Dacia Duster review
The Dacia Duster is a Nissan Qashqai alternative with a Nissan Micra price tag. It’s consistently one of our top-rated small SUVs
The Dacia Duster is a small, rugged SUV that costs the same as a small hatchback. The low price point means it's competitive enough to take on the best of the best in the crossover SUV and family hatchback segments of the market. If you look it as a cut-price Nissan Qashqai, you might start questioning whether you really need to spend more for "the real thing".
The Duster's range is pretty easy to get your head around, but the entry-level model is basic. In Access spec, there's black plastic everywhere, steel wheels and no radio inside, but it's a genuinely cheap and cheerful model. The range was subtly updated in late 2015 with a slightly revised front end and a new top line Laureate Prime model.
It does have its issues, particularly its three-star EuroNCAP crash test safety rating and engines that aren't quite as economical as more expensive alternatives. The Duster does fight back with a flexible interior, appealing looks and pretty decent driving manners.
It’s a no-frills but stylish SUV that does exactly what it says on the tin without costing you a fortune. A smart buy indeed.
The Dacia Duster arrived on Britain's shores in 2012, with the promise to bring quite a unique proposition: a family-friendly Nissan Qashqai-style small SUV for the price of a supermini. In fact, the cheapest Duster costs less than the cheapest Ford Fiesta!
Unlike most bargain-basement cars, the Duster does have some genuine appeal. Dacia is part of the huge Renault-Nissan Alliance, so the mechanical parts underneath are up to date, with some of them already being used in current-generation Renault and Nissan models.
The Duster is similar in size to a Nissan Qashqai, so it's spacious enough inside to fit five people in comfort. There's a 1.6-litre petrol available, but it's only limited to the entry-level Access model, so most buyers will choose the 1.5-litre dCi diesel. Dacia offers a 4x4 option, but no automatic.
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In 2015, Dacia subtly updated the Duster. A revised front grille, some new alloy wheel choices and new paint colours were made available to buyers. Plus, a new range-topping, limited-time trim was introduced, called Laureate Prime. When it was available (it was only sold during 2015), it was probably the best value option available.
So, there are three trim levels to choose from: Access, Ambience and Laureate. The Access is unashamedly basic, with washing machine-white paint only, steel wheels and no radio. Ambience adds a couple of extra toys, but Laureate adds most of the kit you'd come to expect for a car in this class - air conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer and alloy wheels.
Prices are comparable to superminis, but the Duster's chief rivals are cars like the Ford Focus, Skoda Yeti and Suzuki S-Cross – and of course the Nissan Qashqai and new Renault Kadjar with which it shares showroom space.
Engines, performance and drive
The Dacia Duster is a simple, straightforward car and this is reflected in the way it drives. If you’re looking for something a bit more engaging, look to the Ford Focus: the approach here is focused on delivering a decent ride and safe, foolproof handling, rather than the ultimate in driver enjoyment.
Because it’s a bit higher off the ground than a regular hatch, the soft suspension means the Duster does lean a bit in corners. It doesn’t give much feedback either, but the benefit comes in ride quality around town. The Duster soaks up bumps well and is supple over rough roads. Just be mindful that the suspension can produce a sensation like a bobbing boat if you drive too fast down undulating roads.
Early UK-market Dusters didn’t have ESP as standard, a major safety omission. All 2015 cars now have it as standard though, and there’s a Nissan-derived three-mode 4WD system available across the range if you want the security of extra traction.
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The high seats and raised stance mean the Duster is a confidence-inspiring drive in the city, although the budget car does still lag behind pricier rivals in its lack of safety assist tech – emergency auto-braking is unavailable, for example. Rear parking sensors are a dealer-fit option: front sensors are not offered by Dacia.
The engine choice is simple for the Duster range: a 103bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine, or a 108bhp 1.5-litre dCi turbodiesel. Indeed, Dacia makes it even simpler: the 1.6 is only offered on base Access trim – all other Dusters come with the sole diesel engine.
The diesel is easily preferable. The Renault-sourced unit can be a bit gruff under acceleration, but it’s a decent performer with lots of pull at the bottom of the rev range and ample strength to pull a family of five. You don’t have to keep changing gear to maintain progress, and the six-speed gearbox itself is light and easy; this helps keep engine noise under control when cruising.
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The 1.6-litre engine is harder work. Despite being the fastest Duster on paper (0-62mph is quoted at 11.5 seconds, compared to 11.8 seconds for the diesel), it feels flat on the road because it has to be revved: it has 60% less pulling power than the diesel, and this torque is delivered 2,000rpm higher up the rev range.
