other brands.
Though the baseline 'Access'-specification Duster might be fine if all you want is basic, no-frills transport at supermini pricing, it does come very frugally trimmed: aside from remote central locking with an immobiliser, electric windows, roof bars and tinted glass, its spec is spartan: it doesn't even have a radio! It also has only two driven wheels, unless you pay a £2,000 premium for the 4WD version. Either way, you have to have the 1.6-litre petrol engine.
We think that most buyers of this kind of car are going to need at least a few basic niceties - Bluetooth for your 'phone, body-coloured bumpers, a height-adjustable driver's seat and a split-folding rear seat for example. And they're probably also going to want the 110bhp 1.5-litre dCi diesel engine that's fitted to all but entry-level Dusters. Mid-spec 'Ambiance' trim gives you all that in a diesel model for a £12,500 budget and, once again, you can choose to find another couple of thousand for 4WD if you want it. You won't get air conditioning though, even as an option. The importers have tried to drive sales of the plush Laureate trim level we tried by making these models the only ones in which the cabin can be properly chilled. At least the £1,500 premium you'll pay over Ambiance trim also gives you niceties like alloy wheels, a trip computer and body-colour for the mirrors and door handles. At Laureate level, it's a diesel or nothing under the bonnet and you've the option of two or four-wheel drive. There's also the option of a top leather-lined Prestige trim level if you want it.
Cost of Ownership
You'll find the Duster not only inexpensive to buy but similarly cheap to keep on the road. True, the 1.6-litre SCe petrol model isn't especially efficient, but its returns have been improved in Euro6 115bhp guise. Here, you can expect 44.1mpg on the combined cycle and 145g/km of CO2 in 2WD form, or 41.5mpg and 155g/km of CO2 if you opt for 4WD. For some buyers though, only a diesel will do. With a Dacia 1.5-litre dCi, you'll see 64.2mpg and 115g/km from a front-driver and 60.1mpg and 123g/km if you want drive going to each corner.
By driving the prices far lower than the competition, Dacia also effectively pops a cap on depreciation, especially as the Renault-sourced dealer network has a firm 'no discounting' policy. Insurance? The 1.6-litre petrol-engined car is a very modest Group 6E on the 1-50 scale, while the diesel is a little costlier to cover, weighing in at Group 10A.
As for peace of mind, well Dacia has chosen to cock a snook at the Koreans by - and I quote - 'deciding not to force buyers into paying a premium for a longer warranty they might not want'. You may disagree, but at least if you do, you've the option of extending the standard 3 year/60,000 mile cover with an affordably-priced five or seven year policy.
So. Here's the bottom line. New cars are often a lot more expensive than perhaps they need to be, especially in fashionable market sectors like those for Crossover 4x4s. It's a trend manufacturers try and justify with high technology that's certainly very impressive but which many buyers neither appreciate nor really want. These are the people being targeted here by what continues to be a very clever package indeed, one that gives you almost everything you need - and nothing you don't.
The things it can't offer - cutting edge handling, hi-tech equipment levels and a soft-touch trendy cabin - become irrelevant when you consider the asking price. A figure that in 4x4 models buys you off road ability that betters that of some rivals costing nearly twice as much. And in whatever guise you choose, you'll find a Duster smartly styled, practically finished and affordable to run, particularly in 1.5-litre dCi diesel guise. Enough to make it a better bet than a late, low mileage secondhand Crossover/4x4 rival? Many will think so.