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Romania’s value champion compact crossover enters a second model generation. It still might not be as refined as other SUVs, but the Duster is very much in a class of its own

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The Dacia Duster ushered in the very beginning of the Dacia story, at least as far as the UK market is concerned; and so perhaps us Brits will always think of it as the Romanian budget brand's formative model. Back in 2013 (when the Dacia brand's UK launch happened), Autocar liked the Duster, we rated it and, along with its Sandero, Sandero Stepway and Logan MCV range-mates, we watched it get off to a flying sales start.

Dacia sold just over 25,000 cars in the UK in 2017, and claimed more than 1% market share: more than Lexus, Alfa Romeo and Jeep managed between them. And now? Well, while other brands struggled through the pandemic years and the chip shortages and recession that has followed, Dacia has blossomed. It now makes Europe's second biggest-selling new car (the Sandero supermini); in the UK, at least, sales of the Duster aren't far behind its smaller sibling.

Square-shape grille motif is now larger and more imposing than it was on the facelifted first-generation Duster - but looks and feels as plasticky as ever

The second-generation Duster is a car whose dimensions are almost identical to that of the one it replaces, but on which there have been key styling and architectural changes wrought and which has an all-new interior offering more space and better occupant comfort and convenience than its predecessor.

The Duster is set to continue where the last one left off, having that ‘shockingly affordable’ sub-£10k entry-level price, but also developing in ways well beyond its predecessor.

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This is a car in which cabin noise at a cruise has been halved in comparison to the old Duster, says Dacia. It can be had with equipment never seen on a Dacia before, from a multi-view reversing camera to keyless entry and a blind-spot warning active safety system. It still comes with the option of two driven axles and more than 200mm of ground clearance, but now you can have leather seats and climate control with it.

So is this still the simple, functional, cheery Duster we knew before? We chose to test a mid-range 1.6-litre SCe 115 4x2 Comfort model to find out.

Dacia Duster design & styling

While the second-generation Duster’s outward appearance is similar to that of its predecessor, Dacia insists that every single body panel on the SUV is new.

The styling changes that have been made seem relatively subtle and minor at first glance, but when you look closer and consider them together they do work to give the Duster an appearance that’s more sophisticated than before.

At the front, the design of the headlight clusters has been overhauled, while the headlights themselves have been moved closer to the lateral extremities of the front end in order to emphasise the Duster’s width. There’s a new grille, while the base of the car’s windscreen has been brought forward by 100mm and the screen itself is now more steeply raked (or less upright) to give the impression that there’s more room in the cabin.

Round the back, new tail-lights – which could almost have been lifted straight off the back of a Jeep Renegade and rotated through 45deg – are the most noticeable change.

The car received Dacia's new corporate brand logo on its grille and interior along with the rest of the Dacia range late in 2022.

A fairly broad range of engines are offered in the car - among them a diesel, for buyers who still value the blend of efficiency and torquey appetite for work that diesel offers. The Duster's 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel produces 113bhp, and makes the car miss out only narrowly on 62mph from rest in ten seconds. On the petrol side, meanwhile, you can choose between 1.0-litre three-cylinder- and 1.3-litre four-cylinder TCE turbo motors of between 89- and 148bhp; with a 98bhp 'Bi-Fuel' option adding an LPG-fuelled option. There's a two-pedal 'EDC' automatic option on the uppermost petrol option, while four-wheel drive can be had on the diesel.

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Beneath the revised exterior sits Dacia’s ‘B0’ platform architecture – the same that underpinned the previous Duster and last-gen Dacia Sandero and Dacia Logan, as well as the Russian-market Lada XRAY and Lada Largus.

Suspension comprises uncomplicated and low-cost MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar at the front, while the hardware at the rear differs depending on the number of driven wheels. Two-wheel drive Dusters make do with a torsion beam (and have a larger boot as a result), while those with four-wheel drive use a multi-link arrangement.

Electric power steering is new for the second-generation Duster, while some effort has also gone into improving safety. Blind-spot warning is available for the first time, albeit only on top-spec Prestige models, while ABS, emergency brake assist, electronic stability control and traction control are standard across the range. Because this is practically the extent of the Duster’s active safety systems, its Euro NCAP rating isn’t great: a left-hand-drive variant scored just three stars in 2017.

Two-wheel-drive petrol Dusters are claimed to weigh 1179kg. Our test car (mid-spec, with optional spare wheel and a full tank of fuel) indicated 1286kg on the scales, with that mass being split 59:41 front to rear.


dacia duster road test 2023 11 dash

If this car cost anything like as much its key rivals, we might easily knock a couple of stars off the Duster’s interior rating for the sheer quantity of hard plastic mouldings you’ll find inside it.

