The SUV from Renault's budget brand used to be so cheap you'd forgive its flaws. Now it's still cheap, and the flaws have gone. By Colin Overland
The real question isn’t whether the new Dacia Duster is any good. Here’s your answer to that one: yes, it is good - very good in some ways, and extremely good value.
But the real question is this: how bad could the Duster be and still be good value? The thing is, it has next to no competition. To put it another way, what’s everybody else up to? Why is nobody else making a car this good and charging so little for it?
Formerly budget brands such as Skoda, Seat, Kia and Hyundai have all elevated themselves into a more expensive place. Suzuki is still plugging away, and does some good, keenly priced cars, but it doesn’t do a serious SUV for £10,000. Nor do any of the rising Chinese companies.
Did they all get greedy, or deluded about their place in the grand scheme of things? Or perhaps they simply crunched the numbers and came up with a different answer.
After all, Dacia, as part of the Renault group (along with Lada and Alpine), which in turn is part of an alliance with Nissan and Mitsubishi, has more access than most to some huge economies of scale, not to mention decades of experience of building good, low-priced cars. And it bought Dacia at just the right time, much as VW did Skoda, and in the process acquired vast production capability in relatively lowcost Romania and elsewhere.
Whatever the reason for our arrival in this curious position, the baffling truth is that not only is the new Mk2 Duster Britain’s best £iok SUV, but if Dacia hadn’t upgraded it, the Mki would still be Britain’s best £iok SUV. The fact that the new one is significantly better (but hardly any more expensive) is a great win for the car-buying public.
Every body panel is new, as part of a redesign that’s pushed the lights to the corners, deepened and widened the grille and given more muscularity to previously flat surfaces. The dimensions are the same as before, so it’s still more or less Qashqai sized, and reasonably roomy, with a good boot.
The cabin has had a more substantial overhaul, with a smarter appearance and improvements to comfort, passive safety, soundproofing and equipment levels. The most basic spec level (Access) comes with very little, and the one above that (Essential, £1600 more) is still skimpy; go for Comfort (a further £1600) to get sat-nav, or Prestige (£1200 more) for climate control and alloy wheels.
It’s a much quieter, more comfortable car to be in than the Mki, while still having the same rugged charm and easygoing, no-nonsense attitude.
There’s a softness to the ride and a lightness to the steering that’s in keeping with the overall focus on everyday family friendliness rather than dynamism.
The brakes are a good example of Dacia keeping the price down without compromising effectiveness: there are low-cost rear drums, but they work just fine. The air vents are another instance of Dacia’s commitment to clever rather than expensive engineering: they are now better but also cheaper to make than before. (Who else is even trying to do that?)
The weak link, for now at least, is the engine line-up: just the one turbodiesel and one naturally-aspirated petrol four, both making 113bhp. The two-wheeldrive diesel is the least slow currently available option, with a o-62mph time of 10.5 seconds and a top speed of mmph. There’s a livelier petrol engine on its way, you’ll be relieved to hear. The petrol we drove on the road was front-wheel drive, but it’s also available with all-wheel drive. Diesel all-wheel drive is a few months away, but we drove a German-spec diesel 4x4 left-hooker on a tricky off-road course (deep ruts, blind descents, steep climbs) and came away very impressed.
What works on road - light weight, easily modulated controls, smooth power delivery - works off road too, helped by the 4x4s independently sprung rear end, extra gear (six rather than five, first being extra low for off-roading), hill braking and hill descent control.
Don’t be misled: if this was your only car, you might be frustrated at its modest performance and scant pampering. A few more USB slots really wouldn’t have bust the budget, surely. There is an options list, but however much you spend you won’t transform the Duster into a premium, luxury product - you’ll just be adding even more practicality.
Weedy petrol engine
Tough, practical, willing