What Car? says...
The advice that if you ‘buy cheap, you buy twice’ may be worth listening to if you're choosing a fridge or a sofa, but the Dacia Duster small SUV aims to convince you that its thriftiness will leave you feeling smug in the long run, too.
It easily undercuts the Ford Puma, the Skoda Kamiq and the VW T-Roc; in fact, only the MG ZS can get close to the Duster on price. However, while this would mean skimping in every area with most manufacturers, Dacia is the champion at giving motorists a lot of car for their money.
The Duster range certainly includes enough variants to suit the broad requirements of most families; the cheapest give you a no-nonsense domestic workhorse, while the top trim levels add plenty of mod cons.
True, there are no hybrid or electric car models, but there is the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel version, which lets you fill up with either petrol or cheaper LPG (we'll explore whether two fuel tanks are better than one later in this review). And there's also a diesel engine, which gives you the option of adding four-wheel drive to match the 4x4 aesthetic.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
It’s best to avoid the Dacia Duster’s entry-level 1.0-litre TCe 90 petrol engine because it's too sluggish; instead, we’d go for the 128bhp 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol (badged TCe 130). This offers good mid-range oomph and a pleasing briskness when you rev it out, so has no problem getting the car up to speed and delivering easy motorway cruising.
The more expensive 1.3-litre TCe 150 petrol model offers a bit more zip in a straight line, but it’s still slower than the Ford Puma 1.0 Ecoboost Hybrid 155, so we wouldn’t bother with it unless you really want its standard-fit six-speed automatic gearbox.
The 113bhp 1.5-litre Blue dCi 115 diesel has more appeal, because its extra low-down grunt and optional four-wheel drive system will come in handy if you tow or plan to tackle rutted, muddy or sandy inclines.
As for the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel version that can run on petrol or natural gas (LPG), this isn’t a particularly eager performer, but there’s a touch more power when using LPG and the main benefit is the potential for fuel savings.
Suspension and ride comfort
That said, going for a four-wheel-drive version gets you a more sophisticated rear suspension design than the one fitted to front-wheel-drive Dusters, which helps to improve stability, both on and off road.
Both set-ups are very soft, allowing the car to take the sting out of potholes around town and soak up rough tracks without occupants being thrown around too much; Dacia’s decision to fit small wheels with high-profile tyres also help to absorb shocks. Unfortunately, on faster, undulating roads, the Duster rocks from side to side – particularly with the more basic suspension – which can get quite tiresome.
The Duster handles predictably enough, but its soft suspension means it leans in corners a lot more than the Puma and other tidier-handling SUVs. What’s more, it doesn't have as much grip as the MG ZS when you press on, and the steering feels less consistent; it could really do with more weight and precision.
The Duster’s trump card comes if you order the four-wheel-drive version and head off road. A dial between the front seats lets you switch from front-wheel drive to four-wheel drive when needed. And, despite what you might expect, this is a car that can tackle a lot more than just gravel tracks.
Okay, you’ll wince a little as it rubs its chin or belly due to the limited ground clearance, but there’s still enough to help it scramble out of deep craters. The Duster will certainly go farther in the rough than road-focused rivals such as the Puma, ZS, Kamiq and T-Roc.
Noise and vibration
The Duster's petrol engines are surprisingly hushed, emitting just a faint whine under hard acceleration, while the Bi-Fuel is at its smoothest and quietest when running on LPG. Even the diesel is largely free of raucous clatter, but it does transmit noticeable vibrations through the steering wheel and the floor area around the pedals.
The Renault-sourced automatic gearbox that's standard in the TCe 150 shifts gears smoothly enough, but doesn’t always make the most intelligent decisions. It can change up or down at inopportune moments and hesitates when you want it to kick down. We’d therefore be happy to stick with the six-speed manual alternative, which is pleasingly accurate in its operation.
Road noise isn’t too prominent, but there’s a fair bit of wind noise from around the door mirrors and roof rails on the motorway. The MG ZS isn't much better, but this is one of the key areas where pricier rivals will give you a much calmer travelling environment for covering long distances.
Strengths Good range of engine options; comfortable low-speed ride; genuine off-road ability
Weaknesses Pricier rivals are quieter, more forgiving and controlled at speed, and handle better
The interior layout, fit and finish
Driving position and dashboard
The Dacia Duster’s driving position places you high above the road, giving you the feeling of being in a proper SUV. However, it’s not particularly easy to get comfortable behind the steering wheel, owing to the fact that the pedals are offset to the right and there’s a shortage of space for your left foot between the side of the footwell and the clutch pedal.