Driving the 1.6 quickly is thus a noisy affair that you won’t enjoy. If it’s fully laden, you’ll have to work the gearbox – if you have to go petrol, choose the 4x4 variant as this has a six-speed gearbox that makes it a bit easier. Do note, Dacia doesn’t offer an automatic transmission on any Duster.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
The two Renault-derived engines are both familiar units – and easily the best choice is the dCi diesel. Fuel economy isn’t exceptional by modern standards, but 56.5mpg for the front-wheel drive 4x2 version is still acceptable. CO2 emissions of 130g/km mean it just falls into the free first-year road tax category.
Impressively, the fuel economy penalty for choosing the 4x4 diesel is minimal: it still averages 53.3mpg and official consumption figures for urban driving are even more closely matched. Do note that stop-start or any other green assist features are unavailable on any Duster, though.
The petrol engine is much less competitive. It averages 39.8mpg, a figure we used to associate with 1.6 petrol cars of a decade ago. In town, official figures suggest less than 30mpg, which is worryingly thirsty. The 4x4 version officially averages just 35.3mpg overall, and emits a whopping 185g/km of CO2 – that’s a full four VED tax bands higher than the 4x4 diesel.
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The 1.6 Access petrol reflects its basic nature with a supermini-like group 6 insurance rating. Its unpainted black bumpers will be cheap to repair and there’s so little kit as standard, it’s unlikely to attract much attention in a car park.
The stronger everyday performance and more complex nature of diesel-engined Ambience models means insurance group ratings take a jump up to group 10. Laureate models are higher still, at group 11 – although do note the theoretically more secure handling of Laureate 4x4 models pitches them a group lower, back in group 10.
Laureate Prime Dusters will be the most expensive to insure, with the 4x2 model coming in at group 12. Again, the 4x4 has an advantage, at group 11.
An alarm isn’t standard on any Duster variant, but is offered as part of the £595 protection pack, which also includes rear parking sensors and extra tailgate protection.
Generally, the Dacia Duster holds a significant insurance group advantage other compact SUVs. The base Nissan Qashqai 1.5 dCi Visia, for example, starts at group 17.
Not only is the Duster cheap to buy, but it also holds on to a good proportion of its value on the used market. It’s a popular car that’s in demand, which helps retained values remain comparable or even slightly better than rivals from Skoda, Kia and Hyundai.
Because the list prices are so very low, the monetary cost of depreciation will be thousands less than comparable compact SUVs.
Some versions do perform better than others, though. The Laureate is sought after because used buyers know it will come with air-conditioning as standard, for example; the base Access is less appealing because of its solid white paint and thirsty 1.6-litre petrol engine.
Interior, design and technology
The Duster has an appealing, chunky SUV style on the outside, with bold wheelarches and a stylish front end. The latter has been enhanced for 2015, and the new colours now on offer also modernise the Duster. The black sheep is the Ambience which, with its white paint and unpainted trim, looks cheap.
Incidentally, the Laureate Prime only has one paint choice too – but it’s a very appealing Cosmos Blue metallic.
The appealing style isn’t quite carried through to the inside. The dashboard is neat enough, but a bit plain compared to other compact SUVs – and quality reflects its budget roots in being a bit plasticky and plain in places. It feels like a supermini-class car, rather than a more premium SUV.
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The dials and switchgear will be familiar to Renault Clio drivers, and it’s all very simple to use. It lacks high-tech features, preferring good old fashioned knobs to more modern electronic displays. You don’t even get a trip computer until the top-spec Laureate, for example.
The only version that does feature advanced tech is the Laureate Prime: it comes with a standard MediaNav Evolution touchscreen infotainment system with sat-nav. This has live traffic info and Aha web radio; the regular Laureate is available with an older version of MediaNav sat-nav as an option.
Cloth trim in Ambience models feels cheap, but things do improve as you go up the range (every variant has a different type of seat trim). The Laureate Prime has special dark carbon upholstery with blue inserts; you can also choose leather on all versions above Ambience, but we’d stick with cloth.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
It’s a huge black mark here for the Access – because you don’t even get a radio as standard! At least Dacia fits the pre-wiring for an aftermarket stereo and speakers.
