By Jonathan Crouch
At its launch in our market in 2012, Dacia's Duster was easily the most affordable SUV you could buy. But, a few years down the line, how does this Romanian-built Renault-engineered product stack up as a used buy in first generation form? Let's find out.
Old-era Dacias were Renault models built under licence. Modern ones have unique Dacia design with Renault running gear under the skin and the Duster used that formula in targeting the growing market for Qashqai-like Crossovers designs and Freelander-style compact SUVs. Depending on the rival you had in mind, it was typically between 25% and 50% cheaper when new. The MK1 design was announced in 2009, but didn't make it to the UK until 2012. In 2016, a 1.2-litre TCe turbo petrol engine was introduced and at the same time, a top level of 'Prestige' trim was added to the range. In the same period, the original 105hp 1.6-litre petrol engine was replaced by a slightly more modern 115hp SCe unit. This MK1 model sold until early 2018, when it was replaced by a new MK2 Duster.
What You Get
As much as the price, the shape helped to sell this Duster. It's not 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. The result gives this Dacia a clear look of its own. and the purposeful amount of fresh air in the wheel arches suggests that even the two-wheel drive version might well have a good go at tackling anything the British countryside can chuck at it. Draw up in one of these and is anyone really going to think that you've paid as little as half of the normal asking figure for a car of this kind? We don't think so.
Things are nothing like as modern under the skin of course, but the underpinnings aren't too ancient, shared with designs as recent as Nissan's trendy Juke. They've also been strengthened to suit this Duster's possibly more arduous role in life. As have the interior fittings. At least that would probably be Dacia's explanation for the lack of soft-touch plastics and trendy interior design, but we suppose you could make a case for such a utilitarian finish being preferable if this car really is to serve as the go-anywhere, do-anything family workhorse. It all fits perfectly with the pared back utility feel of the car.
At the wheel, 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. The electric window and mirror controls of early cars were sited on the centre console for example (it made it easier and cheaper to produce the car for separate left and right hand drive markets). The stereo on such early cars was a separately-fitting after-market-style affair. And on all MK1 Dusters, the steering wheel adjusts only for height, not for reach. In certain places, the economies went a little too far: the bare paint on the load lip for example, which quickly became gouged and scratched, something that a cheap plastic trim panel would have avoided.
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 from this era. 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 than you'd find in most compact SUVs, with reasonable levels of head, leg and shoulder room for two and, on shorter journeys, even for three.
What to Look For
Things to look out for are, first and foremost, elements that tend to apply to all Dacia models. We came across some faults with the engine management systems and occasional issues with rust. Catalytic converter light failures are well known on Dacias, preceded by a warning light on the dash. And there's plenty else to look out for too. Some owners report various rattles - from the seat belt holder to the steering wheel. The wiper blades are of poor quality - but Dacia will apparently change them if owners complain. Some owners found that the car seat head restraint area material was ripped and damaged. The problem may be caused by head restraint clips being fitted before seat back cover was put on. There were stories of door protectors and wheel arch protectors fitted loose and/or incorrectly. One owner complained of the driver's seat having too much play and movement.
Another said his car pulled to the left due to a problem with the rear axle. In one instance, there was a brake pipe union joint failure and the same owner reported handbrake adjustment problems and brakes that weren't properly lubricated. Some owners claim brake pipe cover shields have been found missing by dealers on some cars. What else? Well there was an instance of the rear springs not being properly fixed into the retaining cup, which led to heavy knocking from rear. If the car overheats in slow or stationary traffic, it's due to a poor quality cooling fan; as part of this problem, a 30A fuse tends to blow. There are issues of door seals failing and various other water ingress issues including water into footwell. Some Dusters have been known to randomly display warning lights before going into 'limp home' mode. And paint work from the factory on cars can be poor, 'Marina Blue' in particular suffers from white specs within paint.
(approx based on a 2013 1.5 dCi ex VAT) An air filter costs around £7-£9. Front brake discs cost in the £65 to £84 bracket. Front brake pads sit in the £16 to £27 bracket for a set, though you could pay in the £36 to £54 bracket for pricier brands. An oil filter costs in the £6 to £7 bracket. A spark plug is around £5-£10. A radiator is in the £116 bracket. A fuel filter costs in the £7 to £10 bracket. A brake calliper is around £145. A spark plug costs in the £5 to £10 bracket. A timing belt costs about £42.
On the Road
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 the market consensus in Europe is that this Dacia has the sort of ride/handling compromise that would shame rivals many thousands of pounds more expensive. Some French, German and Italian writers have gone as far as to say that on broken tarmac, the ride is better than a Land Rover Freelander. We're not sure we'd go quite that far - there's only so much you can do with a stretched old generation Renault Clio floorplan and underpinnings - but you certainly wouldn't jump from a small SUV into one of these and feel significantly short-changed.
To be fair, Freelanders, Suzuki Grand Vitaras and the like don't set too high a dynamic standard for this Dacia to have to match. Qashqai-like Crossover models though - cars that can get close to matching the ride and handling accomplishments of the finest family hatches - well, they're a different story. A Duster offers a lot more body roll than something like that, nor is its steering as sharp. But for what it is, the ride and handling package remains quite acceptable. Especially for a vehicle that can do what no Crossover model can properly manage: decent off road capability.
That's if you opt for a 4x4 model of course: 2WD is standard fare unless you pay an all-wheel drive premium. 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 - 30-degrees of approach, 36-degrees of departure and 23-degrees of ramp breakover. It's all enough to make quite a few allegedly more serious 4x4s look a bit self conscious.
As for engines, well you're probably not going to spend too long agonising over them as there's not much choice. The stripped-out entry-level variants get a rough and ready 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol unit that has to be revved pretty hard to get to get anywhere near quoted performance figures that suggest the 2WD version to be capable of rest to sixty in 11.5s on the way to 104mph. A slightly more modern 115hp 1.6 SCe engine replaced this unit in 2016 and about this time, Dacia also briefly introduced a 1.2-litre TCe turbo petrol engine as an option, but few of these variants were sold.
A large number of UK buyers went for the infinitely preferable 110bhp 1.5-litre dCi diesel. On paper, this unit doesn't sound much quicker than its petrol equivalent, the sixty sprint occupying 11.8s in the 2WD model and 12.5s in the 4WD on the way to a top speed that again is around 104mph. In practice though, there's all the difference in the world between petrol and diesel options, since for dCi buyers, pulling power rises by fully 60% from 148 to 240Nm. This'll mean your Duster will have the muscle to drag itself up steep slopes or tow a trailer without feeling as if it's having an asthma attack. And on tarmac, it'll stop you having to row the car along with the 6-speed gear lever, which is just as well as it's a stick with quite a long throw to its action. Only the 2WD petrol variant must make do with five ratios.
The MK1 Duster was designed to give its buyers almost everything they really needed - and nothing they didn'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.
Our doubts relate to build quality that inevitably was completed down to a price. In our 'What to look for' section, you'll see that it's easy to end up with a Duster that'll cause you a few headaches, though to be fair, most of the issues are fairly minor ones. Find yourself a good one though and you'll get yourself solid no-nonsense dependable family transport.