Compounding things is the fact that entry-level Essential trim misses out on driver’s seat height and lumbar adjustment, while taller people might wish that the steering wheel offered a greater range of reach adjustment on all versions.
On the plus side, the dashboard is very easy to use, with simple rotary heater controls and a row of clearly labelled buttons. The speed-limiter and cruise control buttons on the steering wheel are a doddle to operate, too, although the audio shortcuts are mounted on a separate stalk hidden behind the steering wheel, so you need to learn which button does what by feel.
Visibility, parking sensors and cameras
The Duster’s elevated driving position and fairly narrow windscreen pillars make for a good view forwards, but there are over-the-shoulder blind spots, and you’ll need to go for the Journey trim level to get a blind-spot monitoring system. Still, all-round visibility is better than it is in the MG ZS.
Even the entry-level Essential trim includes rear parking sensors, but you need to upgrade to Expression trim for a rear-view camera. To this, Journey adds four ‘multiview’ cameras, although the resolution isn’t brilliant.
Regardless of which trim you go for, all Dusters come with LED daytime running lights and standard front fog lights, but you can’t have full LED headlights.
Sat nav and infotainment
The entry-level Essential trim comes with a basic DAB radio with Bluetooth, four speakers and a USB socket.
Jumping up to Expression adds an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system with a simple layout and reasonable graphics, while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring are also included. We’d prefer physical buttons to the touch-sensitive ones in the Duster, but the system is surprisingly responsive to inputs.
Journey trim uses the same unit but adds built-in sat-nav and two extra speakers. Four-wheel-drive models get extra off-road-focused features, such as a compass and an inclinometer, which are fun but a little gimmicky.
Wherever you look at or touch inside, there’s no escaping the fact that the Duster is built to a price. It lacks many of the cosmetic flourishes we’ve come to expect from more expensive small SUVs.
The interior plastics are hard – you could probably exfoliate your elbow on the door trim – and look unappealing. What’s more, the carpets are thin and most of the fixtures and fittings feel low-rent. The MG ZS is better trimmed for a similar price.
Then again, none of that will be a problem if you simply view your Duster as a cost-effective family workhorse, and in the main it feels solidly screwed together. In fact, this is a car that’s built to withstand tough treatment in countries where road conditions are much poorer than here in the UK.
Strengths Simple controls; elevated driving position; good forward visibility
Weaknesses Offset pedals; limited adjustment; interior plastics feel cheap
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
Getting in and out of the Dacia Duster is a breeze thanks to its tall, wide front doors, and there’s a decent amount of head room up front. The front seats don't slide back very far, though, so those with long legs might struggle for room.
It’s not great for storing stuff, either. Take the front cupholder, for example – it’s too shallow to put anything spillable in and you’ll only squeeze a half-litre water bottle into each door pocket.
Even the central armrest (standard on Expression models and above) is relatively small, although it is worth having. Ultimately, the MG ZS trounces the Duster for storage, featuring proper cupholders and larger door bins.
Like the fronts, the rear door openings are tall, so access is easy, and the height of the seats from the ground means you don’t have to bend too much to help youngsters get in and out of their child seats. You’ll just about squeeze three adult passengers across the rear bench, but whoever ends up in the middle seat will have to sit with their legs straddling a wide central floor hump.
Regardless of where you're sitting, the Duster’s high roof means you won’t find your head grazing the roof lining, even if you're more than six feet tall.
Overall, the Duster offers quite a lot of space in the back, and certainly feels as though it will fit into family life for most households. As with front space, though, the MG ZS is more accommodating.
Seat folding and flexibility
All Dusters have a 60/40 split folding rear bench, although it's a bit of a faff to fold down the backrests because you have to flip the seat bases forward first. The Skoda Karoq has a distinct advantage here, because it’s available with ‘Varioflex’ back seats that recline, slide, split 40/20/40 and can even be removed altogether.
The front passenger seat adjusts for height and lumbar support on Expression models and above, and you can fold its backrest forwards to about 45 degrees to allow more space for extra-long loads when the rear seats are down.
