Published on Wednesday 12 March 2014 18:27
Ten Second Review
The Dacia Duster does something extremely clever. It forces you to reassess what exactly is really necessary in modern cars and pares the frills back accordingly. That ought to make it a pretty joyless thing, but it's actually very likeable, especially in the 4x4 diesel form we look at here. Dig down the back of the sofa for some money and join the queue.
Romanian maker Dacia is no newbie to car building, having since 1966 been turning out cars which were usually versions of older Renault models. This relicensing of older designs is something that's allowed developing countries to build cars at a reduced capital outlay, but tends to be something that we sniff at here in the West. It does go on though. SEAT's Exeo is a previous shape Audi A4 and for some years Chrysler got Mercedes-Benz hand-me-downs on which to build many of their vehicles.
The Duster SUV is a little different and comes to market with Renault power but an identity all of its own. Cheap 4x4s and Crossovers like the Nissan Qashqai are already firmly entrenched in the segment this model wants to target, but the Dacia is armed with a list price that looks set to make a step change in how we buy new cars. Even with diesel power and all-wheel drive, as tested here, it's still at least 25% less than obvious rivals. Interested? You should be.
Entry-level Duster model prices are based around the provision of a breathless 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine. Most UK buyers though, will give this variant little more than a cursory glance on their way to sign up for the infinitely preferable 110bhp 1.5-litre dCi diesel we tried. On paper, this unit doesn't seem much quicker than the petrol version, 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.
As for handling, well it may well come as quite some surprise then, to learn that the market consensus in Europe, where this car has already been on sale some time, is that this Duster 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 - all enough to make quite a few allegedly more serious 4x4s look a bit self conscious.
Design and Build
This is a smartly styled thing. Most customers will doubtless be drawn to the upper specification models, but I think the car looks its very best when finished in basic Alpine white and rocking a set of sixteen inch steel wheels. Yes, there's a bit of inverted snob appeal at work, but it's cool. There's no escaping that fact.
Get inside and it all smells a little petrochemical, like cars in the Eighties used to, but there's no shortage of space. The panel fit on the dashboard isn't going to give Audi engineers cause to break out their drawing boards, but I actually think you'd feel a bit let down if you got inside this car and found soft-touch plastics on the dash. You want elephant grey, indestructibly hard plastic? Coming right up. And once again, it fits perfectly with the pared-back utility feel of the car.
There's better legroom in the back than you'd find in most compact 4x4s and the boot is a decent size, although the different layout of the rear suspension in the all-wheel drive model pinches a little space. You get 475-litres under the parcel shelf in a front-wheel drive car and 443 in the all-wheel drive model.
Market and Model
So let's get down to the nuts and bolts of the value proposition, because that's the big draw here. The almost unbelievable sticker price of around £9,000 you might have seen actually applies to the stripped-out 'Access'-trimmed petrol model that doesn't even have a stereo. For diesel power in your Duster, you'll need at least to stretch to mid-range 'ambiance' trim, for which you'll need a budget of around £12,000. If you want the 4WD system we tested, you'll need to find a further £2,000 on top of that.
Most buyers choose to find the £1,500 premium to go from 'Ambiance' to top-spec 'Laureate' trim, because the latter comes with air conditioning, as well as niceties like alloy wheel, body-coloured mirrors and door handles and a trip computer. Even a fully-loaded Laureate diesel 4x4 though, will save you over £3,000 on a diesel 4x4 version of this car's closest Crossover/compact SUV sector rival, Skoda's Yeti.
So has Dacia cut important corners to make this car so affordable? In safety perhaps? Not really. I normally criticise the absence of stability and traction control in newly launched models, but here it's excusable given the prices being asked, particularly as adding this package costs a reasonable £350. A pity that this option only applies to diesel models though. At least ISOFIX childseat fastenings, twin front and side airbags and anti lock brakes are standard-fit - and you get a proper full-sized spare wheel on 4x4 versions. Disappointing that seatbelt pre-tensioners are fitted only to top Laureate models though.
Cost of Ownership
The Duster doesn't cost a lot to buy and neither does it cost a whole hill of beans to run. The combined fuel economy figure for this 4x4 diesel variant is 53.3mpg, around 3mpg less than the 2WD version. The CO2 showing is 137g/km.
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. It'll also help that there also seems to be quite the queue building for these cars, so demand looks as if it will maintain at a healthy level for decent used stock. 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.
The Dacia Duster is, on the face of it, a refreshing piece of no-nonsense product design that should be welcomed with open arms. It has changed the way new cars are marketed in the UK. That's the headline position at any rate. Behind that attention-grabbing price though, you'll find a little bit of sly up-selling. Dacia knows that almost every customer will want air conditioning, which instantly forces them into the range-topping car. That then means the diesel engine we tried or nothing and the choice between front and four-wheel drive, the all-wheel drive tested here carrying a £2,000 premium. Suddenly that car you thought was going to retail for chump change becomes a more serious financial commitment.
Specify an extended warranty, stability control and metallic paint and you could be looking at well over £16,000. Mind you, that's still £3,500 cheaper than an equivalent Skoda Yeti and a whopping £8,000 less than the (admittedly more powerful) Nissan Qashqai. So yes, the Duster is still a massive bargain, but just make sure you've done your homework as to what you want and what you need. Go in with your eyes open and you'll never be disappointed.