While it has racked almost seven years on the market, Dacia is keeping the Duster subcompact SUV fresh through a number of measures, such as the introduction of the limited series Explorer – but most of all through the addition of the EDC dual-clutch automatic gearbox.
Much has been said about the Dacia Duster – but the numbers speak a thousand more words. Even though it’s at the end of its first generation’s life, with the facelift having been presented way back in 2013 during the Frankfurt Motor Show, the subcompact SUV is still fourth in terms of sales after the first three months of the year – and featuring growth (modest, one percent) none the less. Its qualities are well known – it’s a real SUV, with major off-road capabilities when equipped with the AWD system of Renault Nissan Alliance origin. Its crossover qualities are less visible – because catering to the adventurous side of the market does have its fair share of compromises. Nonetheless, selecting the Explorer version and the EDC transmission does make a solid trial to morph the Duster into a crossover model. That’s mostly because the dual-clutch transmission is bundled only with 4×2 – for now, at least, we have a hunch it will get the AWD treatment with the newer platform of the next generation.
Design, Interior and Gadgets
Many European automakers have been adopting the American way more obvious in recent years – where the US market models get few or many updates each passing model year, without actually featuring a midlife cycle refresh. And while Dacia has always positioned itself as the most affordable entry on the European market now that Skoda is going upwards (they have competition from Suzuki now), they are also quick to follow the trend. This is the case with the Duster – the new model year has brought some changes, which are not particular to the Explorer limited series. That’s not to say the Explorer doesn’t feature its own enticing features – which help make the rugged Duster look slightly more upscale – such as the exclusive 16-inch Cyclade alloys. In addition, while not very helpful in off-road, the Duster Explorer comes with new trimming for the front and rear bumper, the tailpipe, the side sills and roof rails, all with faux satin chrome. What’s really helpful not only outside of paved roads but also in the town jungle is the standard Adventure pack, which bundles from the accessory list protective plastic cladding for the entire lower portion of the sides, including the wheel arches. The brand also lets customers choose a new exclusive color option – Gris Islande, which is actually featured across the entire range, the Explorer being offered not only on the Duster but also every Stepway version.
Inside, the usually grim sad appearance of the Duster has been treated to a dash of color – a new upholstery with embraided Explorer lettering as well as orange stitching, with the color also seen on certain parts of the dashboard to contrast with the piano lacquer elements. It’s not all moonlight and roses but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The upscale feeling is seconded by the leather-wrapped steering and gear shift – as well as the new design for the latter, as well as the fact that its manual gate uses the correct -/+ setting for selecting the gears. Of course, we’re going to have to wait for the next generation of the Duster to see if the robust but oh so dreadful plastic areas covering the dashboard and door panels will be replaced by something better – we know it’s possible, since part of the door panel is covered in soft fabric already. You’re not going to feel the need for any modern amenity inside the Duster Explorer though (apart from a depth-adjustable steering wheel), because it has almost everything standard or optional – stop/start system, air conditioning, electric windows with rear door/window automatic lock (one of the model year enhancements and something you really need if you have small kids) as well as the Media Nav infotainment system, with seven-inch touchscreen and navigation. It even features a rear-drive camera for safely backing out – again a model year upgrade. And speaking off, the most obvious implementation of the model year enhancement factor is the addition of the new steering wheel design, complete with speed limiter/cruise control controls, as seen on the facelifted Logan and Sandero series. Now all we have to hope for is the next generation Duster will get rid of the dreadful position for the infotainment screen – it’s too low for safe operation on the move and it’s also highly reflective due to the position angle. Other than that, the Duster is as usual at the top of its class, a subcompact crossover that shows you can still have a spacious and habitable interior – legroom isn’t great, but head and shoulder room in the back is better than even inside some compact SUVs if just two adults occupy the space. Because we’re dealing with the front wheel drive version, the Duster’s trunk is even more spacious as the AWD system takes up some space – 475 to 1636 liters.
Engine, Transmission and Handling
We’re old acquaintances with the Duster, so no point in talking about the 1.5 dCi diesel engine with 110 horsepower – this mill feels as old as the Renault Nissan Alliance, albeit with a twist of the Curious case of Benjamin Button, in which it gets younger each passing year. That’s because the engineers of the group are striving to better it – and the tiny details are making a difference. For example, the Duster’s ride and handling is getting better – NVH levels have gone down continuously throughout its life. The suspension is now just as silent as you would expect from a Renault Captur, for example, and I also suspect they worked up the noise insulation materials a bit, because the diesel’s rumble is now even less observable inside. These are good points, because Dacia has been criticized for feeling “cheap” in that respect – but it shows they took notice. Performance is not great – 11,9 seconds to 100 km/h and 169 km/h top speed, and fuel economy is not to be expected to reach the average 4,5 liters observed by the manufacturer. And this is because the Duster – with its rugged appearance – has the usual blocky aerodynamics that make highway travel quite hard on your wallet. There’s a big change in the way customers should select the Duster now – if you’re the adventure type stick to the AWD version and get the manual with its short gears. But if you’re going for the Duster just because you’re into the crossover trend the EDC is a perfect match. Goodbye lots of gear changes – the dual clutch is silky smooth and because it has had its own time to mature, quick to shift. More so, highway travel has actually improved in comfort – the engine is finally working at nimbler levels so you won’t be bothered with its noise anymore. And because crossovers are mostly urban dwellers, the EDC is again an advantage – I myself never want to see a manual box on something that resides most of the time in town. Here the Duster can help you save fuel – thanks to the smart stop/start system. It’s also not a cheap solution – the engine turns on free of vibrations and very fast. With 4×2 and a price that increases every time a feature is introduced, the Duster is all grown up – we might even see its new generation lose the title of Europe’s most affordable SUV. But with all the perks included today, we don’t mind. As long as they resolve the remaining issues – painful to look at and touch materials, dashboard layout and way too short-ratio manual gearbox. At least for the last one there’s a solution now – get the comfortable and smooth EDC. By the way, at home in Romania pricing for the Duster Explorer EDC kicks off at 17.700 euros.