Dacia Duster 1.5 DCi Laureate 4x4 (2014) long-term test review

Published: 04 August 2014

Month 10 - the end of CAR magazine's Dacia Duster long-term test review

So after 10 months and just over 16,000 miles the Duster has driven off my driveway for the last time. Will I miss it? Well, yes and certainly much more than I thought I would when it arrived. Frankly, the honeymoon period with the Duster – immediately christened The White Car – lasted up to the moment I first drove it.

By today’s standards it is unrefined, sluggish and handles like a rudderless liner in a heavy swell. The cheap-looking cabin, kitted out in hand-me-down Renault parts, is hard, shiny and bereft of panache. Equipment levels, even in top Laureate spec, are modest and as a whole it has no driver cachet whatsoever. Its looks are best described as functional. It isn’t ugly but it’s certainly not the car that has you looking fondly back at it after parking. There’s a slight gaucheness to its stance, proportions and detailing – call it a whiff of mid ’90’s Korean metal.

So, not a good start but I soon realised that to correctly appraise The White Car calls for a distinct shift in the usual CAR criteria. Judge it against its performance, handling, design and desirability and on the CAR stage, it’s an embarrassingly quick and unceremonious exit stage left.

But look at it from a hard-nosed and pragmatic balance-sheet point of view, and the Duster is deep in the back of the net. Its combination of affordability and versatility, combined with its spot-on marketing proposition that boldly cold-shoulders aside aspiration in favour of value-for-money makes it a marketplace winner, no matter which zeitgeisty way you look at it. To compare it to other similar-sized crossovers is to miss the Duster’s point – even the outgoing Qashqai would have it licked when judged by CAR’s standards. You have to constantly remember its £14,995 price in all comparisons. Do so, and you quickly realise that there’s little out there on the new car market that can come anywhere close to its standards.

Bearing that price in mind, I realised I could live with the modest performance from the 109bhp 1461cc turbodiesel engine, and its so-so 41.9mpg economy, by focusing on its decent mid-range shove and using it to maintain momentum. I could live with the heavy-and-wallowy driving dynamics because I adapted my driving style accordingly and instead enjoyed the truly absorbent and relaxed ride quality that laughed in the face of potholes.

I ignored the cabin’s blandness and appreciated instead its hard-wearing functionality and space. Despite the best efforts of children, dogs and muddy bikes, it stood up well to a lot of punishment. What the hard plastics lacked in tactility they more than made up for in ruggedness. It didn’t have a generous list of goodies, but it ticked the must-have boxes with Bluetooth, air-con, central-locking and iPod-ready audio.

And I appreciated its reliability. Bar a front driveshaft that failed – a faulty component that was quickly and politely replaced under warranty by Seward Renault of Portsmouth (who also undertook its first service for £195.91) – the Duster performed faultlessly.

Arguably, my biggest challenge throughout the last ten months was creating an emotional bond with The White Car. It’s difficult to feel passionate about an object that tackles its transport brief so dispassionately, but that didn’t stop me admiring its appeal. The Duster is a compromised proposition, make no mistake, but the unassailable truth is that for the price, they are compromises that you can easily live with. To drive, the Duster may not be a CAR kind of car, but to own, it’s well worthy of consideration.

By Ben Whitworth

Month 9 running a Dacia Duster: pure focus

If you read my last half-dozen reports you’d think I wasn’t enjoying the Dacia. It takes a very generous soul to call it a looker. Frisky slugs would leave it for dead. It’s noisy at all speeds. It wallows through corners like a heavy liner in a hefty swell. And it has neither cachet nor recognition.

But while all the above is true, there’s something appealing about a car that successfully and unerringly bullseyes it target. And that’s providing no-fuss transport for cash-strapped and – if you believe the Tories – hard-working families. So many cars today try to be too many things for too many divergent audiences. Not the Duster. It does budget mobility, and nothing else – better than anything out there.

After 12,459 fault-free miles the orange service indicator light flicked into life. A few miles later I heard an odd knocking noise emanating from the passenger side of the engine compartment – a faint duk-duk-duk that filtered into the cabin on pull-away. Remind me again, what’s Romanian for irony? I called Seward Renault in Portsmouth and booked in the car for some TLC. The Duster was serviced, fettled and cleaned within a few hours, but the service team couldn’t identify the knocking until I took out one of their chaps. An overnight stay beckons…

By Ben Whitworth 

Month 8 running a Dacia Duster: don't go anywhere near the brake pedal!

