Best 4x4s for off-roading: Dacia Duster vs Suzuki Ignis

Many SUVs look more butch than they really are, but what's the most capable four-wheel-drive model on the rough stuff? Our off-roader megatest reveals the answer...

Dacia Duster vs Suzuki Ignis

Dacia Duster 1.5 Blue dCi 115 4x4 Extreme

List price £24,445
Target Price £24,151

If you want your Dacia Duster with four-wheel drive, a 1.5-litre diesel is the only engine you can have. Hill descent control is standard, and it’s easy to switch between front and four-wheel drive. There’s no low-range gearbox, but the six-speed manual’s very low first gear is designed to make up for it.

Suzuki Ignis 1.2 Hybrid SZ5 Allgrip

List price £19,349
Target Price £18,976

The Ignis’s optional Allgrip four-wheel drive system works differently from the other systems in this test. Most of the time, only the front wheels are driven, but power is automatically sent to the rear wheels when traction is limited. The Ignis also has the advantage of being by far the lightest car here.

According to its maker, the Suzuki Ignis is “rugged and versatile enough to take on the great outdoors”. That’s a bold claim when you consider that its 180mm of ground clearance is quite limited, its tyres are designed more for efficiency than off-road grip, and that it takes styling inspiration from the Suzuki Whizzkid, an iconic 1980s hatchback that was very much a city slicker. As a result, the Ignis is closer to a cutesy Japanese city car than a big, butch off-roader. 

So, why have we got it here? Well, unlike most cars of its size, the Ignis can be had with an optional four-wheel drive system, as well as a clever off-road-biased traction control system, called Grip Control, and these combine to lend it what Suzuki calls “genuine off-road capabilities”. Yet the Ignis is very competitively priced, with even the range-topping SZ5 version coming in at less than £20,000.

Suzuki Ignis front off-road

Don’t go thinking that the Ignis is your only budget four-wheel-drive option, though; there’s the Dacia Duster, too. You might assume it’s little more than a bargain family SUV, but bear in mind that Dusters are currently used by the official Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian mountain rescue teams to provide aid in hard-to-reach locations. And rescue services traditionally tend to favour kit that works. 

To reach those remote locations, four-wheel drive is available on range-topping Duster Extreme models. A dial between the front seats lets you switch from front-wheel drive to four-wheel drive on demand, with power sent to the rear wheels only when slip is detected at the front. In this mode, the four-wheel drive system operates in a very similar manner to the Ignis’s on-demand system. However, if the going gets particularly sticky, the Dacia also gives you the option to turn the dial one more click and lock the system into an even 50/50 split between the front and rear wheels.

Dacia Duster front off-road

In practice, when tackling a sandy or muddy incline after a decent run up, it’s hard to detect a difference between the Ignis’s variable system and the Duster’s locked system. If you run out of momentum and have to restart, though, the Duster is simply more effective at getting its power to the ground. Where the Ignis will spend a second or two scrabbling for traction before power is sent to its rear wheels, the Duster just digs in and goes, and this gives you much more confidence. 

And while the Duster doesn’t have a fancy off-road-focused traction control system like the Ignis’s Grip Control, it does have a gutsy 1.5-litre diesel engine; in fact, with 192lb ft of torque, the Duster’s diesel has more than twice the low-down grunt of the Ignis’s non-turbocharged 1.2-litre petrol. That means you can keep the revs low and simply crawl up inclines in a slow and controlled manner, whereas the Ignis’s engine needs to be worked very hard in challenging conditions, to prevent it from bogging down. To be fair, both cars proved able to haul themselves up the 26% and 35% gravel and sand inclines, but the Duster managed it in a much more controlled manner.

Suzuki Ignis specs

Suzuki Ignis off-road specs

The biggest difference between the cars concerned their ground clearance. The rubber lip on the low-slung Ignis’s chin was torn off before we even reached Millbrook’s off-road testing area; it came adrift on the bumpy access road. This highlighted its limits early on and ensured we took a more cautious approach on rutted, undulating paths.

It was on the steep, churned-up Horseshoe where the Ignis’s paucity of ground clearance really told. The best way to tackle it was to straddle the ruts, but on one run the wheels of both the Ignis and Duster dropped into deep craters. Both cars bottomed out, but the Duster could scramble free, its higher front bumper exposing more tyre tread and providing more purchase on the terrain. The Ignis, meanwhile, was wedged and sat with a rear wheel dangling in mid-air until rescue arrived.

Dacia Duster specs

Dacia Duster off-road specs

Neither car delivers much in the way of comfort when tackling this kind of terrain, but again the Duster has the edge. With more suspension travel, it soaks up rough tracks far more adroitly and controls its body movements a lot better than the Ignis. As a result, you aren’t thrown about in your seat as much, and you’re largely spared the unpleasant shock of the bump-stops being reached. 

So, while the Ignis can get you out of the odd sticky off-road situation, we suspect the Balkan mountain rescue teams won’t part with their Dusters any time soon.

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