When Romanian manufacturer Dacia announced that it was going to enter the UK market early next year with its Duster SUV, a lot of the resulting fuss and to-do centred on the fact that the entry model would cost just £8995.
Couple of things to bear in mind about that. First, the price is confirmed only until the end of the pre-ordering period on December 31; it might not go up immediately after that, but it might. Second, you can forget about any discounts.
Even so, £8995 is an incredibly low sum for an SUV with - among other positive attributes to be discussed later - lots of room for four six-foot adults and plenty left over for luggage. To put it into context, the most basic Ford Fiesta and Renault Clio cost several hundred pounds more, as do higher-spec versions of smaller city cars, and the cheapest SUV rival, the greatly inferior Suzuki Jimny, is £3000 more expensive. Hyundai and Kia, whose SUVs Dacia mystifyingly considers to be direct rivals, are in a different financial ballpark altogether.
How is all this possible? Well, the Duster is built in Romania, where labour costs are low. And all Dacia products (there are four model lines) are built on the same platform, which keeps down the company's expenses. But a more obvious factor is that, in its most humble form, the Duster is incredibly basic.
If you want it in any other colour than solid white, you have to repaint it yourself. The bumpers, doorhandles and mirrors are black, and that does nothing for the appearance. Nor do the steel wheels, which don't even have plastic trims to jolly them up. It has a petrol engine because a diesel would cost more. It has front-wheel drive because 4x4 would, too. The rear seat doesn't split. There are no AUX or USB inputs - hell, there isn't even a radio. There's pre-wiring for one, and speakers and stuff, but if you want an actual radio you have to buy that separately.
And if you were to buy this car, I would be tempted to say, in the manner of Monty Python's wonderful Four Yorkshiremen sketch, "You were lucky!" UK-spec Dusters haven't been made available to the media yet, and the Access I drove was a German-market car. Apart from the left-hand drive aspect and the fact that I had to keep converting from km/h to mph, this car was even more humble than the one on sale in this country.
The UK model is dressed with such showy fal-lals as electric front windows, a height-adjustable steering wheel and remote central locking, none of it fitted to the test car. I also had to make do with a rather basic dashboard, which is being replaced by a much nicer-looking one in time for the UK introduction.
I didn't care about any of that. I loved the basic nature of the car, and wouldn't have changed a thing. Except that I'd have bought a radio, of course. And a spare wheel, because the Access, like all front-wheel drive Dusters, only has a tyre inflation kit, and they're rubbish.
I howled and screamed (but very quietly, so as not to disturb the neighbours) when I had to give the Duster back. In a few months' time I'll probably be considering it as one of the cars I have liked most in 2012. But this isn't just because of the price, or the novelty of driving something with such an amusingly low equipment level compared with the sort of thing motoring writers normally drive.
All that would have palled quickly if the Duster hadn't been so damn good for the price. I've already said it's roomy. It's also quite comfortable considering how little must have been spent on the seats. The 1.6-litre petrol engine, sourced from Dacia's owner, Renault, produces only 105bhp, but since the Duster is light for its size the straightline performance is acceptable. And both the ride and the handling are surprisingly good, which just goes to show that you don't need to spend a lot of money to get a decent suspension set-up. You just need to do the job properly.
I cursed the rear window design for the all too familiar reason that it limits rear visibility, and I find it intriguing that this aspect, like the rest of the styling, was determined in a studio in Paris. Perhaps if the Romanians had been in charge they would have come up with something more sensible.
Dacia's forecast is that only 7% of UK buyers will opt for the Access, though I'd like to think it will have a wider appeal than that. I doubt, though, that anyone will actually pay as little £8995, partly because I can't imagine the lack of a radio being considered acceptable. Could be wrong, though.
There's also the temptation of extended warranty (from the standard three years to either five or seven, depending on which option you choose) and four accessory packs. Full details of all this, including pricing, can be found in our launch report. Electronic stability control and traction control are also available as options for most Dusters, but sadly not the Access.
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