However, as with nearly every aspect of the Duster, the need to remind yourself that you’re dealing with what we might reasonably consider to be the UK’s cheapest family car is ever present. After all, you don’t make a viable business proposition for the £13,195 price tag for our Comfort-spec model by throwing leather, wood veneer and brushed aluminium at its every cabin surface.

Just the driver’s seat features height adjustment, and only in Essential spec and above. Front passengers may find themselves in a slightly perched position

Viewed through the ‘shockingly affordable’ lens that Dacia attaches to its marketing bumf, there’s very little to bemoan with regards to the Duster’s cabin. Sure, the plastics aren’t inviting to the touch and, yes, a lot of the switchgear looks plain and some of it feels a little flimsy. But the sculpted shape of the car’s dashboard actually breaks up its surface area quite cleverly and it looks fairly attractive in places, and it doesn’t reflect the sun too much either.

Despite the Duster being pitched as a bargain-basement SUV, you can nevertheless get one with a fairly modern-looking touchscreen infotainment system. Graphically, it’s a pretty rudimentary system — the navigation mapping reminding you more of a third-party add-on solution — but it’s surprisingly responsive and works fine.

It comes with the majority of features you’d expect, including satellite navigation with traffic information, Bluetooth and DAB radio, while the video feed from the rear parking camera is displayed here too. There are USB slots for smartphone charging and MP3 players can be connected via the auxiliary audio port.

The speakers are surprisingly good given the Duster’s pricing. There’s little in the way of distortion — unless you turn the volume up very loud — and the sound quality isn’t as tinny as it can be on cheap superminis. Marked in isolation, this is by no means an outstanding infotainment system. In the context of a £13k SUV, though, it’s pretty impressive.

The car’s seats are broadly comfortable but a touch hard; you can certainly tell that Dacia has elected to firm up their foam padding, and it might have done a better job in shaping the aforementioned for optimum comfort and support.

While the driver and front-seat passenger won’t have any complaints about space, those in the rear will find that knee and leg room is a little bit tighter than in some smallish crossovers. This isn’t just the case when sat behind someone fairly tall, either. Even with the front seats adjusted to suit an adult of average height, larger adult second-row passengers will likely find their knees brushing against the seats in front.

As for boot space, there’s 445 litres on offer, increasing to 1623 when the rear seats are folded flat. That is plenty by compact crossover class standards. The aperture itself is wide, and although there is a reasonably high lip to navigate, this is common among most compact crossovers too. Four-wheel-drive models make do with a 411-litre boot, which expands to 1614 litres with the back seats collapsed. But if you spent another £5000 on an equivalent Vauxhall Crossland X, you’d get less carrying space than in either Duster derivative.


dacia duster road test 2023 20 cornering front

When a brand like Dacia is replacing a car priced like the Duster, it’s bound to be selective about the ways in which it attempts to improve the car’s various dynamic standards, old model to new. Before the hard work even starts, that means making savvy decisions about what budget crossover buyers really want.

That Dacia had the right priorities in mind with this second-generation Duster is immediately obvious when you move off in the car, however. The Duster’s atmospheric 1.6-litre petrol engine doesn’t produce the kind of accessible torque to make performance seem remotely urgent, nor even enough to make it possible to spin up the car’s hybrid on and off-road tyres in first gear, which is a rarity among modern cars.

Although no one will buy a Duster for its on-road dynamics, the driving experience overall exceeds what might be expected from one of the UK’s cheapest family cars

But there’s enough performance here to make the Duster easy to spirit along very unobtrusively in the flow of modern urban and cross-country traffic. And of all the words in the preceding sentence, ‘unobtrusively’ may well be the one valued most highly by the engineers responsible for this car.

Because, while the last Duster was pretty rough and ready in terms of engine refinement, the new one settles to a surprisingly quiet idle, and cruises with very little ingress of engine noise. At motorway pace, the relatively high crank speeds obliged by the Duster’s five-speed gearbox combine with some pretty average wind noise suppression to take the edge off the car’s very creditable showing on cruise refinement elsewhere.

But overall, the new Duster should give people moving directly out of the old car plenty of cause to be impressed by its good cruising manners. Except for some unnecessary ‘stiction’ at the very bottom of an otherwise well-metered accelerator pedal’s travel and some bagginess in the shift quality of the manual gearchange, the car’s controls are entirely pleasant to use.

With respect to the former, it’s odd to have what feels like a kickdown switch at the extreme of travel of the accelerator in a car with a manual gearbox. And while you might not imagine you’d drive the Duster hard enough for it to annoy, this is actually the sort of car in which it’s necessary to work the engine to its maximum pretty regularly just to squeeze it into gaps in the traffic and generally to make decent progress in it.

