Dacia Duster – a four-wheeler with a good price tag

Originally an experiment by Romania’s Dacia to produce a compact but full-size SUV, it has been met with a lot of interest from customers. The Duster has been on the road since 2010, so it was time to introduce its second generation. We test it with the 1.5 dCi engine, manual gearbox and in top Prestige trim.

Outside

Looking at the new Duster made me wonder: is this supposed to be a cheap alternative to the mainstream brands’ SUVs? Perhaps thanks to the plastic underbody protection add-ons, side skirts and silver skids, the car certainly doesn’t look cheap from the outside.

The second generation of the Romanian manufacturer’s successful model has visibly come of age under Renault’s baton. What’s changed is its front and rear end. From the front, the car looks more powerful, helped by a plastic frame pulled up to the centre of the front bonnet. The large grille is nicely set into the large headlights with LED daytime running lights. The fog lamps located at the bottom of the bumper are more susceptible to flying pebbles on the road or when driving off-road. The rear end is fairly plain and free of design fads. The lights found inspiration from an unnamed off-road car manufacturer. I liked the large fifth door window and the admitted exhaust with a nice tailpipe.

The side view is most reminiscent of the first-generation Duster. I was intrigued by the prominent fenders and tasteful 17-inch wheels shod in 215/60R17 tires. I was surprised by the use of drum brakes on the rear wheels. The optional side step looks good, but I don’t find a practical use for it. It gets in the way when getting on and reduces the decent 210 mm ground clearance.

The blue colour suits the car at least as well as the presentation orange.

Inside

The interior has already changed significantly from its predecessor. At first glance, it looks modern and interesting. I would highlight the nice upholstery on the inside of the doors partly covered with faux quilted leather. Don’t expect soft materials on the dashboard. However, the plastics used have a nice texture and are well assembled, as evidenced by the absence of clacking while driving.

The four-spoke steering wheel is meticulously crafted and its rather thick rim is trimmed in leather. The instrument panel is simple, clear and easy to read: rev counter on the left, speedometer on the right, black and white on-board computer display in the centre with a wealth of information that can be scrolled through using the buttons on the steering wheel. However, it took me a while to get used to controlling the functions of the audio system and the phone under the steering wheel.

I liked the round and trivial to operate air vents arranged in a 1+3+1 pattern on the dashboard. The 7-inch infotainment display is positioned higher than its predecessor and is intuitive to operate. However, the display glitters in direct sunlight and is not easy to read. I appreciated the hardware buttons below it used to lock the car, activate eco mode, control hill descent assist, cameras, etc. I was most surprised by the automatic climate control panel with the gauges nicely incorporated into the rotary controls.

The centre tunnel is reserved for the long steering lever, the 4×4 drive mode switch and the manual handbrake. The cloth seats look rather austere, but are tastefully stitched with model name lettering.

Behind the Wheel

Getting into the car is more complicated because of the aforementioned side landings. Behind the wheel, I appreciated the relatively low seating position. I was pleased with the high seat backs, their contouring and the functional side guidance. However, I would have liked the ability to pull the steering wheel more tightly against the body and thus move the seat further back. This would give me a more natural sitting position behind the steering wheel with my legs more extended into the space at my height of 185 cm. However, I do appreciate the placement, position and travel of the pedals. I was surprised by the left footrest, which lacked ‘plating’ and was also too high.

The gear lever is positioned in the right place. It is quite long, but I had no complaints about its handling. While the shift paths are not the shortest, they are quite accurate.

The shape of the center console and the well-placed door handle created ample legroom for the driver. However, the narrower bodywork was felt in the shoulder area. The fold-down armrest didn’t suit me due to its location right next to the seat, so I didn’t use it. I was happy with the view in all directions, including the large rearview mirrors.

On the Road

The Duster’s chassis is uniquely tuned to keep the crew comfortable on any surface. It can iron out even the bigger road imperfections. There may be a dull thud from below in deeper potholes and low-set channels, but the wheel movement won’t be transmitted in the occupants’ bodies. The car’s handling on a normal road is pleasant and predictable. In a corner, the car does lean significantly, but behaves neutrally for quite a long time. Thanks to the multi-link axle, the rear doesn’t bounce on bumps and keeps the track nicely. Understeer (despite four-wheel drive) comes gradually and is easily corrected by easing off the throttle.

