Dacia Duster review
by David Finlay (13 August 2012)
I was once asked, by a chap who said he would buy such a thing if it existed, why manufacturers didn't build large, cheap cars. I mumbled something about profit margins, and that seemed to do the trick, but it's not the answer I would give now. Now, I would draw his attention to the Dacia Duster SUV.
Dacia, pronounced Da-tcha, is a Romanian brand which has always had a relationship with Renault, originally building the French cars under licence and these days being a subsidiary company. It's not well-known in the UK, but it's very successful elsewhere in western Europe, largely (though, as we'll see, not entirely) because of its pricing structure.
To put that another way, Dacias are very cheap. The list price of the most basic Duster, whose name I think it might have been wise to change before bringing it to the UK, is just £8995, which is lower than that of several city cars and nearly all superminis, while the most expensive version costs only £14,995.
(Those prices are fixed only until December 31, and the Duster doesn't officially go on sale until January. But Dacia has confirmed that if you order your Duster in 2012, you pay the 2012 price, and it seems unlikely that there will be much, if any, change next year.)
As you can imagine, equipment levels are fairly basic, but there are plenty of options. Many of them are available in the four Packs, namely Adventurer (door and wheelarch protectors - £445), Protection (rear parking sensors, an alarm, a tailgate protector, mudguards and a boot liner - £575), Styling (extra exterior chrome, plus daytime running lights - £655) and Touring (towbar and appropriate accessories, transverse roof bars and a front centre armrest - £555). There's also metallic paint for £470, and ESC and traction control for £575.
The standard warranty applies for only three years, but if you think you're going to keep your Duster for a long time and cover a substantial mileage in it you can pay an extra £395 to have this extended to five years/60,000 miles, or £850 to take it to seven years/100,000 miles.
Opting for all the trimmings and the maximum warranty adds £3900 to the price, which takes the most expensive model to £18,895. Only three versions of the Hyundai ix35 and two of the Kia Sportage - both claimed as rivals by Dacia - cost less, and each of those ranges has at least one car costing over £25,000, for which you could easily buy two Dusters.
Although this no longer applies, it used to be that the main reason to buy a Hyundai or Kia (and previously a Lada or Skoda) was that they were cheap, not because they were any good. As far as the cars it will sell in the UK are concerned, Dacia has skipped this step. The Duster's financial appeal is very obvious, but it's not the whole story.
For a start, this is a very roomy car of its type. I'm six foot three tall, and you could fit four of me inside a Duster with no problem at all. Luggage capacity, in the worst case of a version with four-wheel drive and a spare wheel, varies between 408 and 1570 litres depending on whether you fold down the rear seats, and that's very competitive in the class (though it would help if the load sill were a few inches lower than it is).
The Duster is also light for a mid-sized SUV, so the fact that the only engine options - both from Renault - are a 105bhp 1.6-litre petrol and a 110bhp 1.5-litre turbo diesel shouldn't lead you to believe that it's slow. It's no particularly quick, either, with a 0-62mph time of around 12 seconds, but it performs as well as it needs to on tarmac, while combined fuel economy of up to 56.5mpg for the diesel isn't too . . . ahem, dusty.
Both engines come with a choice of front- or four-wheel drive, and if your lifestyle requires you to do some off-roading the diesel 4x4 is the obvious choice. On the media launch Dacia gave UK journalists an opportunity to try out this model on the dirty stuff, during which there were even more subtle and less-than-subtle comments from company employees and subcontractors than is normally the case on these occasions, and although everyone involved was very pleasant this is not a tactic I enjoy being part of. If I could spike it by pointing out major flaws in the Duster's off-road behaviour, I would.
I have to say, however, that the car did pretty well on a much tougher course (basically the side of a Perthshire hill with only mild intervention by the designers) than I was expecting. It helps that the launch, ramp and departure angles are about the same as those of a Land Rover Freelander, and while there's no low-ratio mode and no hill descent control the Duster coped admirably even on sections where I thought it might become unruly.
It would certainly be a suitable first vehicle for an off-road beginner, and I think it will appeal to people with more experience of that sort of thing than I have. It's also surely more capable than the majority of buyers will ever need it to be.
On-road, it's even better. For an SUV, it rides very well, partly because the only tyres available are high-profile ones on relatively small 16" wheels, but partly also because the suspension has been properly set up. For that reason it also handles far better than you probably think it does - if you're in the market for a Duster you might not be interested in driving enthusiastically along deserted country roads, but if you do want to do this the car will play along.
The Duster is available in three forms, all of them with a choice of how many driven wheels they have (4x4s cost £2000 more). The engine situation is more divisive, since the entry-level Access comes only with the 1.6 petrol engine, which in turn is fitted only to the Access.
With white paintwork and black bumpers, doorhandles and mirrors, the Access looks as basic as it is - it doesn't even have a radio, though there is pre-wiring for an accessory-fit one. The mid-range Ambiance is somewhat better-equipped, with an MP3-compatible radio/CD player, Bluetooth connectivity, AUX and USB inputs, a split-folding rear seatback (but a one-piece bench), front foglights, a height-adjustable driver's seat, body-coloured bumpers, a choice of five paint colours and some interior and exterior chrome.
The top model is the Lauréate, which is the only one with alloy wheels and also comes with Piano black interior and satin exterior trimmings, manual air-conditioning, electric rear windows, heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors and a leather-rimmed steering wheel. No, that's not lavish, but let's not forget that the front-wheel drive Lauréate costs less than £13,000.
The most important thing to realise about the pricing is that it's a major feature of the Duster but does not entirely dominate it. Ignore it, however briefly, and you'll still find that the Duster is a very acceptable SUV with few bad points (unhelpful rear window design, of French rather than Romanian origin, is the bit I like least) and several very good ones.
Bring the cost question back into your thoughts and I think you'll find that the Duster suddenly becomes hugely attractive. Even in the UK, where customers are generally more keen to spend money on pleasant but irrelevant options than their European counterparts, Dacia may just have created a business model which other manufacturers find themselves having to copy.