When you do work it hard, that engine does feel a bit resonant at high revs, and has to work through one or two ‘flat spots’ in the rev range on its way to a 6200rpm redline that, oddly, isn’t marked on the tacho. Even so, the Duster is absolutely no chore to drive and, in most important ways, the car’s driving experience disguises its budget status quite well.


dacia duster road test 2023 21 cornering rear

Carrying over the original Duster’s B0 model platform doesn’t seem to have been the worst news for the second-generation version as far as this section of the road test is concerned.

This is a fundamentally simple vehicle, after all, and the incremental fettling of its ride and handling, rather than starting again with an all-new component set, has delivered a car that rides in the fairly soft, quiet, comfortable and obliging way you might expect of something with 16in alloy wheels and 65-profile tyres (both almost unknown among rival compact crossovers).

Electromechanical power steering helps to filter out the effect of the transmission bumps, but they’re dealt with less competently by the torsion beam rear suspension

While the car clearly puts comfort and ease of use ahead of outright grip and dynamism on its priority list, it also handles just fine – with decent steering response, present but progressive lateral body roll and a good balance of grip that doesn’t deteriorate too much when you need to hurry it through bends.

The fact is, the meekness of the engine makes you unlikely to regularly investigate exactly how much cornering speed the chassis can carry – and when you do, it won’t be for the fun of it.

If there’s any telltale of the Duster’s cut-price status in evidence here, it may be on outright shock absorption and general ride isolation, because sharper edges certainly find their way into the cabin more readily than they might in a more expensive rival and there are times when the car’s vertical body control could be more settled.

The new electromechanical power steering does a better job of filtering out any shocks that might otherwise have diverted the car’s front wheels than the one’s old hydraulic rack used to, however. The rack feels pragmatically paced, and is of medium-light, easily-to-twirl weighting at parking speeds and feels well-judged at higher speeds too.

A decade or so ago, a car with the Duster’s budget positioning might not have come with anti-lock brakes and definitely not with electronic stability control. The fact that a £10,000 family car now includes both as standard is a victory for safety.

Moreover, the fact that the ESC is a decent system which isn’t overly intrusive or without subtlety — and so you won’t regret not being able to disable it — is also good news. The car’s outright body control is respectable, and it grips keenly enough and stays decently balanced even when rolling hard, allowing the ESC to stay in the background until you really need it.

When it does chime in, it can act to quell ham-fisted throttle-on understeer as well as oversteer (which isn’t to be taken for granted among systems on budget cars). It treads pretty heavily when the car’s rear axle begins to slide, grabbing harshly at the front brakes, but it’s ultimately effective.


dacia duster road test 2023 01 tracking front

While Duster prices may start at under £10,000, you’d have to be a fairly committed sort to opt for that entry-level Access model. This variant comes without air-con or a radio, although it has been upgraded with electric front windows as standard.

The one-up Essential trim, which adds air-con, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and a height-adjustable driver’s seat, looks less like an austerity special and still has an appealing £11,595 price.

Residuals are good but not stellar, at 53% after 36,000 miles, but it doesn’t depreciate quite as sharply as its rivals

Our pick of the range, though, would be the Comfort. Here, you get a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with sat-nav, as well as smarter-looking satin-chrome front and rear bumpers, cruise control, electric rear windows, and a rear parking camera and sensors. It does command a £3200 premium over the entry-level model but, in the grand scheme of things, £13,195 is still buttons when you consider how much car you’re getting for the money.

In terms of depreciation, the Duster performs well. Our experts predict that our test-specification model will retain 53% of its value over 36,000 miles and three years. Pricier rivals such as the Suzuki Vitara and Ssangyong Tivoli are forecast to do much worse.



dacia duster road test 2023 22 static

Five years ago, the Dacia Duster came to the UK with a starting price that offered change out of £9000. We couldn’t quite believe the value for money it offered, or the fact that driving or owning one wouldn’t feel more like a wilful act of masochism.

The second-generation version feels familiar in lots of ways, but its comfort, refinement, material quality, practicality and convenience have all improved – and you can still get one for less than £10,000. While the car’s appeal may be limited in other ways, that fact alone wins it enormous credit.

Comfortable, simple SUV keeps its budget family motoring star quality

Dacia has assumed that, given the choice between either a more pacey and enticing drive or significantly improved cruising manners, the average Duster buyer would take the latter, and rightly so in our book.

Moreover, by focusing on making only worthwhile improvements to this super-affordable family car, Dacia has also preserved what we liked so much about its predecessor: its rare, unaffected simplicity of character.


Dacia Duster 2018-2023 First drives