Dacia has made quality on a budget

 
Ryan Borroff
The good-looking Duster comes with an even more attractive price tag for money-savvy SUV fans

BARGAIN motoring options are not usually part of the brief for this column. But budget brand Dacia has been shaking things up so much recently that it’s impossible to ignore.

Once, the Romanian carmaker was making cheap cars for central European markets. But now Dacia is owned by Renault and it’s selling some of the least expensive and most surprising cars on the market. In such cash-strapped times, Dacia’s popularity has soared.

The most unexpected thing about this car is that it’s actually rather good.. Starting at £8,995, Dacia’s Duster crossover represents really excellent value for money. I have friends in the City who have been known to spend more on a night out.

Intriguingly, people aren’t just buying it because it’s less expensive. Many owners are maxing out on the option list, which then puts this low-cost car alongside more expensive rival SUVs, where it fares less well. I suspect the reason this car is even considered in the same bracket as its more auspicious peers is because it looks so good. It has a pleasingly old-school SUV look with boxy, rounded-off edges. As the rest of the SUV crossover market has moved to leaner-looking, coupé-like designs, this Duster looks like it belongs in the desert and I like it.

In most respects, the two-wheel drive Duster Laureate I drove was pretty basic. It’s got an industrial, practical feel to it, which was reflected inside the car where the cabin is encased in hard plastic. But this back-to-basics utilitarianism isn’t all bad: it means the Duster is comfortable and easy to drive.

The dash is pleasing in its simplicity, especially at night when all but essential illumination switches off and retreats into the darkness. This is something of a breath of fresh air from most cars – and SUVs are a particular culprit – which light up the cabin like a 747 cockpit.

The Duster at night is more like an old Saab 9-5 when the night panel was on and it’s much less tiring to drive in the darkness as a result.

The ride is surprisingly comfortable, though the diesel engine is noisy and feels a tad agricultural. The steering doesn’t give a great deal of feedback and there’s some body roll, but there’s nothing that’s a deal-breaker. The suspension is soft, like SUVs of old, which makes for comfortable driving around town.

There is a lot of wind and road noise, though. That, combined with the sound of the 1.5-litre diesel engine, means the cabin can be noisy, especially at higher speeds or when the engine is working hard.

Still, it does feel like a lot of car for your money, especially if you compare it to what you’d get from rivals costing much more. It really grew on me over the course of the week I had it and it’s surprisingly characterful in a car market clogged with anodyne products.

The bottom line is the Dacia Duster is a good, old-fashioned car that’s great value for money. It’s a steal in fact, depending on how you spec it. If I was buying one I’d specify the four-wheel drive model and kit it out with all kinds of options. It’s not the most sensible thing to do but it is proof that cheap can be desirable, too.

THE FACTS: DACIA DUSTER LAUREATE DCI 110 4X2

PRICE: £13,195
0-62MPH: 11.8 secs
TOP SPEED: 106mph
CO2 G/KM: 130g/km
MPG COMBINED: 61.4mpg

THE VERDICT:

DESIGN Three Stars
PERFORMANCE Three Stars
PRACTICALITY Four Stars
VALUE FOR MONEY Five Stars