Just take a look at our European monthly sales news to see how the Renault Group fares and then just dig a little deeper to find out that a big part of the growth is sustained by the double-digit increases made by the Dacia brand. Want to know one of its main assets – here it is the refreshed Duster SUV.
Today, while you may have heard little about the Romanian Dacia brand outside Europe, the Renault affordable unit is a true international division – with its products, albeit rebadged as Reanult models in overseas markets – and plants stretching more than one continent.
The success story behind Dacia surely took even Renault by surprise, as the sales developed like a storm – aided by the worsening economic prospects in Europe – but also by the fact that for once, an automaker offered a car that was just designed to go from A to B. And, yes, they evolved beyond that now – with the clear signal coming from the fact that the line-up has six models (seven if we count the Stepway), not one older than two years.
In western Europe, the big drivers of growth for Dacia are the second generation Sandero hatchback, with the soft-off-road Stepway version a massive hit and the recently refreshed Duster SUV.
Design, Interior and Gadgets
There’s little to wonder why the small SUV is such a big seller – it’s compact enough to challenge the growing segment of small crossovers like Renault’s own Captur or Peugeot’s 2008 – but it’s also large enough to beat them at interior space and, well, it’s way more affordable. At 4315 mm in length, the Duster beats the 2008 for example, which is 4159 mm long and also comes with a larger wheelbase – 2673 to 2538 mm.
The refresh undertaken last year in autumn addressed some issues with the design of the car – albeit the Duster still has a different approach to the design from the rest of the models, which have been very well unified across all versions, from small to large. It’s definitely quirky and won’t please anyone, but it also helps the model stand out. While changes to the exterior were few and discrete, the interior underwent a small revolution.
With a price point starting (in Romania) as low as 11,000 euros – but with the top of the range dCi model (tested) still coming well under the 20,000 euros threshold (17,100 euros, again in Romania), the Duster will cut many corners – but the refresh has actually lowered their number. After all, while you can brag about being UK’s most affordable SUV, if you don’t give them all the amenities, you’ll still get discontent customers.
So, with an exterior that looks tough and long-lasting, Dacia moved to address the No.1 concern about its cars – the interior. Here, we’re still surrounded by tough, unpleasant plastics, but at least they look nicer now. And the changes run deep – with all the area surrounding the driver and front passenger reworked, addressing such details as the door-mounted electric window controls (they were on the dashboard before). And, because affordable doesn’t mean that you can’t keep up with technology, the Duster has all the gadgets needed in a modern car.
That means a reasonable sat-nav system (called MediaNAV), which can be had for the price of a lower-end smartphone (300 euro), cruise-control, touchscreen controls, USB/Bluetooth connectivity or heated seats. Apart from the fact that the driver can’t get his steering wheel adjusted in depth, there are virtually no complaints to be issued towards the equipment/gadgets sector. Yes, there are little snags – the processor for the system could be faster and the touchscreen more responsive – but we’re talking here about an affordable budget offering, not the latest flagship. And it does its job very well if judged from that perspective.
Five persons and their luggage fit in for a longer journey if needed, thanks to the overall interior space being well systematized – the front seats are not spectacular but comfortable, and the back seat is well suited to take a third person in the middle.
Engine and Transmission
The Duster – in its best diesel configuration comes equipped with a well-known engine from the Renault bank of powertrains. It’s the – aging – but reliable 1.5 dCi engine, coupled to a six-speed manual gearbox.
The 1400 kg SUV gets 110 hp at 4000 rpm and 240 Nm at 1750 of torque. It’s a decent setup, one that won’t get you winning any drag race, but is sure to get you out of snags encountered on rougher terrain. The platform underpinning the Duster is a cross between the rather ancient (but again, easy to maintain and reliable) platform used for the Logan/Sandero at the front and the Nissan X-Trail inspired setup for the rear wheels. As far as 4×4 prowess in the class – remember we’re judging here against the Captur or 2008 – not the Land Rover Freelander – you won’t get any better. And, as opposed to the current crop of small crossovers and SUVs, there can be had some input from the driver when it comes to traction control. A heritage from the X-Trail, the Duster comes equipped with a knob that lets you switch from 4×2 to 4×4 and, the most important 50/50 traction in 4×4 mode. With short overhangs and a compact dimensions, if you’ll put the Duster through its paces on an off-road course, the chances are you’ll reach your internal limits before the car does it.
On the road, things are not that great though – the ride is actually better than what we’re used to the Logan/Sandero duo, which are way too susceptible to center of gravity changes – but is still far away from what we would get from the Captur/2008 and others. As always, there is a trade-off in having outstanding off-road capabilities – although in this case they’re not deal breakers. Yes, you won’t get mind-bending road performance, but once you get off the asphalt you’ll smoke many bigger and pricier SUVs. So, in may opinion, the Duster is best suited to a family- young driver that was broad activities – whether trekking, off-roading or any other related activity.
Performance is, as I said, just median – with 12,9 seconds to the 100-km/h mark and a top speed of 168 km/h. The consumption – which in real life will be hard to achieve is of 5,1 liters/100 km. I said that comment in light of the one really big problem with the diesel setup – the gearbox. The engine is really great on other cars, reaching way better consumptions than expected, but here – the six gears are like having four on an old American car. Many complain that – for off-road purposes – the first gear is way too short – well, I actually think that all six are way too short. This is a problem I encountered to other brands as well – so it’s an industry wide approach – on the Duster reaching a highway cruising speed of 130 km/h in sixth gear gets the engine uncomfortably high on the rev counter – which affects cabin noise and, more than anything else, fuel autonomy.
The price has gone up since the 2010 introduction of the model, but so have the included number of amenities, while optional equipment won’t cost you an arm and leg. In the home country of Romania, the 1.5 dCi 4×4 top of the line will start at 17,100 euros. For those who like the car and don’t need the 4×4 system or the diesel engine, there’s also a great new addition – a last generation 1.2 TCe gasoline that churns out 125 hp, starting at 14,800 euros.
We could count as key selling points for the Duster the overall compact dimensions (it’s really usable as a city car), the high number of equipment choices, interior space and off-road capabilities.
On the other hand, with this particular version, there’s a less than stellar road handling, a very, very short six-speed gearbox and some of the materials would make the luxury buyer run in tears.