What is it?
The new Dacia Duster is the car with which Renault will relaunch its meteoric Romanian car brand in the UK market in 2012. As such, it’s a vitally important model; the Duster must be good enough to impress some of the most discerning customers in Europe – us Brits.
Based on the same platform that underpins the current Logan saloon, the new Duster is a compact crossover 4x4 that, at roughly 4.3-metres long and 1.8-metres wide, takes up about as much roadspace as a Golf-sized family hatchback. As such, it’s aimed squarely at someone who might be tempted by a Nissan Qashqai, Peugeot 3008 or Skoda Yeti.
But it won’t be priced like a Qashqai – or even like the Skoda, come to mention it. Because it’s built on a platform recycled, in part, from Renault’s last-generation Clio, and in a factory in low-cost Eastern Europe, the Duster should start from less than £11,000 when it goes on sale in Britain in a couple of years’ time.
Right now, £11k won’t even buy you a boggo Ford Fiesta – and the Duster is a rugged, roomy and reasonably attractive new quasi-offroader from the class above that. Doesn’t take a genius to see why Renault suspects this car, and its immediate siblings, could be quite popular in post-credit-crunch Britain, does it?
What’s it like?
Damned hard to criticise. Alright, so the Duster isn’t going to win any awards for originality or meticulous build quality, but to these eyes it’s a stout, handsome and distinctive car, and certainly doesn’t look as if it’s been designed on a shoestring.
The Duster’s cabin looks a little more obviously ‘no-frills’ than its exterior. We drove a range-topping model fitted with body-coloured fascia trims, but they did little to jazz up the interior. Plastics are hard to the touch in places, flimsy and coarsely finished in others, and instruments and switchgear look and feel out of date here and there. At least it’s all hard-wearing.
There are three powertrain options: a 1.6-litre petrol engine with 114bhp, or a 1.5-litre dCi commonrail turbodiesel with either 84- or 108bhp. The 84bhp diesel is only available with front-wheel drive and a five-speed manual ‘box; the two more powerful options are offered with a switchable four-wheel drive system that works via an electronically actuated torque converter.
The 108bhp oil-burner is arguably the most capable option in the range, coming with a six-speed ‘box with an extra-short first gear ratio for use offroad. Dacia opted not to fit a low range transfer ‘box to the Duster on the grounds that it would add weight, cost and complexity. As it is, the range-topping Duster tips the scales at 1250kg, making it quite agile over very challenging terrain.
Independent suspension all-round helps the all-wheel driven Dusters keep four wheels on the ground over steep tumps and through troughs, while the front-driven ones have an H-shaped torsion bar suspension system at the rear.
The latter makes them marginally less capable off road, but also allows for more boot space. And yet with approach and departure angles of better than 30 degrees, more than 200mm of ground clearance, and a chassis and underbody that’s been reinforced in case it should come into contact with passing topography, even the two-wheel driven Dusters are capable of clambering much further offroad that you’d think.
The Duster we drove on the road – a 1.5-litre, 84bhp, front-driven dCi – had decent enough performance for everyday use. Ride quality, rolling refinement and ‘NVH’ were a little below class standards, just as you might expect from a car that costs £4000 less than the, err, class standard.
The seats were a little short on support too, and the absence of reach adjustment on the steering column could be significant for taller drivers.
Still, the Duster steered fluently and accurately and gripped the tarmac well on its hybrid offroad tyres.
Should I buy one?
Depends how you feel about austerity. This car isn’t a work of engineering brilliance, for sure: at times it would feel noisy, dated and cheap compared to more expensively engineered small 4x4s.
But at other times – most of the time, probably – we suspect you’d feel rather pleased with your decision to buy a Dacia Duster. This is a car with surprising offroad credentials; more than adequate on-road abilities; as much passenger and luggage space as a small estate car; and that your can buy for £4k less than the cheapest Skoda Yeti.
As such, it’s a compact offroader for people who didn’t think they could afford one. And as such, it’s an incredible amount of car for your money: a bargain of the kind that rarely comes along in the market for new cars.
The Duster’s equally rare because it’s a car with a simple and uncompromised character. So often, the makers of budget cars spend what limited development purses they have trying (almost always in vain) to make them look and feel more expensive; the Duster, by contrast, is a car designed to be cheap to buy, cheap to own, practical, capable and long-lasting.
It’s a ‘no-nonsense’ sort of machine that wears its bargain basement price tag like a badge of honour. And we can’t help really liking it for that.