DRIVEN: DACIA DUSTER
Harris - yes, that Harris - gets excited about a Romanian-built budget 4x4
And then I described to this non-domiciled Frenchman the concept of the Dacia Duster. I told him it was built in Romania, suffused with a rugged charm and sold for the type of money that gets lost on a 5 Series spec sheet. As the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes a great family car, I told him the French have gone crazy for the Duster. Without even knowing what it was, he said he could understand why - it fitted the template for great blue-collar French motoring.
Fit for purpose
Well, I used a Duster in the UK for a week in December. The one when it rained the whole time. It was the cheapest 4WD model Renault UK could lend me - a LHD German registered car with no radio, handles for the windows and a petrol engine. This will cost £10,995 when it lands in the UK, and I think for that you will get electric windows as standard. They would rather spoil the package for me. If you're going to do something properly - in this case buy the most basic car available - then you might as well have the full poverty experience.
Does it drive well enough for a rugged little 4x4 that costs less than a supermini? Absolutely. To overcome the gasoline engine's lack of torque, they've fitted very short first and second gears, and it's a decent solution. The only problem being that once into the next four ratios, the Duster doesn't feel too sprightly.
Back to basics
The driving position is pretty good, given that the steering wheel is fixed. Front seats have some padding and the dashboard looks uncannily like a reunion party for Renault switchgear from the late 90s - because that's exactly what it is. Again, with such low expectations, I was pleased with the tough surfaces and dinky switches - but many consumer reviews I've read really hit the Duster for being so stark inside. For me, that's a key element of its appeal. Sadly, by the time the Duster goes on sale in the UK in the coming months, it will have some fancy pants facelift dash with lights and stuff.
Now I could go on and on telling you objectively why the Duster offers exactly what you'd expect for the money, and in many aspects, a little bit more than anyone should deserve for the money. But none of that matters in a place like this because the Duster has charm - and that is a rare commodity these days.
You drive it with a Ready Brek glow of satisfaction, knowing that it's the antidote to the German luxo-brands and all the more appealing for it. It recalls the days when family cars were designed to withstand the rigours of a young family kicking the hell out of it, and little more. In white, on steelies it has a kind of blunt industrial beauty that people who love basic French machinery will adore - I certainly did.
The three-star NCAP rating isn't great, but then most of the sheds we fawn over wouldn't even register on the crash scale and even quite recent machinery that was considered class-leading when new would struggle to beat three stars in today's tests.
The Duster instinctively feels like a car for the moment: pared-back for a generation of families that need motoring and not marketing. It also provides a solution for those seeking dual car ownership - something silly for weekends and something sensible for the daily trudge. I can't think of a new car that would be so enjoyable to trudge in so cheaply.
Although I would insist on fitting a long wave radio. And a dashboard fan for summer traffic jams.
DACIA DUSTER ACCESS 1.6 16V 105 4x4
Engine: 1,598cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, four -wheel drive
Power (hp): 105@5,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 109@3,750rpm
Top speed: 99mph
MPG: 35.3mpg (NEDC combined)