The Dacia Duster is having a significant impact on my driving style. With its supreme ability to lose speed quickly and gain it back very slowly, maintaining momentum on the rat-run race to work and back is absolutely vital. Which means looking much further ahead than I would normally do, keeping my eyes fixed on my mirrors for looming outside-lane morons – why do slack-jawed 320d drivers love the Duster’s rear bumper so much? – and keeping the car in its 70-80mph sweet spot at all costs.

It’s not that the Duster is that slow, it’s just that I really loathe slowing down only to then try and regain that lost speed.

So I’ve devised the snappily titled home-to-work-without-touching-the-brakes-and-if-you-do-you-have-to-listen-to-The-Archers-on-the-way-home game. It’s one worth winning. If I time it right, I can leave home, chug through our village’s single traffic light, past local schools at snail’s pace and then onto the A27 and then the A3 without my right foot ever leaving the accelerator.

Last week I covered 45 of the 51 miles between home and office before I had to brush the centre pedal – some purple-haired dear made a rather rash decision to meander her Micra into the fast lane when she was travelling anything but.

In other news, after passing the 12,000-mile mark the Duster’s raucous and rev-averse donk seems to have noticeably perked up. It doesn’t now hurl itself against its redline and deliver effortless in-gear punch. That description belongs to the Maserati Quattroporte I recently drove. But the 1.5-litre unit now seems to breathe less like the lumpy asthmatic boy after a cross-country race and more like a modern common-rail diesel should. Let’s hope it’s as keen on an Archers-free commute as I am.

By Ben Whitworth

Month 7 running a Dacia Duster: how to eke out the performance

The benefit of a long-term test is that you discover the joys, flaws and idiosyncrasies that would never surface during a quick test drive. And I’ve discovered the one thing about the Duster that drives me spare. It’s not the modest acceleration. I’ve recalibrated my speed sensors to look twice as far ahead and ignore the middle pedal to maintain my hard-won momentum. It’s not the lack of refinement, either. Yes, it’s raucous at speed, with wind whistle, road rumble and drivetrain drone, but it’s bearable. It’s not the blancmangey handling either, because the comfy ride quality is ample compensation. And it’s not the drab cabin with its rock-hard plastics, because it’s well-equipped, solidly made and hard-wearing.

Nope, what has me swearing is the hard plastic moulding on the driver’s door, housing the window controls. It’s both perfectly positioned and ideally shaped to dig into my knee no matter how I position my right leg. Dacia clearly doesn’t employ tall test drivers.

In other news, my wife has declared the Duster to be her favourite of all my long-term cars. Surprising, given the C-class, MX-5 and Clio Trophy that have gone before. She loves the raised driving position, and, well, that’s enough to rocket the Duster to number one.

By Ben Whitworth

Month 6 running a Dacia Duster: back-to-basics honesty

Honesty. It’s the word that I think sums up the Duster perfectly. There’s no pretence about this car. No aspirational marketing spin, no trickle-down glow from halo models. What you see is what you get. And the more I drive the Duster, the more I’m liking what I’m getting. It wasn’t that long ago that there was an inverse relationship between affordability and desirability. Daewoo, anyone? The Duster does a pretty good job of reversing that.

It’s a pity that when one uses the word ‘cheap’ these days, most listeners silently add the words ‘and nasty’. Because while the Duster is cheap, it’s certainly not nasty. Yes, anyone stepping out of an S-class would take issue with the refinement levels, the quality of materials and the lack of pampering goodies. But for the majority of motorists who rattle around in five-year old Euroboxes, the Dacia is a compelling proposition at the price.

I’m warming to the Duster’s white-label functionalism. There’s something appealing about driving a car that, on our brand-obsessed roads, is all but invisible. Other drivers let me in. They don’t cut me up. And they don’t take personal umbrage if I overtake them – although with a natural 75mph motorway sweetspot, that rarely happens.

Anyway, to better equip myself when answering the inevitable stream of questions from those with piqued interest whenever I park up, I did a bit of digging about Dacia – and in particular, the Duster – in the UK.

Since New Year’s Day Dacia has shifted just over 10,000 units in the UK. The Duster accounts for 5500 of those, with sales set to peak at 7500 by the end of the calendar year. In fact, on a global level, the Duster – whether badged Dacia or Renault – is Renault’s best-selling car.

In the UK the front-wheel-drive diesel in range-topping Laureate spec is the best-selling model. That’s understandable – once buyers realise they’re saving an awful lot over an equivalent VW Touran, Nissan Qashqai or Skoda Yeti they tend to treat themselves on a few upgrades. But they draw the line when it comes to fancy £470 metallic paint – standard-spec solid Alpine White accounts for one in every three cars. Diesel power utterly dominates sales, as you’d expect given the 1.5-litre unit’s decent combination of punch and parsimony, and the petrol’s lamentable lack of go.

