In today’s world, “budget” is no longer seen as a derogatory term. The rise of Lidl over Waitrose, Primark over Topshop or Uber over London’s black cabs shows that you can get good quality products and services at a purse-friendly price, which, in this post-recession broken Britain in which we live, can only be a positive.
All hail, then, the rise of those manufacturers that cater towards the thrifty end of the market; of which Dacia is, perhaps, the leader of them all. The brand’s family SUV, the Dacia Duster, is a prime example; its price starting at under £10,000. The base-model Seat Ateca, for context, starts at over twice that.
It doesn’t even necessarily deserve to be lumped into the “cheap and cheerful” bracket; the Duster offers much of what a family could want from an SUV, especially when you move up the range to trim levels that add further gadgets such as a reversing camera and sat-nav. In fact, we even awarded it the low-price-point family SUV gong in our 2019 What Car? Car of the Year awards.
There’s a choice of three petrol engines and a diesel offering, plus the option of two-wheel or four-wheel-drive set-ups depending on your engine choice. Likewise, there’s four trim options to choose from, ranging from the bargain-priced Access trim, up to Prestige trim, which is a costly – or not – £5000 more.
But does it offer more than just penny-pinching promise? Read on to find our complete 16-point Dacia Duster review and see how it compares with its pricier rivals on performance, practicality, running costs and more. And, if what it offers is too good to ignore, head to our New Car Buying page to find some great deals on purchasing your new SUV.
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The Duster is available with a choice of four four-cylinder engines: a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol, two 1.4-litre turbocharged petrols with 128bhp or 148bhp, and a 1.5-litre diesel. To be honest, the 1.6 petrol is truly gutless. Off the mark it's a real struggle to get it up to speed and there's only the faintest whiff of enthusiasm to its acceleration at 5000rpm. Around town this isn't such an issue, but if you choose it, be prepared to work this engine hard most of the time.
There is the option of a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol unit, which comes in 128bhp and 148bhp configurations, but we haven’t had the chance to sample either yet. However both are reserved for the top Prestige trim level which, although not exactly bank-busting, does push you up the price list.
The 1.5-litre diesel engine is a better bet. Producing 113bhp, it pulls strongly from low revs so you’ll have no problem accelerating up to motorway speeds, and feels relaxed once settled in top gear.
The entry-level petrol and the diesel engines are available with two or four-wheel-drive, but the top petrol options only come with two driven wheels. Unsurprisingly, the four-wheel-drive mechanism adds weight and makes the Duster slower and more cumbersome in feel around town. That base petrol gets a five-speed manual gearbox, while the rest have the cruising boost of a sixth gear – there’s no automatic available at all.
Suspension and ride comfort
Sharing its design with the old Renault Clio, the Duster's suspension is rather old-fashioned. This shows at higher motorway speeds, where the Duster never feels truly settled. Four-wheel-drive cars come with a more sophisticated rear suspension that improves comfort, but require that you spend several thousand pounds more. That said, 4x4s still don't come any cheaper than this.
Both set-ups are okay around town, thanks to a combination of relatively small wheels and high-profile tyres that help to absorb most small lumps and bumps with little noticeable impact.
The Duster handles predictably enough and exhibits a reasonable amount of grip, although its soft suspension means it leans quite a bit in corners. When driving on faster, more undulating roads, there's enough vertical body movement to have passengers headbanging, and there’s also some fairly pronounced nose dive under hard braking. It’s no real surprise that more road-biased SUVs like the Suzuki Vitara and the MG GS cope with bends better.
The steering feels quite stodgy around the straight ahead and the front wheels are quite slow to respond to inputs. At least the steering has a reasonable amount of feel when turning into a corner, so you’ll always have a fair idea of how much grip you have. Four-wheel-drive versions provide extra traction in slippery conditions, with a selectable system that allows you to choose front-wheel drive, automatic or a 50/50 front and rear set-up.
Noise and vibration
There's a fair bit of wind noise from the door mirrors and roof rails on the motorway, but never to the extent that you’ll need to shout to communicate with those sat in the rear. Back-seat passengers will also feel a bit of vibration from the suspension on front-wheel-drive models.
All the engines can be noisy when worked hard, especially the low-tech 1.6-litre petrol, which sounds rather coarse as the revs rise. By comparison, the diesel sounds a lot more cultured, but it does transmit some noticeable vibrations through the steering wheel and floor area that surrounds the pedals.