► All-new body, much improved cabin
► Petrol or diesel, FWD or AWD
► Price +£500 but still under £10k
The Dacia Duster has been a huge hit since the Renault-owned Romanian brand came to Britain five years ago. Using a variety of old Renault engines and underpinnings and a bespoke body and interior, it was Britain’s cheapest SUV. People loved its simplicity, its functionality and its ruggedness. They also loved its price; more than half of Dacia’s UK customers have bought a new Dacia after years of owning used cars.
The Mk2, on sale in the UK now after several months of frantic European showroom activity in left-hand-drive form, is again Britain’s cheapest SUV – the entry-level version has gone up by £500, but still limbos under the £10,000 barrier.
With the Mk2, Dacia has aimed to address criticisms from customers by improving the quality and equipment level, without losing the price advantage. And the UK team have done a lot of behind-the-scenes work to come up with attractive PCP offers, which is increasingly the way people want to buy Dacias.
What’s new? Almost everything
The exterior design changes look like a thorough facelift rather than a clean-sheet design, but in fact every single panel is different. The dimensions are the same, as the chassis hasn’t changed much, but from the deeper grille and more curvaceous bonnet, via the beefier roof bars and shallower windows, to the smart rear lights, it’s new.
Inside, the changes are even more substantial. The seats are more comfortable, more supportive and more adjustable. There are more air vents, a better infotainment system, more stowage cubbies and various safety upgrades.
What engines can I get?
At the moment, you have an uninspiring choice of engines: a naturally aspirated petrol four (the SCe 115 that we drove) and a turbodiesel (Blue dCi 115). A turbocharged petrol engine will follow.
The petrol is available with front- or four-wheel drive, while the diesel is front-drive-only for now, although all-wheel drive will become available.
There are four trim levels, named with a Ronseal clarity: Access, Essential, Comfort and Prestige. Access has next to nothing: black door handles, no radio, manual rear window winders, no air con. Comfort is probably the best balance; it adds £3k or so to the price, but it’s worth it for the sat nav, better upholstery, USB slot, trip computer and various other items of equipment that many a modern buyer would expect to be included.
Can a car cost less than £10k and drive well too?
We’ve not driven the entry-level Duster; our Comfort-spec petrol test car comes in at just over £13,000. But the extra cost is all about accessories, not the fundamentals. And those fundamentals are pretty good.
If you’ve driven a decent French family car in the last 10 years, you know more or less what the Duster feels like: comfy ride, light steering, a degree of slackness engineered in to the controls, and an easygoing vibe that values passengers at least as much as the driver.
What’s improved most noticeably is the cabin ambience, which has benefitted hugely from additional soundproofing. The extra central vent helps all five occupants stay comfortable. The seats are much better. The predominant cabin material is stll plastic, but it’s now generally nicer plastic, and the shape of the dash is much more pleasing to the eye.
It’s still a simple, basic car, but the fundamentals are sound: big boot, economical engines, no nonsense.
And off road?
We had a 20-minute off-road expedition (in a different Duster, a German-spec diesel 4x4) and we were wowed by its willingness and capability through ruts, up steep ascents and down awkwardly angled slopes. The hill descent control and switchable 4x4 system (actually best left in auto mode, to decide for itself which wheels to drive) do a great job of keeping you trundling along. With all-wheel drive you get a six rather than five-speed gearbox, with a lower first gear to help with off-road work.
Underpinning it all is the Duster’s impressively light kerbweight – just 1179kg – which doesn’t put too much strain on the engine, transmission or suspension.
All-wheel-drive Dusters have independent rear suspension, which eats slightly into the boot space but gives the necessary rear wheel movement.
Some Dusters are bought as farm vehicles, and a few for leisure off-roading. But even if you never intentionally go off road, it’s good to know that it can cope with broken surfaces.
New Dacia Duster: verdict
We’re expecting the turbo petrol engine to add a star to the Duster’s performance rating, but even with the underwhelming 113bhp unit this is a very impressive car if your priorities are about practicality, ruggedness and versatility rather than B-road driving pleasure or all-day motorway cruising.
It’s fantastic value, whether you’re paying cash or exploring the PCP options. And the fact that it now looks and feels much smarter, slicker and more modern is a bonus.
See more Dacia reviews by CAR magazine