- Petrol 4x2 feels nippier than figures suggest
- Diesel offers greatest on-paper acceleration
- Diesel should provide strongest in-gear punch
Just three engine and transmission options are available initially; a two-wheel drive, five-speed manual 1.6-litre petrol, the same engine with a six-speed manual and four-wheel drive, plus a two-wheel drive, six-speed manual 1.5-litre diesel.
The 1.6-litre SCe petrol produces 115hp and 156Nm of torque, while the dCi diesel matches it for power but produces far more low-down muscle, with 260Nm of torque.
Fastest of these is the diesel, which accelerates from 0-62mph in a reasonable 10.5 seconds and can keep going until 111mph. Next in line is the two-wheel drive 1.6-litre petrol; 0-62mph comes up in 11.9 seconds – though it feels more responsive than that figure suggests – topping out at 107mph.
In terms of Dacia Duster performance, slowest is the four-wheel drive petrol; the extra 100kg of four-wheel drive mechanicals means that even with six gears and shorter gearing – something which normally boosts acceleration – this version requires 12.9 seconds to hit 62mph from a standstill. The top speed falls to 105mph.
While not fast, the petrol engine is quiet enough to work hard without feeling strained and the gearbox is very slick, making it a satisfying car to drive. As a result, regularly having to use the throttle’s full travel and changing gear regularly on faster roads is no hardship – especially considering how much cheaper it is than the diesel.
We’re yet to drive the diesel on tarmac but off-road it felt impressively refined for such a cheap car and had a similarly slick gearbox to the petrol. A turbocharged 130hp petrol is likely to arrive at the start of 2019. Providing the pricing isn’t too much above the 1.6-litre petrol, this is likely to be the pick of the range, offering stronger acceleration, reasonable fuel economy and we imagine lower pricing than the diesel.
Dacia is also planning to introduce an automatic gearbox for the diesel engine, though it hopes to develop one for at least one of the petrol models too, though there is no date for this at the time of writing.
- Steering now lighter but less precise
- Perfectly competent around corners
- Easier to manoeuvre around town
The Duster is particularly easy to drive and manoeuvre thanks to a new electric power steering system, though this lacks the weight and precision of the previous car when on faster roads. There’s nothing wrong with the new set-up, though it doesn’t give you the best idea of how much grip the front tyres have when cornering at higher speeds.
Despite this, the balance between comfort and roadholding is well judged for most drivers, as the Duster is untaxing to drive, parking is similarly easy and it handles tidily enough around bends. Yes if you carry too much speed through low-speed corners the stability control cuts in abruptly to limit power as you reach the relatively low limit of front-end traction.
The suspension is reasonably soft, but keeps the body in check reasonably well through turns. Aiding this is the fact that the Duster is reasonably lightweight for an SUV of this size, so while it’s not been designed to be thrown around corners, it shouldn’t get you into trouble either.
Meanwhile, the Duster is more capable off road than most drivers could ever want. Ground clearance for four-wheel drive versions is a decent 210mm – 205mm for two-wheel drive models – and with short overhangs it’s surprisingly capable over rough terrain.
The four-wheel drive system provides good traction, the ground clearance is sufficient for all but the most challenging surfaces and it’s possible to have hill-descent control for safe downhill progress off-road.
The only area where the Duster tangibly lags behind more serious off-roaders is in the level of water it can wade through – that’s capped at 350mm. Venture deeper than this and you might end up with soggy carpets, as the door seals aren’t designed for this level of immersion.
While not the most obvious towing car – due to its relatively light weight and none-too-powerful engines – the Duster is a better tow car than anything vaguely similarly priced. The two-wheel drive 1.6-litre petrol can haul 1,400kg of braked trailer, with the four-wheel drive petrol and two-wheel drive diesel raising that to 1,500kg.