The Duster’s boot is large by small SUV standards, with 478 litres of storage on most versions, and 414 litres if you have four-wheel drive. That's easily enough space for a week’s holiday luggage, a fold-up buggy or lots of shopping.
We managed to fit in seven carry-on suitcases, which is good by even family SUV standards and matches the amount you’ll fit in the back of the bigger Nissan Qashqai. The Ford Puma is the king in this area, though, taking a total of eight carry-on suitcases.
It’s worth noting that the extra fuel tank of the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel has no effect on boot space because it goes where the optional spare wheel would be (an emergency repair kit is provided to keep you mobile).
The boot is a very practical shape – it's wide and high, with only a small lip to load items over. With the rear seats folded as flat as they’ll go, front-wheel-drive Dusters offer 1623 litres of volume, which is plenty for a trip to pick up flat-pack furniture.
Strengths Large boot capacity; plenty of space for occupants
Weaknesses Some rivals are even more accommodating; limited rear-seat versatility
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
Costs, insurance groups, MPG and CO2
The Dacia Duster range opens with the staggeringly affordable Essential trim level, but even if you step up to mid-spec Expression, the Duster still looks seriously cheap next to most rivals; only the MG ZS goes anywhere as low on price.
The Duster pips the ZS for running costs, though. The diesel is reasonably fuel-efficient, and should average more than 50mpg. Our recommended TCe 130 petrol engine can return more than 45mpg in everyday driving – that's a little better than the 1.0T GDi in the ZS. CO2 emissions are slightly lower than the ZS's – unless you fancy the MG ZS EV (which is an electric car) – but the difference in company car tax rates won’t be huge.
If you have an eye on cutting fuel bills, you might find the TCe 100 Bi-Fuel interesting. The lower price of LPG brings the potential for massive savings, and the fact that it has two fuel tanks means it has a combined range of more than 800 miles.
Equipment, options and extras
Entry-level Essential trim is pretty sparse. It comes with 16in steel wheels and the only luxuries are its electric front windows, cruise control, manual air-con and basic infotainment kit.
We think it’s worth the small price hike to Expression trim. This adds 16in alloy wheels, heated electric door mirrors, a central armrest and the 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system mentioned earlier. You’ll also need to go for this trim if you want our recommended engine.
Journey includes larger, 17in alloy wheels, tinted rear windows, roof rails, automatic windscreen wipers, climate control and keyless entry. And range-topping Extreme brings extra visual appeal, thanks to black alloy wheels, copper painted exterior and interior highlights, and rubber floor mats.
Dacia as a brand performed pretty well in the 2022 What Car? Reliability Survey – it came 10th out of the 32 manufacturers included. That puts it one spot below MG, but above Fiat, Ford, Renault, Skoda and Volkswagen.
The Duster’s standard warranty is less impressive, giving you a fairly standard three years or 60,000 miles of cover. You can, however, pay to extend that to five-years/60,000 miles or seven-years/100,000 miles.
Safety and security
Safety is one of the areas where the Duster is well off the pace. Automatic emergency braking (AEB) isn't even offered as an option, with this partly explaining why the independent safety experts at Euro NCAP awarded the Duster just three stars out of five. However, it was also found to offer poor protection for the driver’s head and neck in a crash.
The MG ZS scored three stars, too, so this is one of the key areas where spending more pays dividends – many pricier rivals are objectively safer cars in terms of crash avoidance and protection.
Thatcham Research gave the Duster a disappointing two stars out of five for its ability to resist being broken into and four stars for its resistance to being stolen altogether. It’s also of concern that an alarm isn’t fitted as standard.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here
Strengths Low prices; Bi-fuel model can cut running costs; Dacia has a good reliability record
Weaknesses Disappointing safety; entry-level trim is sparsely equipped
Expression trim is well equipped and second from bottom in the range. Extreme is at the top of the range, and adds model-specific upholstery, heated front seats, climate control, 17in black alloys, blind-spot monitoring and a surround view camera system.
Yes. Used versions are popular, pushing up prices to the extent that a three-year-old Duster with 36,000 miles on the clock is predicted by our experts to still be worth more than half of its original value, which is impressive.
|RRP price range||£17,295 - £24,445|
|Number of trims (see all)||5|
|Number of engines (see all)||5|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||hybrid, diesel, petrol|
|MPG range across all versions||44.1 - 58.9|
|Available doors options||5|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£1,087 / £1,545|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£2,174 / £3,089|