While splashing the cash on luxury items can make a nice treat, sometimes you don’t need to make large investments to get the most out of your money. The rise of Lidl over Waitrose, Primark over Topshop and Uber over London’s black cabs shows that you can get good-quality products and services at a purse-friendly price, and cars like the Dacia Duster leave you more spare dosh for avocado on toast and expensive coffees.
There’s been a distinct rise of those manufacturers that cater towards the economical end of the market, of which Dacia is the leader of them all, and its Duster is a spacious, fashion-conscious family SUV with prices that start below £10,000. The cheapest Seat Ateca, for context, costs more than twice that.
Yet the Duster doesn’t necessarily belong in the ‘cheap and cheerful’ bracket; it 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 or four-wheel drive, depending on your engine choice. Likewise, there are four trim options to choose from, ranging from bargain-priced Access right the way up to Prestige trim.
But should you buy one? Read on for our detailed 16-point review of the Dacia Duster and we’ll tell you how it compares with its higher-priced competitors. And, if you decide it’s the car for you, head to our New Car Buying page to find some great deals.
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
The cheapest Duster comes with a 113bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine. It’s truly gutless, though. It really struggles to get the car up to speed and there's only the faintest whiff of enthusiasm to its acceleration if you rev the engine beyond 5000rpm. Around town, its shortage of power isn't such an issue, but if you regularly venture out of the city limits, be prepared to work this engine hard most of the time.
There’s also the option of a 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol, which comes in 128bhp and 148bhp configurations. We’ve only tried the lower-powered version so far, but this offers a vast improvement over both the 1.6-litre and the diesel options. There’s plenty of oomph away from the line and power comes from relatively low revs, giving you the confidence to go for gaps at roundabouts and motorway overtakes.
This engine is only available with the more expensive Comfort trim, though. We’re yet to try the higher-powered version, although this pushes the price up again, so you’ll probably be best sticking to the 128bhp offering.
The 1.5-litre diesel engine also adds unwanted pounds to the price list, and producing 113bhp, it doesn’t pull particularly well at really low revs. It’s snappy enough once you get the engine spinning above 2000rpm, but you’ll still find yourself changing down a gear more regularly than you might like.
The entry-level petrol and diesel engines are available with two or four-wheel drive, but the turbocharged petrols are two-wheel drive only. Unsurprisingly, the four-wheel drive mechanicals add weight and make the Duster less willing to accelerate up to speed. The entry-level petrol comes with a five-speed manual gearbox, while other Dusters have the cruising boost of a sixth gear. There’s no automatic gearbox available with any engine.
Suspension and ride comfort
The Duster borrows many of its oily bits from old Renaults that are no longer on sale, and that means the suspension is rather old-fashioned. This shows at motorway speeds, where the Duster never feels truly settled, riding with a slight judder over all but freshly laid tarmac. However, four-wheel-drive versions feature more sophisticated rear suspension, which helps improve both stability and comfort.
Both setups are okay around town, thanks to a combination of relatively small wheels and high-profile tyres that help absorb most small lumps and bumps without jostling you around in your seat too much.
The Duster handles predictably enough and has reasonable grip, although its soft suspension means it leans quite a bit in corners. When driving on faster, more undulating roads, there's also quite a lot of body bounce, which can cause you and your passengers to do some unintentional headbanging. There’s also fairly pronounced nose dive under hard braking.
At least the steering gives you a reasonable sense of connection with the front wheels, so you always have a fair idea of how much grip there is, even if the car is car slow to respond to inputs.
Four-wheel-drive versions provide a bit of extra traction in slippery conditions, or if you dare to venture off the beaten track, but in day-to-day use, there’s no noticeable benefit. Using a dial between the front seats, you can switch between two and four-wheel drive, or you can just let the car automatically decide which setting is more appropriate.
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 sitting in the rear. Back seat passengers will also feel a bit of vibration from the suspension – particularly in front-wheel-drive models, while certain motorway surfaces will send vibrations through the steering wheel
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. The 1.3-litre petrol units are surprisingly hushed, with just a faint whine under acceleration, while the diesel transmits some noticeable vibrations through the steering wheel and floor area that surrounds the pedals.