Driven: Dacia Duster

I had an enjoyable dinner the other night with a Frenchman. As is always the case when I'm placed in such company I became a fawning sycophant because so much about his homeland appeals to me, but mostly because he was willing to discuss the cheap cars of his youth - referring to nomenclature en Francais.

Utilitarian but all the better for it
Utilitarian but all the better for it
And so I disappeared into a world of Cinqs and Deesses, and why I still have an AX and a 205 - le sacre numero!

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.

Steel wheels - remember them?
Steel wheels - remember them?
Every time I wound down the window, I smiled. Just as well, because the lack of air-con means the Duster steams-up faster than a Vectra on dogging duty.

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.

Switchable 4WD gives real off-road ability
Switchable 4WD gives real off-road ability
On winter tyres the ride was on the plush side of good, the steering was fine, but the car did have a tendency to require extra inputs when you thought constant lock would have carved the same radius. In other words, she does wallow in the bends a bit, But what's a bit of body roll between friends? Especially when you consider that with the switchable 4WD it'll play the billy goat to a level that most of us will never need. Seriously, it's very good off road and in full UN spec you don't feel guilty applying a few war wounds to those white body panels.

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.

Just think what you can spend the rest on...
Just think what you can spend the rest on...
Blunt tool
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.

1,598cc 4-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, four -wheel drive
Power (hp): 105@5,750rpm
Torque (lb ft): 109@3,750rpm
0-62mph: 12.8sec
Top speed: 99mph
Weight: 1,250kg
MPG: 35.3mpg (NEDC combined)
CO2: 185g/km
Price: £10,995


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Comments (298) Join the discussion on the forum

  • W124 09 Jan 2013

    I don't want to re-open the old AC debate - but can we have the most basic model with A/C? - Renault have missed a bit of a Eureka moment there marketing wise. They don't seem to see what a Hoxton to Harrogate success this could be. Poverty spec/UN white - black bumpers - steels - 2WD - AC - how hard can that be? Charge more if you like for it...

    I might actually buy that - and that's saying something.

  • W124 09 Jan 2013

    I love steels - just come from an old W124 on steel rims to a newer 210 with alloys - even though I know the car is worth less than my guitar I still cringe when I curb them.

  • busta 09 Jan 2013

    1,250kg! That's awesome for a robust 4x4. Would a Clio 182 or Magane 225 engine fit?

  • K5tealth 09 Jan 2013

    I still think they have missed a trick by not allowing you to add options (like air con/Radio) to the poverty spec version. Suddenly 8,995 becomes 12,995

  • mccrackenj 09 Jan 2013

    W124 said:
    I love steels - just come from an old W124 on steel rims to a newer 210 with alloys - even though I know the car is worth less than my guitar I still cringe when I curb them.
    Just love the painted uncovered steels too, so refreshing.

    I'll be taking the 15 hole alloys of my latest W124 soon for a refurb and will be putting steels on for a while. I had already painted one of the steels in wheel silver paint with a few top coats of lacquer for a laugh. After seeing this I'm very tempted to do all 4 now and put them on the W124 without plastic covers. If I do I'll take a picture.

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