Dacia makes no bones about it; the Duster – and the brand in general – exists purely to satisfy buyers looking for a budget family car. Following our review of the super-cheap Sandero hatchback, we can now bring you our road test of its SUV big brother, the Duster, whose combination of rugged looks, spacious cabin and four-wheel drive chassis ensures it can compete head-on with the established competition. Four-wheel drive versions start at £10,995, but are truly basic in their specification so we tried the mid-range £13,495 dCi Ambiance 110 4X4 instead.
The Dacia Duster Ambiance is still refreshingly basic despite its mid-range specification; you’ll need to ‘stretch’ to the £14,995 Laureate model to get alloy wheels for example. Flared wheelarches, chunky sills and front and rear skidplates make for a Tonka toy-style stance. But it’s this simple design free of trimmings that really appeals – for many this car will be a tool rather than their pride and joy. With that in mind you could happily try some hardcore off-roading without too much fear of damaging the bodywork, though the body-coloured bumpers on this Ambiance trim aren’t as practical as the un-painted versions on the entry-level car.
The Dacia Duster follows the same plan inside, where even our mid-range model erred on the side of spartan. Plenty of switchgear is recognizable from previous generation Renaults, and some of the hard plastic will be familiar too. A bit like the venerable Land Rover Defender, the Duster has a cabin that looks like it could be washed out with a hose. And while most will only be subjected to small children and household pets, the hardy interior is still a benefit. There’s plenty of room too, and the boot is especially sizable at 475 litres. If we’d complain about anything, it’d be the rake-only adjustment for the steering wheel, which makes finding the perfect driving position more difficult for some.
Performance & handling
The Dacia Duster’s 1.5-litre dCi 110 diesel is pretty old-tech and it shows its true colours as soon as you start it. Despite its apparent lack of culture and refinement, the unit provides acceptable performance, sprinting from 0-62mph in 12.5 seconds and finishing its run at 104mph. With 240Nm of torque delivered at 1,750rpm it proves perfectly flexible on the move and the Duster has little trouble in keeping up with the flow.
The Dacia Duster’s chassis lacks cutting edge dynamics – the Skoda Yeti or Nissan Qashqai are far more car-like to drive. The body rolls through the corners and there’s noticeable pitch and dive under hard acceleration and braking. But the Duster hangs on hard, and the benefit of the soft suspension is a generally comfortable ride regardless of speed.
Economy & environment
The Dacia Duster isn’t a particularly aerodynamic shape, but that doesn’t stop it managing 53.3mpg on the combined cycle. That’s not class leading of course, and neither is the 137g/km CO2 output, but when the car itself costs so little the argument is a few extra pounds on fuel and road tax is insignificant. Talking of which, you’ll pay £120 for road tax and company car users will lose £47 from their monthly pay packet in Benefit In Kind tax.
Equipment & value
Value is the buzzword with the Dacia brand, and the Duster doesn’t disappoint – but it majors on space rather than equipment. Our Ambiance spec car came with 16inch steel wheels, cloth seats, an immobilizer, centre differential lock, electric front windows and remote locking. If you want air conditioning you’ll need to stump up for the top-spec Laureate trim and there’s no sat-nav option across the range. All models come with a three year, 60,000 mile warranty as standard, but customers can upgrade to five or seven years for an extra £395 or £850, respectively.
Dacia’s parent firm Renault always impresses when facing Euro NCAP tests, but unfortunately that doesn’t cross over to the Duster – three stars is all that it could muster. Still the SUV comes with ABS, four airbags, Isofix seat mounting points and Emergency Brake Assist, but it seems with safety you really do get what you pay for.
If you’re looking for a tough SUV with four-wheel drive on a budget then you could do a lot worse than a Dacia Duster. We love the way it looks, drives and the fact that – despite it being completely no frills – it still has a soul. It’s a refreshingly honest experience from start to finish, and while some of its rivals will be more refined, more car-like or better equipped, none offer quite the same value for money. It’s easy to see why the Duster has proved so popular elsewhere, and with its uber competitive pricing it can’t fail here in the UK either.
Model tested: Dacia Duster dCi 110 4X4 Ambiance
Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel
Acceleration: 0-62 in 12.5 seconds
Top speed: 104mph
Emissions: 137g/km CO2