The steering is set up too lightly and is more suited to the city. It does stiffen at higher speeds, but it still feels overpowered. Plus, it lacks directness and feels loose around the centreline. The number of revolutions of the steering wheel between the stops, which exceeds 3, is also disappointing.

The car is powered by a 1461cc diesel four-cylinder that meets the Euro6D Temp eco standard with flying colours. Maximum power of 85 kW is achieved at 3,750 rpm and 260 Nm of torque at 2,000 rpm. Cold, the engine is quite noisy when started. After warming up, the noise drops to a tolerable level, but its vibrations have not been completely suppressed. The engine starts to engage at 1800 rpm, there is no point in revving it past 4000. Moreover, around 3500 rpm it produces an unpleasant resonating sound.

The gear changes of the first four gears are very short, which helps dynamics and of course off-road driving. Fifth and sixth gears, on the other hand, are longer and help keep noise and consumption at higher speeds at an acceptable level. The car doesn’t impress with dynamics, but it can be quite nimble when shifting quickly and frequently.

The 10.15m turning circle suggests the Duster is agile around town, but you need to give the steering wheel a good twist. While the four cameras don’t offer a bird’s-eye view on the infotainment display, it’s possible to switch between them, making it easier to navigate when parking. A comfortable chassis that ignores urban potholes and perfect visibility make for a comfortable ride. I kept the fuel consumption within 7l/100km in average traffic.

The car’s character doesn’t invite sporty driving, yet there’s no need to be afraid to take a corner at a brisker pace. Given the car’s focus, engine power is sufficient, but overtaking requires frequent shifting due to the small range of usable revs. I was positively surprised by the car’s sound deadening from the chassis as well as aerodynamic noise. In offensive driving, I did not exceed the 5.5 litre consumption limit, and when trying to save money I was closer to the 4.5 mark.

Off-road driving suits the car. The car’s chassis handles dirt roads with incredible ease, even at higher speeds. The car had no problems even when going up a steep hill on a dusty surface. When attempting to cross axles, I didn’t find much difference in Auto mode and Lock mode, in both the car was able to move equally fast. I appreciated the short first gear when negotiating off-road obstacles, the automatic gearbox would have been more enjoyable to drive. Hill descent assist worked without a hitch.

On the highway, the car accelerates smoothly up to 140 km/h. Aerodynamic noise is already more pronounced, but still doesn’t exceed a tolerable level. I was surprised by the car’s low sensitivity to crosswinds and its overall stability at higher speeds. I consider the fuel consumption of 7.2 l/100 at highway hundred and thirty to be reasonable for the car’s build and size. On the expressway at a steady hundred, I even achieved a figure of 4.1. In the following table, I offer engine speed figures in sixth gear at each speed.

Speed in km/hRPM
100not quite 2000
1102300
1202500
1302700
1402900

I returned the car with an average consumption of 5.9 l/100 km. I believe that with more effort I could have reached 5 litres, which is not too far from the claimed 4.7. A 50 litre fuel tank would have allowed nearly 1000 km of driving on a single fill-up in this case.

Practicalities, features, price

At my height of 185 cm, I did not sit “behind” comfortably. The backrests are a bit shorter and overall more suitable for shorter figures. Parents will welcome the well-placed IsoFix anchors and the faux-leather upholstered back of the front seats. There is plenty of interior storage.

The luggage compartment is fully upholstered and has a regular shape. Thanks to the presence of a full-size spare, its volume is reduced to 414 litres (from the original 445). Folding down the rear seats increases it to 1,444 litres.

The Prestige trim brings features to the Duster that were reserved only for more luxurious cars years ago (heated seats, blind-spot monitoring, hill descent assist, etc.). In this context, I consider the price of the tested model with 4×4 drive and fuel-efficient diesel engine to be reasonable.

The base price of €17,740 is topped up by an extra €490 for metallic paint, €300 for automatic air conditioning, €200 for keyless start and unlocking, €250 for a camera system, €60 for a spare wheel and €200 for heated front seats. The final total of €19,240 is close to, but still short of, the magical €20,000 mark.

Verdict

It’s no longer possible to talk about the Duster as a utility car. It provides a great degree of comfort, very good off-road performance and doesn’t get lost on ordinary roads either. I think it can fully fill the role of a family car. All wrapped up in a nice coat and at a still affordable price.