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The Dacia Duster is a no-nonsense machine that wears its bargain price tag like a badge of honour. And we can’t help liking it for that.

On the face of it, the pitch made to the market by the Dacia Duster is so outrageous, so bold, so seemingly implausible that your first thought is to find the catch, which instinct tells you simply has to be there.

The fact is this: buy a new Duster and you'll find a good looking compact SUV with a spacious interior, for not much money, parked outside your house. It's cheaper than a Ford Fiesta, and the diminutive Smart car. It’ll only cost marginally more than Fiat’s asking price for the cheapest Fiat Panda, for goodness sake. The cheapest Skoda Yeti featuring an engine of identical power to that of the entry level Duster costs notably more.

The Duster is huge value for money

That said, the headline grabbing entry level price is for a poverty spec model without so much as a radio to its name and if you want your Duster to have four-wheel drive you’ll need to fork about £2000 more.

Moreover the base ‘Access’ grade comes only with 1.6-litre petrol power so if it’s diesel you want you’ll need to hop up to mid-spec ‘Ambience’ which, model for model is a further four-figure chunk of change and even that won’t buy you air-conditioning or alloy wheels. If you want such items as many might these days be regarded as basic essentials, you’ll need the top of the range ‘Laureate’.

Then again even this most dashing Duster of all still costs less than the skinniest Skoda Yeti.

Were this Duster like the last one, which went on sale here briefly at the end of the 1980s, perhaps the pricing would be understandable. But it’s not an automotive excrescence so terrible it makes a bus pass look attractive, it’s an apparently credible product made in a state of the art factory in Chennai, India out of largely Renault and Nissan components.

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Which is why Jean-Christophe Kugler, Executive Vice President of Dacia, is so pleased with the range of as he coins it 'reliable, user-friendly cars that are affordable as well'. Speaking at the 2016 Paris Motorshow, Kugler explained that the effort to improve the appearance and ergonomics hasn't ballooned the price with prices across the Dacia range increasing by a mere two percent over seven years.

It’s time to find out if there’s something we’ve missed.

Dacia duster

DESIGN & STYLING

Dacia Duster rear

Like its even cheaper Dacia Sandero sister, the Duster sits on the Renault-Nissan B0 platform which, for the avoidance of doubt is B Zero, not a personal hygiene issue. Relative to the Yeti to which it would so love to be compared, it’s a little longer, wider and sits on a larger wheelbase so whatever you’re losing, it’s not metal for the money.

The 2017 update has seen the Duster get a more distinctive exterior, with the new front grille dominating alongside an upgraded headlight system and bumpers. Inside the interior has been improved both in terms of quality and ergonomically, to allow it to retain its position as a compelling choice for those looking for a cheap, rugged small SUV.

Its EuroNCAP rating is bettered by the original Ford Focus

The platform mandates the use of traverse engines, in this case a 1.2-, 1.6-litre petrol or a 1.5-litre turbodiesel. The entry-level 1.2-litre petrol engine has 123bhp while the bigger capacity 1.6-litre petrol produces a miserly 112bhp and the diesel produces 107bhp. For the first time, the Duster will also recieve Renault's EDC dual clutch automatic gearbox, a decision driven, Kugler says, by the increase in sales of automatics - especially the dual clutch vareity and the limited effect it has on emissions.

Should you choose a 4x4 version, the all-wheel drive system comes courtesy of Nissan and provides three modes: front drive, permanent four-wheel drive or ‘automatic’ that that switch between the two according to need.

Cleverly these Dusters also come with an unusually low first gear ratio in place of a heavy, complex and expensive low ratio transfer box for off-roading.

As you might expect the suspension of front drive Dusters varies not at all from the class norm with struts at the front and a torsion beam rear axle. However four-wheel drive models receive an independent four link rear end that provides better wheel control and, in theory at least, superior ride and handling, in exchange for a substantial 67 litre reduction in boot capacity.

