Dacia Duster: Now with added polish
Cheap, robust and shot through with authenticity, the new Dacia Duster is very appealing, says William Scholes
GOOD design travels well, though some travels better than others, writes William Scholes.
The Dacia Duster is a case in point. If your holidays have ever taken you to the Alps or other rugged, mountainous regions like the High Tatras in Slovakia or Andalucia’s Sierra Nevada, you will have seen lots of Dusters.
That’s because a four-wheel-drive Duster is simply outstanding at clawing its way through snow or over landslips.
This sort of thing matters - a lot - if you happen to live in a place where the difference between getting out of the house in the morning and home again is the difference between whether your car can cope in a blizzard or when the rain is so strong that it washes the road away.
It is also one of the differences between the Duster and the vast majority of new SUVs.
Your BMW X5 or Range Rover might have the engineering hardware to be very capable off-road, but you probably have the wrong tyres and wheels for it to work effectively.
And do you really want to bounce your £50k-plus SUV along a rock-strewn cart track? In any case, it will likely be too big and heavy to get you very far.
All of this is why people who live in places where four-wheel-drive is really, truly needed drive cars like the Duster, various Suzuki jeeps, four-wheel-drive Fiat Pandas, Subarus and stalwarts like the Land Rover Defender and old Toyota Land Cruisers.
Handily sized, light and straightforward, these are truly fit-for-purpose vehicles that will get you home if you live above the tree line in an Alpine valley.
They are, without question, examples of quality design. But as I mentioned, some designs travel to other settings better than others.
You almost never see a Panda 4x4 on our roads, for example.
The Duster, meanwhile, is one of those cars which has captured the imagination well beyond its initial brief; its appeal extends from the properly mountainous and those regions with very poorly maintained roads, like the Balkans and chunks of Eastern Europe, to cities, suburbs and, yes, even Northern Ireland.
Its manifest abilities mean the 4x4 version of the Duster has earned a loyal following among farmers and others.
But value for money - or, put another way, sheer cheapness - is another reason the Dacia is so appreciated by owners.
The cheapest version of this tough family car cost under £10,000 when it went on sale in 2012.
Admittedly, that model came only in white with black plastic bumpers, steel wheel and little in way of fripperies such as air conditioning, but you didn’t have to spend much more to get a Duster with a few more toys to make it easier to live with. It was a lot of car for not a lot of money.
I tested a 4x4 version one winter several years ago. It thoroughly impressed me, not least because it ploughed on through a snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures that saw other cars stranded or fall off the road - including other, much pricier SUVs. The Duster was a proper little hero.
Now Dacia, which is part of Renault and therefore also in an alliance with Nissan and Mitsubishi, has a new Duster.
Wisely, it follows the same formula that made the old car so good, but with improvements made in some key areas; it’s a Duster with added polish, if you like.
Because people liked the way it looks, it looks essentially the same as the old car. Only it doesn’t; park old and new side-by-side and the differences reveal themselves, making this a rather clever piece of design.
Design director David Durand speaks of how they did not want to mess with the distinctive proportions and stance of the chunky original. Durand owns a Defender, and has a deep appreciation of how form should follow function; it shows.
The new Duster follows the same formula that made the old car so good, but with improvements in key areas; it’s a Duster with added polish, if you like
And because people also liked the size of the old Duster, the new one measures almost exactly the same - another restriction on the design department. It also means the Duster bucks the trend of size inflation that afflicts the industry when it builds a new model.
Square taillamps and headlamps pushed to the corners of the grille, as well as a more steeply raked windscreen are among the design flourishes that make the new Duster look bigger than before, as well as more modern.
The black plastic trim between the leading edge of the front door and front wheelarch is a distinctive and effective solution to a difficulty which was encountered when the designers and engineers were working out how best to manufacture the front wing. It has made a virtue out of what might otherwise have been an eyesore in less gifted hands.
If the new exterior is subtle, evolutionary piece of work, then the interior is a revolution.
There is an authenticity to it, a purity and honesty, that makes the Duster a highly appealing proposition and sets it apart from the vast majority of the same-again contenders
It is better in every way from that which it replaces, with improved quality, aesthetics, ergonomics and utility.
Five air vents are now ranged across the dashboard and a proper touchscreen system is available.