This compares with as little as 800kg for the far pricier Fiat 500X to 1,100-1,200kg for the SEAT Arona, 1,300kg for the Kia Soul, 1,200kg for the 1.6-litre petrol Suzuki Vitara – though a decent 1,500kg for the diesel. The only affordable model that poses real competition to the Duster at launch is the SEAT Ateca, which can tow 1,500kg in entry-level petrol form and 1,700kg with the 115hp diesel engine under the bonnet.
- Attractive, easy-to-use dashboard
- Touchscreen media system good
- Many design cues stolen from pricier cars
Avoid the super-basic entry-level Access model – which does without a radio, air-conditioning, split-folding rear seats – and the Duster provides a spacious, usable interior with far more kit than you’d expect for the money.
Yes, one or two parts, like the extremely scratchy and unpleasant carpets, feel more suited to a cheap bed and breakfast than a car, but considering how much machine you get for the money and the decent array of standard equipment, even this is a very small criticism.
More than this, all the touch points, including the wheel, seats, gearstick and dashboard controls feel built to last and are of a reasonable quality too.
Better still, Dacia has liberally stolen design cues from a number of far pricier machines. The dashboard shape looks suspiciously similar to the Land Rover Discovery Sport, while the horizontal row of switches mimics that of the Mercedes GLC among others and the rotary climate control dials with a digital temperature display in the middle (standard on top-spec versions only) resemble those in the Audi Q5.
Considering that the Duster costs a fraction of these desirable premium models, Dacia has made a savvy move by nabbing some of their design elements. That’s because rather than just being a practical car bought on cost alone, they help make the Duster a car people will want to drive in its own right, with its stylish cabin now living up to the bold exterior.
Most of the controls are easy to navigate. Whether you go for a model with air conditioning or climate control you get three rotary controls that cover fan speed, temperature and where to direct the air. Wheel-mounted audio controls make it simple to tune the radio, jump tracks or change the volume and the touchscreen media system is pretty easy to use with big onscreen buttons.
There are only a few quirks including an idiotically located switch to choose between cruise control and speed limiter functions, which sits near the handbrake. This is far out of sight when driving, making it particularly distracting to find.
Thankfully, the driver’s seat and wheel are in a much better position. With far more seat height adjustment than before, we had no issues finding a comfortable driving position with a good view of the road ahead.
- Much improved seats and good driving position
- Adequate space in both rows of seats
- Light steering and reasonably comfy ride
Considering the price, Dacia Duster comfort levels are very good. The ride is mostly smooth, compliant and quiet in Comfort trim, which includes 16-inch alloy wheels – the same size as entry-level Access and mid-level Essential models.
Yes, the Duster bobs around a little on rough tarmac, but it deals with bumps effectively, is particularly comfortable on smooth roads and throws up little tyre noise. There is plenty of road noise at motorway speeds, though not to disruptive levels.
Step up to Prestige specification and you can expect a slightly firmer ride as this gets 17-inch alloy wheels, meaning an inch more metal and inch less rubber between you and the road. Helping to boost comfort levels are seats that offer much greater support than the previous Duster. These offer good lower back support plus reasonable side support for holding you in place around corners.
As a budget car, the Duster does feel more basic inside than a number of rivals, though Dacia has done a good job of boosting the amount of sound deadening compared with its predecessor considering the small price hike.
Consequently, the Duster feels far more refined on the road than you’d expect for such a cheap car, with not much engine noise from the 1.6-litre petrol and little wind noise.
Work the petrol engine hard – as you must to summon-up strong acceleration from this motor, especially as it only has five gears – and it is quite loud, though this is nothing out of the ordinary and perfectly acceptable considering the Duster’s price tag.
More problematic is that both petrol and diesel models share the same rev counter – which should show how hard you can work the engine. However, inexplicably the rev counter doesn’t show the engines’ maximum speeds on the dial, rendering them both pointless.
Since the diesel engine’s maximum speed is reached barely halfway around the dial – with no indication to show where that is – drivers are more likely to work the engine harder than they would otherwise, kicking up more noise in the process.