Ambience models have an MP3-comaptible CD stereo with AUX and USB connectivity, plus remote fingertip controls and Bluetooth connectivity. If you want infotainment, you must choose the optional MediaNav kit on the Laureate (it costs a bargain £300), or take the Laureate Prime where it’s fitted as standard.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
The Duster may be priced like a supermini but one of its key showroom draws is the amount of space it offers. It’s a similar size to the Nissan Qashqai on the outside and this is reflected in the amount of space within – for drivers, passenger and luggage. Sensibly, Dacia only offers the Duster as a five-seater.
At 4,315mm long, the Duster is just 55mm shorter than a Qashqai, and it’s actually a bit longer and wider than regular hatchbacks such as the Hyundai i30. It’s of course higher off the ground than a regular family hatch – at 1,695mm tall, it’s actually the same height as the more SUV-styled Nissan X-Trail.
Another key advantage over less SUV-biased models is ground clearance. The standard Duster can clear obstacles 205mm tall and the 4x4 version has an additional slight advantage in terms of ground clearance, offering 210mm. This can pay dividends in the urban jungle, not just off road.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
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All occupants will appreciate the Duster’s tall design. It gives a better view out for driver and passengers and the fact that you step into it rather than lowering yourself down makes access easier. Getting in won’t be a struggle and neither will helping children do up their seat belts in the back. The driving position is decent but do note, a height-adjustable driver’s seat is not fitted to base Access models.
Rear seat access and roominess is impressive for a car so competitively priced; three people can be loaded into the back, making it a viable family car choice. Just note, the rear seat is a bit soft, so for regular long journeys fully-laden, you may prefer a more conventional car such as a Ford Focus.
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The Dacia Duster has a superb 475-litre boot. This is much bigger than models such as the Ford Focus (363 litres) and Volkswagen Golf (380 litres), and it can stretch to 1,636 litres with the seats folded. Again, though, the Access suffers here as the Duster doesn’t have a split-fold rear seat as standard.
4x4 versions of the Duster have a slightly smaller boot, due to the all-wheel drive running gear. If you have a spare wheel option, they offer 408 litres with the seats up and 1,570 litres with them down. You can choose a puncture repair kit instead though, to yield more space: 443 litres with the seats up and 1,604 litres with them folded.
The boot is a good, well planned shape and, although the boot lip is a bit higher off the ground than in a regular hatch, this actually makes it a bit easier to slide things in and get them out again.
What the Duster lacks are any premium load bay features such as fancy tie-down points and clever sliding rear seats to trade passenger legroom for boot space. It’s a basic setup that reflects the value-led list prices – it offers space in abundance and Dacia feels for most buyers, this will be enough.
The Duster will haul a maximum braked trailer weight of 1,200kg in 4x2 guise and 1,500kg as a 4x4. Unbraked, it ranges from 615kg for the 1.6 4x2, up to 680kg for the 1.5 dCi 4x4.
Reliability and Safety
The Dacia Duster had been sold for several years in Europe before arriving in the UK. This, combined with its simple nature and use of very well proven Renault and Nissan-sourced components means reliability and dependability are proving competitive.
There has been a surprising issue with rust appearing on early models, though. These were built in India and don’t seem to have had quite the same level of corrosion protection we’ve come to take for granted in the UK. The 2015 model is built in a different plant in Romania and Dacia assures us the issue has now been sorted.
What really lets the Duster down is its weak safety score. Euro NCAP has given it just three stars for overall crash safety. In a marketplace where five stars is the accepted norm and anything less than four stars is unacceptable, this is a real weakness.
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The Duster suffers not because of any major failings in crash protection, but in its lack of safety assist features. ESP has only recently been standardised, for example, and electronic emergency braking isn’t available even as an option. Only front and side airbags are fitted as standard; curtain airbags are not available.
The Duster has an average warranty of three years and 60,000 miles. Although it’s sold in the same showroom as Renault, Dacia has decided not to follow the French firm’s four-year warranty package. Significantly for owners of early Dusters, there is a two-year paintwork warranty and a six-year anti-corrosion warranty: a surprising number of owners have already claimed on this.
Dacia offers two optional warranty extension packs for buyers of new Dusters, to five years and 60,000 miles, or seven years and 100,000 miles. If you buy on finance, the five-year pack is often included as standard, as an incentive.
The Duster has a rather short service schedule of one year and 12,000 miles: most Renaults and Nissans stretch this further, which is surprising. There is, however, no difference in schedules between diesel and petrol, or 4x2 and 4x4 models, which makes things straightforward. Variable service intervals are unavailable.