The Dacia Duster was Renault’s answer to the SUV fever that’s finally made its way to the lower end of the market. SUVs were always a desirable commodity but up until the beginning of the last decade, in Europe at least, the SUV was the staple of the Haves. The Have-Nots had to make due with tiny econo-boxes that were severely lacking in terms of space, comfort and above all image.
Launched in 2009, Renault’s brainchild was about to stir up something very French: a revolution. By the end of the next decade well over a million Dusters were sold, in Europe alone! In recent years it has become not only the best-selling SUV but also the second best-selling car on the old continent.
It is built on the same platform as the Sandero and Logan but to make it look off-road capable the track is significantly wider and under the fenders we have much bigger wheels. The treatment gives the Duster a very purposeful and muscular look.
The Duster we have here is a 2014 first generation face lifted model, in the top of the line Prestige trim. Trim levels bare special mention since the Duster was marketed from the beginning as the cheapest SUV on sale, however the base models are pretty… basic. For a premium in purchase price the Prestige trim added many of the design elements and equipment that actually make the Duster look good and even desirable. With the updated lights, grill and roof rails this facelift model is a real head turner. The wheels on this particular car are aftermarket with dedicated winter tyres.
The silver trim pieces like the front and rear shields, door sills and mirror housings are of course just painted plastic but the roof bars are actually solid aluminium.
As far as the underpinnings go Dusters come in two flavours: front wheel drive like the one we have here and optional all-wheel drive sourced from Nissan.
Once you open the door you’re greeted by dark tones and mostly hard plastics with a few nice touches, courtesy of the Prestige trim level. It’s worth noting that the facelift model has a much improved interior over its predecessor. There were some soft touch materials added to the door cards, chrome handles and more importantly the window switches were moved from the centre console to a more conventional location on the doors.
On the Prestige model you get a height adjustable steering wheel, height adjustable driver’s seat and vinyl upholstery that Dacia refers to as Eco-Leather.
The steering wheel itself is wrapped in real leather and it has buttons on it, to control the cruise control. Remote radio and phone controls are located on a stalk on the steering column. Gauges are large, simple and easy to read with a small LCD screen on the right for the trip computer.
The infotainment system, despite its aging graphics, works surprisingly well. It’s fast, responsive and comes with an aux input, USB port as well as Bluetooth connectivity for your phone with the mic located above the rear view mirror. My only complaint is that it’s mounted somewhat low in the centre console so looking at the navigation screen while driving is difficult.
Climate control is of the manual kind with added AC. It’s simple to use and very potent, it has to be since it blows air only in the front, there are no air vents for the back seats. Heated mirrors are also a nice thing to have in cold climates. The location of the switch for said mirrors is odd, to say the least, underneath the hand brake.
Further down we find the ECO-mode button. It is a kind of Sport button in reverse, it limits maximum engine revs and small icons in the dash light up to tell you when to shift up or down for optimum fuel economy. It’s mostly a gimmick and you’re better off by leaving it alone.
What we don’t find on the centre console is the ESP Off button. On the 2WD versions the ESP cannot be switched off. It may sound like a hindrance but in reality the ESP is very unobtrusive, it has to register a significant amount of wheel spin to make its presence felt.
A six speed manual gearbox was the only one available (in Europe that is). The gear lever’s operation is a pleasant surprise; it has short and very precise throws.
The seats are covered with this dark grey Eco-leather upholstery (vinyl to you and me) courtesy of the Prestige trim. It looks good but it’s soft and not very hard wearing.
On top of the dashboard we find a couple of storage ‘shelves’ to complement the glovebox.
In the back there’s ample room for even three adults, a rarity in the compact SUV segment. Small children could develop agoraphobia from all the space available to them.
Also class leading is the large boot, further extendable by folding the rear seats in a 40/60 split. 4wd versions got a slightly smaller boot due to the rear differential.
Our test car is equipped with Renault’s well known 1.5 litre dci turbo-diesel. Here it produces 90 bhp and a stout 200 nm of torque from as low as 1700 rpm. This was the standard diesel power plant for the 2wd model. A more powerful (110 bhp) version of this engine was available as an option.
It’s not the fastest accelerating thing in the world, but once on the move you can ride the constant wave of torque with little effort. Thanks to the miracle of turbocharging the engine never feels lacking in power, despite the modest output on paper. The name of the game here is fuel economy; the car averaged an impressive 6 l/100 km combined or a whopping 47 mpg imperial.
And while from the outside the sound is undoubtedly that of a diesel, inside the cabin there is very little mechanical intrusion. Most of the rolling noise was courtesy of the chunky winter tyres.
Ride quality was the biggest surprise yet, the suspension is comfortable in a way that few modern cars are, it glides over bumps. The driving experience as whole is very car like and refined. Brakes grab very well despite the drums in the rear. If I was to fault something, that would be the turning radius, for the car’s length it is wiiide.
Visibility, as expected, is excellent. The high driving position and large windows offer a commanding view of the world, which is part and parcel of the SUV concept.
There you have it, Dacia Duster: economical, reliable, comfortable and above all practical. What more could you want?