A word now about safety. For years now there has been an almost automatic presumption that any major new car from a major organisation competing in the market mainstream (Dacia has been owned by Renault since 1999) would almost inevitably earn a five star EuroNCAP crash rating. Not the Duster, which received a three star rating when tested in 2011.

Dacia says this is because the overall star rating cannot exceed the rating for the worst component of the test and it was clobbered in the ‘safety assist’ category by the test vehicle lacking stability control. It contends that had the car been so equipped (an option on diesel Dusters but not available on petrol cars), a more conventional, but still unimpressive, an overall four star rating would have been recorded.

Scratch the surface though, and you'll see a car that recorded four stars for adult protection, five stars for child protection and four for pedestrian safety.

INTERIOR

Dacia Duster interior

Peer into the Duster’s cabin and while you’re not going to conclude that the Promised Land now lies before you, you're unlikely to throw your hands up in horror. The interior looks perfectly pleasant and proficiently styled, even if a little grey. We say ‘looks’ because your fingers will not be rewarded by probing away too diligently at the largely rock hard plastics of many different textures.

For a car in which right hand drive appears an afterthought – it took two years for Dacia to get around to making it – the fundamental driving position is actually quite reasonable. There’s no reach adjustment on the steering wheel which is disappointing and taller drivers will find it’s too far away, but the relationship between seat, driver and pedals is acceptable.

Offering air-con only on the priciest models dents the Duster's value appeal

You sit high in the car in time-honoured SUV style and while the driver’s seat is height adjustable the squab itself is flat, short and shapeless providing no more than adequate comfort over longer distances.

Likewise the Dacia's side bolsters, whose lack of support is mitigated only by the fact the Duster is not a car that’s ever going to generate substantial lateral g.

Ergonomically it’s there or thereabouts. The switchgear is not pretty and the ventilation controls are set a little too low but it’s never a problem to identify and operate whichever dial, switch or button you need. All round visibility is excellent too. It’s worth remembering however that air conditioning is available only on top spec Laureate models.

And by class standards the Duster is quite spacious too. There’s room in back and front for four average adults to travel in peace. The only short straw will be drawn by the fifth person on board. Not only will he or she be perched uncomfortably on a pad between the rear seats, but the centre seatbelt arrangement, which has its upper mounting point far behind you on the C-pillar, is sub-optimal not just for you, but the person sitting to your left.

Predictably, given the price, there's not a great deal of equipment on the basic Duster model - but you do get power steering and remote central locking. Opting for the Access trim gets a bit more equipment, mainly in the shape of bigger steel wheels, electric front windows and height adjustable rear headrests. Move up to mid-spec Ambiance trims and suddenly the Duster gets a lot more modern, with kit including fog lights, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, while for 2016 the Ambiance Prime spec added a bit more luxury, including an exclusive metallic paint job and 16in alloy wheels.

The range-topping trims - Laureate and Prestige both offer 16in alloy wheels, air conditioning, electrically adjustable and heated wing mirrors, and convenience lights throughout the interior as standard, while the latter also includes a 7in touchscreen infotainment system with sat nav and traffic updates, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors within the package.

The Duster also has a decent boot: there’s no clever stuff here like underfloor storage or any means of securing your shopping. If its just pure space you want, at least in the two wheel drive Duster, there’s more space than you’ll find in the Yeti, Nissan Qashqai and even the Range Rover Evoque. Seats down and load area is comparable to that of an Audi A6 Avant.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Dacia Duster side profile

The Dacia Duster is lighter than you’d think, with even the diesel model weighing just 1205kg (though this rises to 1294kg with four-wheel drive).

On paper there appears little to tell between petrol and diesel performance but in the real world diesel will likely prove the preferable choice every time - not just because of the extra range and fuel consumption it provides.

It weighs in at 1kg more than the latest Renaultsport Clio

This is not the kind of car you’ll ever be likely to drive to the limit of its performance potential so what matters in every day life is that the engine responds keenly to each press of the pedal, no matter what revs the engine is pulling.

