"Bare and basic but incredible value, the Dacia Duster ushers in a new era of affordable SUVs."
Why is the Dacia Duster the CarBuyer Car of the Year 2013? Because there's nothing else like it in the new car market – it's entry-level model costs less than some superminis and represents a real game change in terms of value for money. It's hard to believe you can really get this much car for such a low price. Dacia has managed this feat but using engines and parts from its parent company Renault to keep manufacturing costs low. But first a reality check – while it represents outstanding value, the entry model doesn’t come with a radio, is very basic and lacks electronic stability control as standard. If the lack of such ‘luxuries’ doesn’t bother you, then it's well put together and will ably cope with the rough and tumble of family life, and you get a choice of efficient two-wheel drive or pretty capable four-wheel drive. It also offers more space than the rival Nissan Qashqai and even the top-spec Duster Laureate model undercuts the Qashqai by around £3,000 (and comes with a radio and electronic stability control), which is quite amazing. As most of the major manufacturers are now looking into developing similar budget ranges, the impact of the Duster and its equally cheap supermini stablemate, the Sandero, has been substantial.
While it may resemble a truck on the outside, the Dacia Duster drives more like a family hatchback. It's comfortable to drive, absorbing bumps pretty well and proving very easy to control. You get strong brakes and a manual gearbox that that moves relatively smoothly through the gears. No automatic gearbox option is available. The Access gets a decent 1.6-litre Renault petrol engine, while the Ambiance and Laureate models come with a 109bhp 1.5-litre diesel that's pretty fast but fairly noisy. The driver sits nice and high up, with nice large mirrors adding to the good all-round visibility. The seats are supportive and comfortable and while entry-level Access models do feel basic they are by no means cheap. The higher-spec Ambiance and Laureate have much better interiors, meanwhile, and height-adjustable leather seats.
A comfortable ride, high driving position and overall user-friendliness makes the Duster well suited to long trips. The Duster's soft suspension soaks up all but the very worst bumps and the compact SUV offers loads of space for passengers, with a decent-sized boot for your luggage. Plus, there's plenty of room in the back for six-foot occupants. There is quite a lot of body roll in the corners but as stability control doesn’t come as standard, pushing the handling to its limits is probably not the best idea. Base-level Access models don’t come with many accessories, but go up a level to the mid-range Ambiance and you get a radio with USB and Bluetooth connectivity as standard.
The main note of controversy for the Duster is its three-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating in an era where five-star rated cars are the norm. It was tested in 2011, and while it's overall rating seems low that's because the entry models lack safety equipment like electronic stability control and scored low on pedestrian protection, and a car can only be scored according to its lowest-rated category. So, in adult protection the Duster actually scored four stars and was awarded the top five stars for child protection. Stability control is available as an option on Ambiance and Laureate specs. The parts in the Duster are all tried-and-tested across Renault's other ranges and any major problems will have been ironed out since its original release across Europe in 2010. The Duster also comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty and roadside assistance package, which can be upgraded to both a five-year and a Kia-rivalling seven-year/100,000-mile option.
Given it's compact SUV dimensions, the Duster is easy to manoeuvre through busy city streets and is very easy to park. If you do venture off road, all models have a decent ground clearance and the four-wheel-drive models prove very capable, with three 4x4 driving modes available. The Duster's 475-litre boot expands to 1,636 litres when the 60:40 split-folding rear seats are folded down – which is more space than in a Nissan Qashqai. The car's low lip on the edge of the boot also helps make loading large objects easier. And you can easily sit three adult passengers across the comfortable back seat.
Value for money
There's no beating the Duster for value for money. Its starting price of £8,995 for an entry-level Access model is almost unbelievable, priced on par with a supermini. However, what you get for that budget price is a basic car that does without features like a radio and electronic stability control – but you do still get anti-lock brakes and curtain airbags. The mid-range Ambiance upgrades the Access’ Spartan bodywork to include body-coloured bumpers, tinted windows and fog lamps, plus offers a 1.5-litre diesel engine and adds a radio with USB and Bluetooth connectivity. When you finally get to the flagship four-wheel-drive Laureate model, equipment levels improve. The Laureate may be a bit more expensive than an entry-level Nissan Juke, but the Duster offers more interior space and the Laureate has alloy wheels, some clever off-roading technology, electric rear windows, electric mirrors, trip computer and is the only model to be fitted with air-conditioning. In fact, the Laureate is so impressive for the price you pay, that we awarded it our 2013 CarBuyer Award for Best 4x4. Expect resale values to be about the same as a Nissan Qashqai.
The two-wheel Laureate is the most efficient of the Duster range, with its 108bhp 1.5-litre diesel engine returning 56.5mpg while emitting 130g/km of CO2. That's about the same as the most efficient Nissan Juke, which claims to return 55mpg and emit 129g/km from a 109bhp 1.5-litre diesel. The 104bhp petrol option returns a less efficient 39.8mpg and emits 165g/km. The 1.6-litre petrol is beaten in both economy and emissions by than a Nissan Qashqai. The entire range comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty – including roadside assistance – and any repairs will benefit from the Duster using proven Renault-Nissan parts and components.