So the plan was to blag a nice motor from the PH fleet for my holiday (preferably the F-Type) but, you know, I wouldn't complain about the S4. Here's how it went:
Dan: "Yeah, no problem, I'm always up for getting exposure on long-termers. How about the mighty Duster?"
Mitch: "Haha! Oh wait, you're being serious. Mmm, OK."
Now look, my reservations don't stem from a spoilt life jumping in and out of press cars; rather it's that I've driven a Duster previously on steelies with no 'infotainment', except for an FM radio. In fact, I have driven every Dacia in the current range, and they all suffer the same problem: steering.
Actually, I'm not sure you can call it steering; maybe ruddering would be a better word. With the Duster, and certainly the Logan MCV, you sort of point it in the general direction you want to go in and hope that it goes in that general direction before the road runs out. So forgive me for wanting a bit of feedback and feel on my holiday to Britain's best driving roads.
But, to be fair, these roads would stand up as a decent test of the mighty Duster. I was suitably intrigued to see if the Dacia could actually make the NC500 fun, or equally if it would totally ruin it.
Fast forward to departure day. Like many, I don't live in the north of Scotland, which means my mate Harry and I would have to spend a couple of days on the 500-odd mile trek to Inverness. It also meant we needed to pack for a longer trip, for which the Duster was suitably prepared.
Cameras, tripods, video sliders and mattresses loaded, we could still see out the rear window when overtaking on the M6, where the Duster was remarkably at home. Thanks to the fact that James unselfishly ticked every option on the spec sheet - 'our' Duster has comfy leather seats, cruise control and a decent DAB radio.
The steering, however, was not far off what I remembered. Don't get me wrong, a lot of 4x4s have hauntingly vague steering at motorway speeds, but the Duster is crossover sized and doesn't have to make such compromises to be as rugged as, say, a Defender.
After an overnight stop in Glasgow, the proper roads began as we headed north along the A82 on the banks of Loch Lomond, before the snowy mountains of the wild Nevis range unfurled into view.
The Duster begins to make a bit more sense as you delve further into these sweeping A-roads. Its 1.2 turbocharged engine, which produces 151lb ft of torque just north of 2,000rpm, feels sprightly enough to overtake the odd dawdling caravan, even with all our kit in the back. And as your jaw drops around every corner near Glencoe, you feel glad to be mooching along pleasantly with a decent ride.
So what do you do with 500 miles of beautiful tarmac ahead? Easy - a bit of light off-roading. We're told few 4x4 owners actually ever go off road, but everyone wants the knowledge that if they were casually driving past a Scottish mountain, they could just drive up it. So we did. No crazy articulation or fording - it was merely a Scottish loggers' track - but the 4x4 system from a Nissan Qashqai more than proved its worth.
It has three modes - '2WD', 'Auto' and '4WD'. Auto, as in the Qashqai, is 2WD most of the time, but sends power to the rear wheels if it thinks you need it. On the road, the traction control throws its toys out of the pram if you try to lean too heavily on the front end, so this effect is negated. But the 4WD lock setting, available up to 40mph, is genuinely impressive off road. A small muddy incline in the woods, where the front wheels were just spinning up in 2WD, was easily crested to reach to our photo spot in 4WD.
Having spent too long taking pictures and with previous warnings about the slow single lane progress, we decided to skip the Applecross pass. And we were rewarded with a spectacular section of the A832 between Achansheen and Kinlochewe, where the homepage picture of the official NC500 site is shot.
Just as the resentment of not taking something more engaging was starting to fade, and I was truly beginning to admire the Duster for its comfort and practicality, we were struck by the warning light of doom. First, it was just the tyre pressure light - a visual check suggested it was safe to carry on to the next garage. But then a red symbol depicting a heart rate monitor beeped into action. As advised by the manual, we stopped immediately in the creepily beautiful coastal village of Poolewe, fearing our dream loop of the NC500 had been thwarted in the first furlong.
Renault Assist are go!
Poolewe is genuinely not far off being as remote as you can get in the UK. As I rang Renault Assist (the manufacturer's proprietary recovery service), the helpful fellow on the other end of the line said someone would be there in 90 minutes. Seemed optimistic, so being airy-fairy photography types, we traipsed off to get a sunset timelapse in what seemed like purgatory. Before we even had the camera set up, the phone rings. 'Hi it's Duncan, I'm by your Duster and there's no-one here'.
He couldn't see anything wrong, and neither could the garage he sent us to. Overnight however, the tyre completely deflated so we had to fit the spare. To our delight, the Duster came with a full size wheel, so when the garage found the hole caused by two nails, we had to take a decision.
Of course we should. And I'm glad we did. North of Ullapool, the road dives across moonscapes, weaves past the ruined Ardvreck Castle perched on Loch Assynt, and then curves over the picture-postcard Kylesku bridge. As you pitch right to glide past the amazing coves at Leirinmore and Loch Eriboll, the wind drives spray off the North Sea and up the dramatic cliffs all the way to John O'Groats, where we stay in one of the many tired B'n'Bs that seem to make up the dispersed town.
After a late night shooting stills by the lighthouse, the 10:30 date at Dingwall forced some 'progress' to be made along the east coast on the morning of day three. Happily, the sections of A99 and A9 between Wick and Inverness are the least picturesque of entire the North Coast 500 (although still rather nice), which meant we could hope to do some more photos after the tyre was fitted, even though we would have completed the route.
Best laid plans and all that. The tyre I'd requested was not the one fitted onto the mighty Duster's alloy. As such, we lost another half day faffing around the waiting rooms of some of Inverness's finest garages and had to settle for taking our snaps in Aviemore and Edinburgh the following day, with the right rubber eventually sourced.
As tiresome (pun only slightly intended) as searching for Continentals in north Scotland had been and despite the over-dramatic warning lights, I have to admit that I really warmed to the Duster on this trip.
The point is, however, that in the real world you could mooch through this scenery with your kids and all their kit in the back for £9,495. You can't knock that. Quite simply in this case, cheap is good. But that's unfair on the mighty Duster as I genuinely enjoyed its practicality, the compliment-grabbing looks and, at times, even the thrillingly vague steering.
Beyond that, I see it as a gateway. If the Duster can allow more people the adventure of a proper road trip, then I'm all for it. How far is Romania?
Car: 2016 Dacia Duster TCe 125 4x4
On fleet since: January 2017
List price new: £15,795 (As tested £18,980 comprising Metallic paint for £495, European mapping for £90, Aspira leather upholstery for £500, Protection Pack for £495, Touring Pack for £565, Action Pack for £755 and Window Pack for £285)
Last month at a glance: To the end of the earth (alright, Scotland) in the mighty Duster
Words: Mitch McCabe