UK-bound Dusters are assembled in India. A long way from Dacia’s native Romania, but that’s automotive globalism for you. And the line workers at Chennai seem to know their stuff because after just short of 7000 miles our Duster feels rock solid. Nothing has dropped off, nothing has gone wrong.

Anecdotal evidence from dealers shows that there’s no ‘standard’ buyer – they range from young working-class families looking for something spacious, affordable and with a decent warranty, through to posh types looking for something robust that can tow horse boxes. The Duster’s residuals are pretty strong at 45%, partly due to Renault opting for a non-fleet approach to sales. Top five showrooms are based in Inverness, Cardiff, Paisley, Newcastle and Glasgow. Make of that socio-geographic spread what you will.

Last weekend I thought I’d give the Duster’s off-road abilities a work out. Nothing strenuous, just a few mild excursions along the chalky tracks at the base of the South Downs. And with its short overhangs, ultra short first gear, torquey engine and drive selector switched to 4wd, it clambered along, up and over everything with impressive aplomb. I tackled some deep ditches that left front left and rear right wheels dangling, and the doors opened without  a sag or groan of protest from the chassis. Sure, it’ll be seen off by a Defender, but for most greenlane demands, the Duster delivers.

By Ben Whitworth 

Cabin of Dacia Duster

Month four running a Dacia Duster: why it's high-tech, depending on where you drive it...

I’ve twice visited Romania; firstly for the inevitable Vlad the Impaler-spawns-Dracula-myth tale and, secondly, in a Morgan +4 (ulp), after some wag of an Art Director pin-pointed the very spot where the last total eclipse of the sun would last longer than anywhere else in Europe.

Whilst Patrick Moore sat fuming under West Country cloud cover and the nuns in the convent we stayed in cowered under their chapel pews fearing the arrival of the Devil himself, I stood next to the local priest on a sun-baked hill-top in Transylvania and, through a welder’s helmet, watched the entire, astonishing spectacle unfurl.

On any other morning, the only extraordinary thing about Romania at the time was the Groundhog Day feeling elicited by the fact that every single car on the road was a knackered Renault 12 disguised as a Dacia and, occasionally, minus powerplant, towed by a donkey.

In the land where they still point at aeroplanes, however, the man with his own wheels is king. And I can only assume that the arrival of the new Duster must have been greeted with levels of astonishment more usually reserved – in, say, Frankfurt – for the arrival of a UFO. But, memories of dreaded Daewoo still reverberating, will what’s sauce for Gherla seriously serve as sauce for Glossop?

No matter that the Duster appears to have been designed by over-achieving children on a diet of Smarties and Red Bull; or that it’s full of scratchy plastics; or that engine and wind noise gang up with relentless transmission whine to keep your ears amused at all times; or that the steering pays homage to a deep-desert oil pipeline valve wheel… It’s perfectly comfy, adequately commodious, rides surprisingly well, and is the only car I know of which will stow a full-sized road atlas in the front.

The missus and the children think the Duster ‘okay’. That’s it; ‘okay’. And even its keeper, Ben W, discusses it more in terms of White Goods than a car to be evaluated in the context of rivals. All of which would be just fine if the poor thing didn’t cost £15,000. Would you rather have this than a 28,000-mile Skoda Yeti for £12,495? Didn’t think so.

By Anthony ffrench-Constant

CAR's 1.5 dCi Duster

Month three running a Daica Duster: why the Duster is just as focused as a McLaren supercar (really)

Maybe it's because it’s white, angular, rugged and (relatively) cheap. Whatever the reason, I’ve adopted a uniquely emotionless approach to the Duster, the first time I’ve done so with a long-term car. In much the same way as a fridge does its job of keeping produce cold, so the Duster carries out its role of moving me from here to there.

A few weekends ago I had a 12C Spider on my driveway. We’d tested it against the 458 Spider in Wales, and I drove it home to Chichester on Friday night before taking it to Woking on the Monday. It was a good weekend.

But oddly enough there was no letdown going back to the Duster. Why? Because the Duster is all about conveyance, and nothing about driving. It’s about rationality, not emotion. It’s a car designed to deliver a single goal: affordable transport. And I think this unwavering focus means it achieves this goal more effectively than any other budget car to date.

This is in no way a criticism. I don’t expect my fridge to wash my clothes, and I don’t expect the Dacia to do anything else other than move me about.

