"Bare and basic but incredible value, the Dacia Duster ushers in a new era of affordable SUVs."
We named the Dacia Duster as CarBuyer Car of the Year 2013 for one very simple reason – it changed the market. By redefining the concept of a bargain car – the entry-level Duster SUV costs the same as your average supermini – Dacia parent company Renault have set other car manufacturers on a similar value-for-money course. It's still difficult to comprehend just how much you get for such little money, and with the parts and engines all being Renault components, manufacturing costs are low and therefore purchase price is kept down. But do bear in mind that, while it is superb value, the base model is missing a lot of what is now considered standard equipment and accessories, such as a radio and electronic stability control. Basically, it's, well, basic.
Beyond any luck of “luxuries”, the Duster is well built and will withstand the pressures of daily family life well, and comes in an efficient two-wheel drive or as a reasonably capable 4x4. There's more space inside than you’ll get in a Nissan Qashqai, and even the top-of-the-range Dacia Duster Laureate actually undercuts the Qashqai by around a few thousand pounds (and comes with a radio and electronic stability control fitted as standard). The legacy of the Duster and its equally cheap supermini stablemate, the Sandero, will be changing the car industry for some time to come.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
If you want to save, you’ll have to spend money in the Duster - the mid-spec two-wheel drive Laureate is the most economical in the range, with its 108bhp 1.5-litre diesel engine returning 56.5mpg in combined fuel economy 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 of CO2 from a 109bhp 1.5-litre diesel. The 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine is easily the least efficient, returning 39.8mpg and emitting 165g/km – with the Nissan Qashqai trumping it in both categories.
All models come with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty – including roadside assistance – and any repair needs will benefit from the Duster using readily available Renault-Nissan parts and components, so maintenance costs will be manageable.
Interior & comfort
The Duster is surprisingly comfortable on longer drives, considering it's so inexpensive. It's very user friendly and the high driving position gives you a great view. The suspension is nicely cushioned, soaking up nearly all but the biggest bumps on the UK's rough roads. Plus, even though it has the dimensions of a compact SUV, there's plenty of passenger space and a reasonably sized boot. You can comfortably get six-footers in the back, but, because there is a fair amount of body roll in the corners because electronic stability control isn’t standard on the lower-spec models, you’re better off not going full-tilt anyway.
Entry-level Access models miss out on lots of accessories and equipment, but if you go up one level to the Ambiance then you get a CD radio with USB and Bluetooth connectivity fitted as standard – but the price is still incredibly cheap.
Practicality & boot space
In terms of bang for your buck, the Duster is amazingly practical for the money. You get 475 litres of boot space when the rear seats are still in place, expanding to a decent 1,636 litres when the standard-fit 60:40 split-fold back seats are folded down flat – which is more than you get in a Nissan Qashqai. Loading is easy thanks to a low boot lip, and three adult passengers can easily sit in the back. The Duster's compact SUV dimensions also make manoeuvring through busy town streets and parking in tight parking spaces relatively easy. If you do head off road, the Duster has decent ground clearance, with the four-wheel-drive models actually proving better than you’d expect, thanks to its 4x4 driving modes.
Reliability & safety
You won’t find a Dacia in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, but parent company Renault hasn’t got the best record for reliability. Luckily it rose six places to get itself off the bottom of the manufacturers rankings to place 21st (out of 32) – not brilliant but a move in the right direction.
The components of the Duster have been proven across Renault's ranges, with any big issues already addressed – especially as the Duster's been available on Europe since 2010. You get a three-year/60,000-mile warranty and roadside assistance package, which you can also upgrade to either five years or a Kia-challenging seven-year/100,000-mile option – so Renault clearly believe in their new bargain product. However, the compact SUV hasn’t proven such a hit in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests, only getting three stars. Now, because we live in a day and age where virtually every car that rolls out the factory is expected to get five stars, this looks bad for the Duster, but the reality is a bit different. One - it was tested in 2011, and two - the overall rating is low because of a lack of standard safety equipment like electronic stability control (ESP) on the base model. Plus, it scored low on pedestrian protection and because a car's main score can only be as high as its lowest result, it gets three stars. That said, it scored four for adult protection and the full five stars for child protection. So, it's safer than you might think, and you can always add ESP on the Ambiance and Laureate models.
Engines, drive & performance
First off, despite having rugged, truck-like dimensions, the Duster is not an off-roader. In reality, it's more like a capable family hatchback with optional four-wheel drive. It offers a really comfy ride, absorbing lumps and bumps well and being easy to keep under control while on the road.
The brakes are strong and responsive, while the manual gearbox moves easily through the gears with little messing about. There isn’t an automatic gearbox available because of the budget nature of the brand and there are only two engine options. The Access model comes fitted with a strong 1.6-litre Renault petrol engine, while the Ambiance and Laureate models are fitted with a 109bhp 1.5-litre diesel that's genuinely quite fast, even if it is a little loud when pushed hard.
The driving position is high, with big mirrors further increasing the overall visibility. The seats are supportive and comfortable, and, while entry-level Access models really do feel basic, they are never cheap and nasty. The higher-spec Ambiance and Laureate both offer better-quality interiors, meanwhile, with height-adjustable leather seats.
Price, value for money & options
Dacia cars are the definition of value for money. The Duster is simply amazing value, with the starting price for the base-model Access car actually being hard to believe. You get a whole SUV for the price of a still-cheap supermini. But be aware that nothing comes this cheap without sacrificing something, and with the Duster it's equipment levels. The entry-level model does without a radio and electronic stability control, for instance. You do get anti-lock brakes and curtain airbags, though, so Dacia hasn’t made it uncomfortable and unsafe.
The Ambiance model upgrades the Access’ basic bodywork with body-coloured bumpers, tinted windows and front fog lamps, and also adds a 1.5-litre diesel engine, a CD radio with USB and Bluetooth connectivity.
The top-spec four-wheel-drive Laureate model does get pretty impressive overall equipment levels, though, and while it may be a bit more expensive than an entry-level Nissan Juke, the Duster actually has loads more space inside and some clever off-roading technology – not to mention the electric rear windows, electric mirrors, trip computer and air-conditioning. The Laureate is so impressive, in fact, for the price you pay, that it was the easy winner of the 2013 CarBuyer award for Best 4x4 as well as being the CarBuyer Car of the Year. You can now get a Dacia Duster Black Edition that offers a more luxurious feel, but it's so expensive that we’d actually avoid it.
Expect resale values in the used car market to be pretty strong thanks to the low list price, although the Duster is still a bit new to know for certain what kind of second-hand deals will be available.