While splashing the cash on luxury items can make a nice treat, sometimes you don’t need to make large investments to get the most out of your money. The rise of Lidl over Waitrose, Primark over Topshop and Uber over London’s black cabs shows that you can get good-quality products and services at a purse-friendly price, and cars like the Dacia Duster leave you more spare dosh for avocado on toast and expensive coffees.
There’s been a distinct rise of those manufacturers that cater towards the cost-conscious end of the market, a place Dacia considers its stomping ground, and the Duster is a family SUV with prices that start below £10,000. The cheapest Seat Ateca, for context, costs more than twice that.
Yet the Duster doesn’t necessarily belong in the ‘cheap and cheerful’ bracket; it offers much of what a family could want from an SUV, especially when you move up the range to trim levels that add further gadgets such as a reversing camera and sat-nav. In fact, we even awarded it the low-price-point family SUV gong in our 2019 MinamiPool? Car of the Year awards.
There’s a choice of three petrol engines and a diesel offering, the option of two or four-wheel drive, depending on your engine choice. Likewise, there are four trim options to choose from, ranging from the bargain-priced Access right the way up to the generously-equipped Techroad.
But should you spend your hard-earned dosh on a Duster or go for a similarly-priced alternative such as the MG ZS? Read on for our in-depth review of the Dacia Duster to find out what engine and spec to go for. And, once you’ve chosen your preferred engine and spec, head to our New Car Buying pages to find some great deals.
Engine, 0-60mph and gearbox
It’s worth stretching your budget to skip the 98bhp 1.0-litre entry-level TCe 100 and head straight for the mid-range TCe 130. It’s a 1.3-litre, turbocharged petrol that produces 128bhp to give it noticeably more shove than the 100 TCe. It has a pleasing briskness, even if it’s not outright fast, and plenty of overtaking power when you need it – helped by the six-speed manual gearbox that all but the TCe 100 have as standard. There’s no automatic option at all.
Moving up to the more expensive TCe 150 is only worth it if you really need to have the quickest Duster, but, if diesel power is more your thing, there’s a 113bhp 1.5-litre diesel (called Blue dCi 115) which is related to that used by the Mercedes A-Class. It’s snappy enough once you get the engine spinning above 2000rpm, but doesn’t have a lot of shove at low revs so you’ll find yourself changing down a gear more regularly than you might like. It’s only worth choosing if you expect to cover enough miles every year to benefit from its greater fuel economy.
However, you might also choose the diesel if you really need four-wheel drive. This is also available with the most powerful TCe 150 petrol engine, while the others are offered with front-wheel drive only.
Where fitted, the four-wheel drive mechanicals add weight and make the Duster less willing to accelerate up to speed. However, if your plan is to use that system for taking on more than a wet gravelly track, you’ll be truly impressed.
The Duster may not seem quite as suited to the rough stuff as more off-road-biased rivals such as the Suzuki Jimny, because it can’t take on as much of a steep angle without scuffing its bumpers. However, it’s still surprisingly capable on a challenging off-road course. Yes, you do find yourself wincing a little as it rubs its chin or belly on the ground, but it has no trouble hauling itself up steep, rutted and sandy inclines, so long as you’re prepared to use plenty of power. A super-low first gear certainly helps with this.
Suspension and ride comfort
The Duster borrows many of its oily bits from old Renaults that are no longer on sale, and that means the suspension is rather old-fashioned. Going for a four-wheel drive Duster gets you a more sophisticated rear suspension, which helps improve both stability and comfort both on and off road.
Both setups are okay around town thanks to a combination of relatively small wheels and high-profile tyres that help absorb most small lumps and bumps without jostling you around in your seat too much. However, at motorway speeds the Duster never feels truly settled, riding with a slight judder over all but freshly laid tarmac – it’s still not as bumpy as the MG ZS though.
The Duster handles predictably enough, although its soft suspension means it leans quite a bit in corners and its tyres serve up less grip than those of the MG ZS. When driving on faster, more undulating roads, there's also quite a lot of body bounce, which can cause you and your passengers to do some unintentional headbanging. There’s also fairly pronounced nose dive under hard braking but the Duster stops in a shorter distance than the MG.
The steering gives you a reasonable sense of connection with the front wheels, so you always have a fair idea of how much grip there is or isn’t, even if the car is car slow to respond to inputs. It’s not a car that encourages you to drive in a sporty manner, though – the better steering response of the MG ZS makes it more fun to dart into corners.
The four-wheel-drive versions provide a bit of extra traction in slippery conditions, but in day-to-day use, there’s no particularly noticeable benefit. Its real purpose is for the off-road prowess, so if you’re going to keep your Duster on town Tarmac only, you don’t really need to pay the premium for this setup.
Noise and vibration
The 1.3-litre petrol units are surprisingly hushed, with just a faint whine under acceleration, while the diesel transmits some noticeable vibrations through the steering wheel and floor area that surrounds the pedals.
There's a fair bit of wind noise from the door mirrors and roof rails on the motorway, but never to the extent that you’ll need to shout to communicate with those sitting in the rear. Back seat passengers will also feel a bit of vibration from the suspension – particularly in front-wheel-drive models, while certain motorway surfaces will send vibrations through the steering wheel.