This is territory the ubiquitous Renault/Nissan 1.5-litre diesel knows well. It has excellent low down torque although, even by diesel standards, it gets breathless very quickly at the top end.

There’s little turbo lag and always a strong response to your commands, aided by the slightly notchy six speed gearbox that nevertheless has all points of the Duster’s power curve nicely covered.

A shame then that in the Duster installation the diesel is intrusively noisy at all speeds from idle to redline. In most such cars you accept a degree of clatter when the engine’s cold or under load but so too should you be able to expect it quieten down to a point where it’s nearly inaudible at a cruise. In the Duster this never happens.

RIDE & HANDLING

Dacia Duster cornering

You get the impression that the provision of decent handling and ride were not among the options presented to Dacia’s chassis engineers by the raw material at their disposal. Drive the Duster, at least the front-drive Duster with a beam axle at the back, and you can almost see the thought process that followed.

Probably correctly ride comfort has been prioritised and as a result the Duster chassis actually seems superficially quite sophisticated at first, sponging away everyday lumps and bumps like a seasoned pro.

Its suspension set-up, though rudimentary, fits the car's billing

But there is a price to be paid: while the soft springs may keep such intrusions from shuddering through the cabin, the same cannot be said of the steering which feels like it has a less-than-rigidly mounted rack.

It provides the unlikely and unfortunate combination of substantial kickback through the rim with almost zero feedback - precisely the reverse of what you might choose.

And those soft springs also affect primary ride comfort with quite pronounced roll rates evident on country roads and notable heave and wallow over crests and into dips.

Braking ability is reasonable: the pedal is a little spongy and ultimate retardation feels limited by the amount of forward weight transference created by those soft springs, but ABS actuation is sensibly delayed and the system itself is fade free in all normal use.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Dacia Duster

The Duster is not just cheap to buy, it’s cheap to run too. Your instincts might tell you to suspect the Nissan Qashqai using the same diesel engine would somehow be more frugal but it’s not: the two-wheel drive diesel Duster that’s be the best seller of the range does 56.5mpg on the combined cycle, a smidge better than the 54.3mpg recorded by its distant cousin.

However neither is near what a 1.6-litre Greenline Skoda Yeti achieves and with a small 50-litre tank, it’s be a brave driver who pushes the range past a reasonable but no-longer exceptional 500 miles in normal driving.

It's probably best to opt for a diesel

Petrol models won’t even break 40mpg, providing one more reason for you to avoid them.

The Duster comes with a standard 3yr/60,000 mile warranty that can be extended to 5yr/60,000 miles or 7yr/100,000 miles.

Residually Dusters are expected to perform better than you might expect because small SUVs usually fare quite well, there aren’t many on the road and with prices like these, there’s just not that far to fall. Also dealers will not provide any discount at all, which is bad news for those who buy new but will help shore up second hand values.

VERDICT

4 star Dacia Duster

How much should a car’s price affect how we think about it? Were the Dacia Duster priced alongside those cars you’d regard as its natural competitors, it’d be in for something of a kicking now.

The truth is that compared to the class leading Yeti, the Duster is way off the pace in every important area save interior space. Moreover in certain regards, refinement, handling and NCAP crash test result in particular, the Duster performs poorly by almost any standard.

The Duster is not without appeal, but it's not a car for everyone

But you cannot ignore the pachyderm sitting patiently in the corner. The Duster is an attractive, spacious and, with diesel power, a relatively frugal SUV available for much less than you’d expect.

Its proposition to the marketplace is truly remarkable and so long as you go into the dealer knowing the car you’re looking at is far from the state of the art, certain allowances can be made.

Besides for cash strapped families living in difficult times, the Duster is a proposition unlike any other on the market. It may be based on some old technologies and it certainly has its flaws, but it is relevant, effective and cheap.

In our eyes and those of the thousands all over Europe who’ve turned it into such an astonishing success and will doubtless now do the same in Britain, that is what counts for most.

Dacia duster

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Dacia Duster 2009-2018 First drives