Engine: 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged diesel
Transmission: six-speed manual gearbox
Power: 109 PS @ 4,000 rpm
Torque: 240 Nm @ 1,750 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 53.3 mpg
CO2 emissions: 137g/km
Top speed: 104 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 12.5 seconds
Price: £14,995 (car tested had optional traction control/stability control at a cost of £350)
The Dacia Duster SUV doesn’t officially arrive in the UK until next year but it’s already attracted more than its fair share of attention – and that’s down to what its makers are calling its “shockingly affordable“ pricing, which starts at just £8,995.
The Dacia brand is still unfamiliar to most UK buyers but the company first started making Renaults under licence in its native Romania more than forty years ago, and has been under the direct control of the French group since 1999. Renault has revitalised Dacia by investing in new models and has pushed international sales heavily as well. The main focus so far has been on Eastern Europe and emerging markets, but Dacia has also built up a strong following in France, Germany and some other Western European countries.
Previous plans to introduce Dacia to the UK were delayed – currency fluctuations and a lack of production capacity for right-hand drive models were among the reasons – but now the cars will arrive early next year. The Duster will be joined by a second model, the Sandero, a five-door hatchback with prices starting at less than £6,000 – if anything that’s even more “shockingly affordable” compared with its rivals than the Duster.
I had the chance to sample briefly a left-hand drive Duster Renault has brought into the country as a demonstrator in advance of the arrival of UK-spec cars – and I was impressed. There’s no getting away from the fact that the interior of the car I drove felt a bit bare; the radio, for example, was a standard DIN-sized affair rather than an integrated unit, although Renault says that right-hand drives will get an improved dashboard.
On the other hand, the Duster felt pretty sound when it came to the fundamentals – the chassis seemed well sorted, at least in the basis of fairly brief acquaintance, and the diesel option, fitted to our test car, is a version of Renault’s smooth and widely used 1,461 cc unit that is found in many Meganes, Clios and the rest, as well as some versions of the Mercedes A-Class, thanks to an agreement between Mercedes and the Renault-Nissan alliance.
One thing to watch out for - the attractive entry-level price is for a very basic, two-wheel drive petrol-engined model. Go for four-wheel drive, a bit more equipment and the diesel option that many prefer for an SUV, and your Duster can end up costing you quite a bit more. Our test car would cost over £15,000 in UK trim – still good value for money, but a lot more expensive than the headline entry-level price. Bargain hunters who don’t intend to head off road might be better off looking at the Duster’s stablemate, the Sandero, which has a much shallower price gradient as you work your way up through the range, and tops out at less than £10,000 unless some of the pricier individual options are chosen.
The UK consumer organisation Which? has criticised the Duster’s middling three-star Euro-NCAP safety rating, and it’s difficult to say at this stage whether this will dent its appeal. It’s worth pointing out that while most small 4x4s achieve four and five-star ratings in the same tests, one rival, the Jeep Compass, scores only two stars, and the car with which the Duster is most likely to be compared, Ssangyong’s keenly-priced Korando, hasn’t yet been tested at all.
One issue is the role of electronic stability control (ESC), which is increasingly fitted as standard on cars sold in Europe, but is only available as an option on diesel Dusters. ESC was fitted to the car used for our review but not put seriously to the test, and it will be interesting to see whether Renault considers tweaking the Duster’s spec prior to its arrival in the UK, a common response to issues of this sort highlighted in early tests by Euro-NCAP or car magazines. ESC and traction control are fitted as standard to the smaller Sandero.
Overall, though, a brief initial taste of the Duster suggests that it should find plenty of takers in the UK. Dacia’s place within the Renault group is often compared with that of Skoda in the Volkswagen empire but while Skodas have been getting increasingly sophisticated, Dacia has stuck resolutely to its budget roots. The emerging Korean brands, Kia and Hyundai, have also, with some justice, been raising their prices as their cars have improved, opening up some space in the market to be taken up by Dacia – if the product is right. So far the evidence is encouraging.