By Ben Whitworth

Month two running a Dacia Duster: the Duster's utilitarian side continues to appeal

The noteback in the Duster’s glovebox has filled quickly with comments – some good, some not so. Here are the highlights…

Ride – impressive. The Duster rides with a relaxed and lolloping absorbency that makes it a boon on West Sussex’s pitted and potholed roads. Ruts and ripples that shook and shuddered their way through my previous Hyundai Veloster are effectively sponged away.

Handling – not so impressive. The Duster doesn’t handle in the traditional sense of the word. Relations between the steering wheel and front axle are cordial at best, and there’s plenty of kickback but no feedback through the helm. Wallow, heave, pitch, roll and dive – they’re all there the moment you twirl the wheel.

Windscreen wipers – appalling. The Meccano-style wipers are diabolical. Small and lethargic, they sweep the front and rear screens with little skill and even less enthusiasm. Yes, this is a car undoubtedly built to a budget, but  in the safety stakes, shoddy wipers are a false economy.

Engine – good, with promise of better to come. Between 2000-3000rpm the 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine delivers a decent slug of torque, enough to make for relaxed – never anything but relaxed – progress. Economy has improved as the engine loosens up, climbing from last month’s figure of 41.6mpg to 45.7mpg this month, nudging 485 miles between refills.

Refinement – sorry, what did you say? The engine clatters on start-up, is gruff in the mid-range and wincingly loud at the top end. Add generous helpings of wind and tyre noise and the Duster’s cabin is a pretty rowdy place at anything above the national speed limit. Good for ensuring my clean licence stays clean. Not so good over long distances.

Cabin – a mixed bag. The steering wheel adjusts only for rake, which makes for a long-arm/short-leg driving position. That means the sharp corner of the raised housing for the window switches – situated on the door – is perfectly positioned to constantly dig painfully into my bent right knee. The audio quality of the radio is pretty rubbish, a pity because a decent sound system would help drown out the engine/wind/tyre noise. Visibility is pretty good, there’s a surprising amount of cabin space, given the Duster’s modest footprint, and plenty of storage space. It’s functional in the true sense of the word.

By Ben Whitworth

Month one running a Dacia Duster: first impressions of our budget Romanian 4x4

For leftfield Korean hot-hatch to cut-price Romanian SUV. There’s a cultural shift for you. The Duster is the third model from Dacia – say ‘datcha’ – to go on sale in the UK, along with the Sandero and Logan. New here, but under Renault dirt-cheap Dacias have been on sale in Europe since 2004. Unsurprisingly they have been selling like, well, really cheap cars.

Austerity Europe has warmly embraced Dacia – it’s been Europe’s fastest-growing car brand for eight years on the trot. And now, understandably, cash-strapped UK seems equally keen for a dash of Dacia.

While prices for the Duster start at a meagre £8,995, we’ve opted for the flagship model, the diesel-powered Laureate with four-wheel drive, weighing in at £14,995. For that you get the pick of the range and pretty much everything you need – switchable 4x4, aircon, Bluetooth, alloy wheels, anti-lock with traction and stability controls, leccy door mirrors and a decent iPod-compatible audio system. All that, yet it’s still the UK’s cheapest 4x4 by far.

You’re short-changed on style, though. The Duster looks like something Kia or Hyundai would have put out in the early ’90s, but it possess a functional honesty that’s enhanced by its delivery van white paint job. The cheap and flimsy cabin, likewise, is kitted out in hard and shiny plastics, with instruments and scattered controls all borrowed from out-going Renault models. But it does the job.
When people ask me what it’s like – which usually follows on from ‘What the hell is that?’ – I answer ‘It’s actually pretty good.’ I’ve clocked up just under a thousand miles since it arrived, and first impressions are decent.

After the Veloster, the Duster feels slower than a salt-sprinkled slug. Despite lugging just 1294kg around, Renault’s 1.5-litre turbodiesel only musters 109bhp at a cacophonous 4000rpm, but once galvanised into action with the direct and long-throw gearlever, a useful 177lb ft of torque kicks in at 1750rpm and mostly hangs around until 2500rpm. Keep the engine below 3000rpm, and you make decent and relaxed progress. Handling majors on door-handle scraping roll with generous helpings of pitch and heave, but the ride is relaxed, absorbent and pretty civilised.

Is the Duster a cut-price Evoque for the financially challenged then? Not by any means – but it’s no forlorn excuse for one either. Keep remembering that price tag, and you’ll continue to be quietly impressed.

By Ben Whitworth

By CAR's road test team

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