Published on Saturday 6 February 2016 11:26
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. 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 Freelander-style compact SUVs. These are vehicles which tend to be priced anywhere between £17,000 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? Let's find out.
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, where this car has already been on sale some time, is 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 most buyers will want to avoid the entry-level 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol unit and go for the 110bhp 1.5-litre dCi diesel we tried which has nearly 60% more pulling power.
Design and Build
As much as the price, I have a feeling that the shape is going 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.
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, 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.
The reason why becomes clear when you take a closer look at what's on offer. The baseline 'Access'-specification Duster, after all, is the only one that uses the older, rather noisy 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine that most will want to avoid. Such a car might be fine if all you want is basic, no-frills transport at supermini pricing, but 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.
No, 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 for a £12,000 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 top 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. As there, it's a diesel or nothing under the bonnet and you've the option of two or four-wheel drive.
Cost of Ownership
You'll find the Duster not only inexpensive to buy but similarly cheap to keep on the road. Both the engines on offer are quite economical, if not at the very cutting edge of green technology. Go for a front wheel drive 1.6-litre petrol model and you'll get decent economy, netting a combined cycle figure of 39.8mpg. This takes a dive to 35.3mpg should you opt for the four-wheel drive chassis.
Emissions are 165 and 185g/km for two and four-wheel drive petrol models respectively, meaning that opting for all-wheel drive will cost you about £45 extra a year when you come to tax your car. Go diesel and you'll see 56.5mpg from a front-driver and 53.3mpg if you want drive going to each corner. Emissions here are 130 and 137g/km respectively.
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 petrol-engined car is a very modest Group 7 on the 1-50 scale, while the diesel is a little costlier to cover, weighing in at Group 10.
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 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. Enough to make it a better bet than a late, low mileage secondhand Crossover/4x4 rival? Many will think so.