Dacia Duster SUV (2012 - ) review
The Dacia Duster isn’t the only affordable way into SUV ownership – the MG GS and Ssangyong Tivoli do likewise – but it is one of the best, not least because it has a sizeable price advantage
Interested in buying Dacia Duster?
The Duster’s appeal is that you can put a mid-size SUV on your drive for the price of a supermini, so it’s essential Dacia gets the SUV looks right. You get all the normal 4x4 styling cues – raised ride height, chunky bumpers, extra body cladding – but with a few additional touches to make it look even more rugged (examples include the brash chunky mesh grill and super-thick roof bars). The two most basic trims miss out on alloy wheels, so you’ll want a higher spec version to get the most visual impact. Bear in mind, too, the entry-level Access version only comes in white with black front and rear bumpers, so unless you want to look like you’re on a peace-keeping mission for the United Nations every time you pop to the shops, you’ll definitely want to upgrade a few steps.
We won’t pretend the Duster feels like an Audi to sit in – many of the plastics are hard, grey and grainy, meaning they’re not all that appealing to the eyes or the fingertips – but considering the bargain-basement price of the car, the materials are entirely acceptable. They feel reasonably well assembled, too, which helps give an extra feeling of solidity. The basic nature of the car means there aren’t too many controls to master, but even so, some buttons and switches are awkwardly placed out of sight. The touch-screen system you get on high-grade Prestige versions isn’t the most sophisticated you’ll ever use, but it is reasonably easy to get to grips with. However, the driving position isn’t ideal. There’s no reach movement in the steering height adjustment, and the entry-level car also misses out on a height adjustable driver’s seat, making it even more difficult to get comfy.
The Duster’s performance depends on how you look at it. Compare it with other mid-size SUVs, and it’s no great shakes. There’s enough room for four adults to sit comfortably, and a decent 475-litre boot (versions with four-wheel drive are slightly smaller), but most competitors are more generous on both counts and there’s nothing particularly clever about how the space is used. The entry-level car has a rear bench seat that folds down as one piece, and even if you upgrade to Ambiance trim for a split-folding arrangement, the chairs don’t go anywhere near flat, leaving both a step and a slope in the load area. Bear in mind, the Duster competes on price with cars that are far, far smaller, and compared with those, the Duster is much roomier. That’s the way we look at it, meaning the car scores well in this area.
Ride and handling
There’s nothing particularly cultured about the way the Duster moves along the road. The weighting and travel length of the pedals have no consistency whatsoever, the steering is very slow and very remote, while the gearshift is notchy and imprecise. The suspension is pretty good at isolating you from the effects of larger bumps, but it skips and jitters over most other surfaces, meaning the ride could be comfier. The handling feels secure enough, with plenty of grip, but you’ll feel the body slopping sideways in corners, so the car doesn’t change direction all that crisply. Then again, if you’re considering a Duster, you’re probably not after the last word in dynamic excellence; you’ll be far more interested in getting cool looks and a shedload of space for a bargain price. You might be quite interested in getting four-wheel-drive ability for a budget price, and the Duster certainly provides it. You might be surprised how capable this car can be in the sticky stuff.
Diesel engines are popular choices in SUVs, and the Duster uses the same 108bhp 1.5-litre unit that operates to great effect in many Renault models. It’s not as refined in the Dacia as it is in the Renaults – you can hear more of a grumble and feel more vibration – but it is still impressively punchy, allowing you brisk and flexible performance. It’s also the best engine to have if you’re after a four-wheel-drive Duster. The entry-level engine, a 1.6-litre petrol with 113bhp, is best left alone because you have to work it too hard to get moving at any decent rate. However, the 123bhp turbocharged 1.2-litre engine feels much perkier and more responsive thanks to its extra low-down urge.
The super-low purchase price – combined with the amount of car you get for your cash – is the big draw with the Duster. It is truly impressive that supermini money gets you a Qashqai-sized SUV, and one with proper four-wheel drive at that. The Duster won’t retain its value as well as its SUV rivals, but that doesn’t matter too much when you’ve paid so little for it in the first place. CO2 emissions and fuel economy aren’t class leading, but they’re still pretty competitive. All versions of the diesel – two- and four-wheel drive alike – manage to beat 60mpg, according to official figures, while the petrols both better 40mpg.
It’s a very mixed bag in this area. The Duster has done pretty well in many of the reliability surveys we’ve seen, with few problems reported and a high degree of customer satisfaction. However, we have heard stories – not least on the owner reviews on our website – of some Dusters experiencing rust problems after a curiously short period of time. We can only hope these problems have been ironed out now the car has been on sale for a few years.
The good news is; you get the same amount of safety kit whichever version of the Duster you go for. The not-so-good news is, whichever version you pick, there’s not very much of it. The minimum legal requirements are covered, meaning you get stability control, but you only have four airbags to prevent you in the event of an accident (there are no curtain ‘bags), and sophisticated driver aids like lane-changing assistants and autonomous emergency braking are nothing but pipe dreams for Duster owners. The car has been crash tested by Euro NCAP, but it only scored a disappointing three out of five stars. What’s more, that was back in 2011, and the tests have become much tougher since then, so there’s no guarantee the score wouldn’t be even lower if it were tested today.
As we’ve said, the entry-level Duster looks like something UN peace-keepers roll around in, and it’s specced like one, too. You have electric front windows and remote locking, but very little else; even a radio costs extra. Ambiance trim adds front foglamps and a stereo that incorporates DAB, Bluetooth, a USB socket and steering column-mounted controls, but it’s still missing some essential kit such as air-conditioning and cruise control. Laureate trim checks these boxes, and also gives you powered rear windows, alloys, a trip computer, a leather steering wheel and heated door mirrors that adjust electrically. Prestige trim gives you the touch-screen satellite-navigation system and a reversing camera.
Choose the right version, and the Duster is outstanding value for money. Granted, the cheaper ones are a bit too basic, but you don’t have to spend a whole heap more to get a much better car. If you’re after a budget four-wheel drive car that can also cope with carrying the family, it’s perfect.