Cheap, but also value. Looks good. Is very capable
Lacks safety kit; so slow that this might not actually matter
What is it?
You look at this family-sized crossover's price, starting at under £14,000 or a piffling £164 a month, and then you wonder how it is that sister company Renault has the sheer brass neck to charge double that for the Kadjar.
Start to dig deeper though and you see where the cost has been chiselled out of the Duster. Some of those savings are really clever and don't affect the end result. But you might decide others actually do – the plastics might offend anyone coming from the cocoon of a car better described as a ‘crossover’ than an SUV. There’s an unashamed hardiness to the Duster that surely lets it repel such flimsy categorisation.
So what’s new?
The Duster first launched in 2010, priced under £10,000 and picking up the ‘cheap but actually quite good’ baton dropped by Skoda as it rushed upmarket. It was actually one of a small handful of small SUVs on offer then – the Nissan Juke was only just out – but the fact it’s steadfastly retained a brutalist approach to looks and interior layout as the rest of the genre’s gone berserk is admirable.
Every visible panel of this second-gen Duster is new, but the spirit of the original remains. It looks similar, and most important of all it's still cheap. Almost ridiculously so. At 4.3m long it's basically the same as a Qashqai - or that Kadjar. The fact we're several years into its life and the obligatory facelift has amounted to tweaking its lights the tiniest smidgen suggests Dacia’s tame approach to reinvention was warranted.
Guess you shouldn't change a winning formula...
There are other reasons for the design not changing much. It re-uses the former car's platform. That itself was a derivative of a Clio several generations old, which is one significant way of making it so cheap. Renault was one of the first companies to aim at five-star NCAP back then, so this platform is surprisingly safe, albeit a three-star NCAP rating pegs it behind almost all of its rivals now. You pays your money, etc.
In line with the heavy recycling of obsolete Renault parts, the cabin even smells like a new Mégane of a decade ago. How very Proustian. But it looks modern. Compared with the first-gen Duster we find an all-new dash, all-new seats, a better infotainment system, and more. It's also quieter than before, thanks to thicker glass, more sound deadening and stiffer sheetmetal in the engine bay.
Is the engine up to scratch?
There’s a 115bhp diesel option, which sounds and feels like a van – it’s so absurdly short-geared, you’ll be grappling for second while you’re still in the middle of leaving a junction. But it’s the one you want if you require your Duster for on-road endeavours – it’s front-wheel drive as standard, but an extra £2,300 makes it 4x4.
Even the 4x2 Duster retains good underbody clearance so if the surface isn't too greasy and the tyres are well-treaded it'll tackle fairly rugged scenery. And it's got more space than say a Renegade or Vitara, the closest off-roadable rivals.
The several petrol options are all 2WD only. They’re all turbocharged, and split between a 90bhp 1.0-litre 3cyl or a 1.3-litre 4cyl in 130 and 150bhp tunes, the latter your sole automatic option. 'EDC' arrives with the Duster’s mid-life update and is Renault's tag for its smart six-speed twin-clutch transmission. Albeit one without paddles on the wheel here.
Dacia also now offers bi-fuel cars in Britain – and you can have a Duster that you fill with LPG gas like it’s the mid-2000s all over again. It comes with a 100bhp tune of 3cyl petrol engine, and you can read more about its intricacies here.
What's the verdict?
The joy of the Duster is the way it seriously overdelivers on the underpromising price. Renault has been very disciplined in keeping Dacia's costs down. They're built in a low-cost country, using engines and platforms and electrics that have all been long-ago amortised by other cars, and integrating the dealerships with Renault rather than starting a separate network. The Duster cleverly shares body parts across the Dacia range and the number of available options is small.
Sure it's a bit slow, a tad unrefined, a little light on available active-safety features. But that's by the standards of rivals that are twice the price. The Duster isn't trying to kid anyone. It's not cheap in a way that insults your intelligence or makes you feel mean. It's a far better car than it strictly needs to be at the price, and we love it for that.