Can Dacia's cut-price Duster really be as good as much more expensive small Crossovers and compact SUVs? June Neary reports.
Will It Suit Me?
In a word association game, if I said 'cheap' you might well say 'nasty'. We've become increasingly programmed to see price as a barometer of a product's intrinsic worth. You hear business case studies of companies that doubled their prices and saw sales rise as a result of the perceived exclusivity of their pricey wares, which should tell you that what you pay doesn't always correspond with what you get. Take this car, the Dacia Duster. It looks good, it's solidly built, it's practical and even drives pretty well. On that basis, you'd expect it to command a respectable asking price, but Dacia is a Romanian offshoot of Renault that campaigns on an almost unbeatable value proposition. What's it like to live with? Join me and find out.
Get inside and it all smells a little petrochemical, like cars in the Eighties used to, but there's no shortage of space. The panel fit on the dashboard isn't going to give Audi engineers cause to break out their drawing boards, but I actually think you'd feel a bit let down if you got inside this car and found soft-touch plastics on the dash. You want elephant grey, indestructibly hard plastic? Coming right up. And once again, it fits perfectly with the pared back utility feel of the car. My friend's kids reckoned that there's better legroom in the back than you'd find in most compact 4x4s, and the boot is a decent size, although the different layout of the rear suspension in the all-wheel drive model pinches a little space. You get 475 litres under the parcel shelf in a front-wheel drive car and 443 in the all-wheel drive model. That's still quite a lot of bag room. By contrast a four-wheel drive Skoda Yeti fronts up with just 408 litres.
Behind the Wheel
Dacia sells the Duster with a choice of either a petrol or a diesel engine, so you're probably not going to spend too long agonising over that decision. The petrol engine is a 1.6-litre 105PS unit and it's available with either a front or a four-wheel drive chassis. Go diesel and there's a choice of trim levels as well as a 110PS engine and, again, the option of choosing a front or all-wheel drive version. The two standout models in the range are actually the bookends. If you don't want to spend too much, you'll still find a lot to like in the cheap seats. Yes, the 1.6-litre engine is a bit thrashy if you want to get anywhere in a hurry. Load it up with gear and people and you'll wonder how Dacia ever wrung an 11.5 second sprint to 62mph out of the thing, but in most instances, it feels quite light on its feet and the 104mph top speed will be enough for most. It will mean that you'll need to give the gearbox plenty of attention and while the five-speed gear shift is positive in its action, it's got quite a throw on the lever. Even the entry-level model is fitted with traction control, so even in the wet it steps off the line fairly well, making you wonder how many people really are going to get value from paying another couple of grand for the all-wheel drive model. Still, there's a school of thought that says that if you're going to put up with the downsides of a tall, SUV-style vehicle, you might as well equip it with the advantage of all-wheel drive. You've got to go four-wheel drive if you're thinking of doing some interesting off-road stuff. Its strengthened undercarriage is suitable for dirt roads and all-terrain use thanks to more than 200mmm of ground clearance, and impressive clearance angles, with a front approach angle of 30 degrees and a rear end departure angle of better than 35 degrees.
Value For Money
Now you might have seen the launch ads for the Duster proclaiming you can get one for less than nine grand. And it's true, you can. I wouldn't be surprised if a good few people buy these entry-level 1.6-litre petrol cars in the belief that they own a four-wheel drive and then eventually sell it, being none the wiser that drive's only directed up front. There's a lot to be said for the entry-level car. After all £9,000 doesn't buy a lot of tempting options. You'd need nearly £5,000 more to net a Skoda Yeti and as for something like a Land Rover Freelander, well that's comfortably more than twice the price. Even something resolutely utilitarian like a Peugeot Partner Tepee starts at nearly £4,000 more, so it's virtually impossible to grumble at the value proposition. You'll pay £2,000 extra on every model to upgrade from a front-wheel drive version to a four-wheel drive model and unless you're actually planning on going off-road in the thing I wouldn't bother. I'd go shopping for a set of snow tyres in the middle of summer when prices are low and you'll end up with a car that will be able to handle any road condition the British weather can throw at it.
Could I Live With One?
The Dacia Duster barely puts a foot wrong. I might revise that view if it retailed at £20,000 and was subject to far harsher judging criteria and tougher competition, but the fact that you can get a spacious and good-looking utility vehicle for much the same price as an entry-level Fiat Panda earns the Dacia a heck of a lot of brownie points. The entry level car might just be the best buy in the whole range, but you'll need to make do with no air conditioning and it'll also mean looking for an aftermarket stereo. The other option is to go for a Duster with as many bells and whistles as possible, which admittedly isn't going to sound like the Berlin Philharmonic. For less than £15k, you get a four-wheel drive diesel model in top trim. Let's get some perspective here. That's the price of the very cheapest front-wheel drive Kia Soul diesel. It's not a notable extravagance. So why wouldn't you? Think about that one for a while. Examine what you really need from your next new car purchase. Because do you really want to be the person who always pays over the odds? Dacia reckon it doesn't have to be that way. With this Duster they have a very convincing point.