What you don’t get is lots of soft-touch plastic and complex mouldings - that’s the sort of thing that costs money - but it all adds to the honest nature of the car.
The boot is the same volume as before - remember, it has the same dimensions - at 445 litres for the front-wheel-drive version and 411 litres for the four-wheel-drive model, on account of its more complicated back suspension.
It feels airy and spacious up front, and the back is decently roomy for two adults, or three at a squeeze. As is the way of all SUVs and crossovers in this class, two child seats may be all that can fit comfortably in the back.
For context, the Duster is very similar in size to a Nissan Qashqai - it is around 6cm shorter, but the same width. The Dacia is taller, though - it does have a decent 210mm of ground clearance - and has a bigger boot.
It is also a lot cheaper than anything even vaguely of the same size. Being able to raid the Renault parts warehouse helps here, as does manufacturing it in low-cost Romania.
The Access model still scrapes in at under £10k, albeit by only a fiver, but it really is very basic.
Open your wallet by £11,595 and you can get Essential trim, which has 16-inch steel wheels, body coloured bumpers, air conditioning, height adjustable driver’s seat and a DAB radio with Bluetooth connectivity.
Step up to £13,195 and the Comfort model gains 16-inch alloys, a leather trimmed steering wheel, rear parking camera, electric windows front and rear, heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors, a 7-inch touchscreen with satnav and a trip computer.
At the top of the range is the £14,395 Prestige, which has 17-inch alloys, keyless entry, a multi-view camera - handy off-road - and climate control.
As you can see, that is a lot of car for not very much money.
At launch, there is a choice of one diesel and one petrol engine, both of which produce 113bhp. Neither will, as they say, pull the socks off you, though this feels in keeping with the Duster’s low-key nature.
The petrol is a 1.6-litre unit with 115lb.ft of torque, and can be had with both front- and four-wheel-drive.
Diesel is front-drive only and, as you would expect, considerably torquier than the petrol, with 192lb.ft at its disposal.
Dacia had considered dropping the diesel option entirely because demand has evaporated in England. However, Northern Ireland customers love diesel so it is offered again.
Front-wheel-drive petrol cars have a five-speed manual gearbox, while everything else has six-speeds. The gearbox on the 4x4 cars has a short first gear ratio to help it with off-road manoeuvres, thus bypassing the need for a heavier transfer box system as found elsewhere.
As well as its high ground clearance, the Duster’s 4x4 credentials include approach and departure angles of 30 and 33 degrees respectively.
It is an effective off-roader, too. Dacia laid on an off-road track - considerably tougher, incidentally, than that which most manufacturers are prepared to pit their cars against on a press launch - and the Duster tackled it with aplomb. The folks in the Alps can relax, for the Duster is still a serious 4x4.
The on-road driving experience is fairly unremarkable, though a huge step forward in terms of refinement and comfort compared to the old car.
One doesn’t, I imagine, buy a Duster if you like driving quickly and cornering on your door handles.
Top speed is a little over 100mph, and the fastest accelerating version is the diesel, which does 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds. The petrol 4x4 takes 12.9 seconds, which is a lot.
The Duster, then, lopes along in a comfortable jog rather than a sprint, which seems to suit its personality.
It is a modest car, though a much more cohesively designed and executed one that most other family SUVs.
They tend to feel like products built to meet punters’ insatiable demand for SUVs and crossovers, whereas the Duster has the solid feel of something built for a specific purpose.
There is an authenticity to it, a purity and honesty, that makes the Duster a highly appealing proposition and sets it apart from the vast majority of the same-again contenders.
It isn’t without faults, of course, but it should still force you to ask yourself what you really need from a car. Do you really truly more than the value-for-money Duster can offer - whether you live in the Alps or the Ards Peninsula?
Dacia had considered dropping the diesel option entirely because demand has evaporated in England. However, Northern Ireland customers love diesel so it is offered again
AT A GLANCE
Dacia Duster Comfort dCi
Engine and transmission: 1.5-litre four-cylinder diesel turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 113bhp, 192lb.ft
Performance: Top speed 111mph, 0-62mph in 10.5 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 64.2mpg (NEDC obtained from WLTP combined), 115g/km
Car tax: £205 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 28 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Three stars (71/66/56/37), 2017