Dacia Duster vs MG ZS: which is the best budget SUV?

The Dacia Duster and MG ZS offer SUV motoring for those on a tight budget, and don’t make you feel hard done by

Take a look at new car prices and you’d be forgiven for thinking that some of the figures are starting to get a little bit crazy. Since when did you have to pay £40,000 for a family hatchback, or £100,000 for a mid-size executive car?

Still, there are one or two cars that are stubbornly bucking the trend, such as these two family SUVs whose prices look almost too good to be true – can they really be up to everyday use when they cost barely £20,000?

The Dacia Duster continues to be something of a bargain, and here, we’re pitching it against the MG ZS. Both aim to draw cost-conscious buyers into their dealerships, but if you’re on a tight budget for your next new car, which is better? And are these two really worth scrimping for, or are there used alternatives that do the job better?

 Dacia Duster TCe 130 4x2 ExpressionMG ZS 1.0 T-GDi Exclusive
Price:£19,695£22,070
Powertrain:1.3-litre 4cyl turbo petrol, 127bhp/240Nm1.0-litre 3cyl turbo petrol, 109bhp/160Nm
0-62mph:10.6 seconds10.5 seconds
Test efficiency:45.6mpg/10.0mpl42.7mpg/9.4mpl
Official CO2:141g/km149g/km
Annual VED:£180£180

Dacia Duster

In Expression trim and with the TCe 130 powertrain, the Dacia Duster just manages to dip below the £20,000 mark – something of a rarity in the new car world, especially for something with so much space. So is there a catch?

Tech highlights 

Since we last sampled the Duster in an in-depth review, the Romanian marque has undergone a rebranding. Under this, the range will be given a slightly more rugged lifestyle image, albeit one with a continued focus on strong value for money. 

In the case of the Duster, so far this new approach has only brought the mildest of changes; the grille gets the new ‘DC’ logo, while at the back, the old badge has gone, with the Dacia lettering moving to the metal part of the bootlid from the plastic panel above the number plate.

Dacia’s ability to price the Duster so competitively comes from the car’s mechanical make-up, which borrows heavily from parent Groupe Renault. The platform is an adaptation of the one used by the previous-generation Clio and Captur, which enables the Duster to be equipped with either two or four-wheel drive. It’s the former that we have here, paired to a 1.3-litre turbocharged petrol engine. Once again, this unit can be found in a variety of Renaults, Nissans and even compact Mercedes models. Here, it produces 127bhp, but it’s the generous torque of 240Nm from 1,600rpm that’s more significant. 

Safety: The Duster was assessed by Euro NCAP in 2017, when it scored an underwhelming three stars. Its lowest marks came in the safety assist category, where it was rated at only 37 per cent – the absence of lane-keeping assist or autonomous emergency braking on the car NCAP tested pegged back its overall score. All Dusters come with four airbags as standard, while top-spec models feature a blind-spot warning system, too.

On the road

Comfort is very much the priority for the Duster, and we believe that’s the right approach for a car such as this. However, the car’s modest kerb weight also means that its nippy overall character feels closer to that of a supermini than other family SUVs.

Around town:  All of the Duster’s controls are fairly light. The steering makes the Dacia very easy to place at low speeds, and the clutch pedal isn’t too wearing to use when shuffling along in heavy traffic. Large windows with flat glass translate into fairly small blind spots compared with many SUV alternatives, even if the C-pillars are still fairly thick. Fortunately, even the entry-level Duster gets rear parking sensors as standard, and a reversing camera is offered higher up the range.

A & B-roads: Nobody will be buying the Duster in search of a driver’s car, but it’s more fun than you might expect on a twisty road. It’s helped by fairly forgiving suspension; rather than bouncing from one bump to the next, the Duster flows with a road, allowing you to carry more speed than you might expect – with the added bonus of making it a fairly comfortable place to while away the miles. The steering becomes a little vague as the speed increases, though, which takes the shine off.

Motorway: The 1.3-litre turbo petrol engine is more than up to the task of getting up to the motorway limit, with a generous amount of low-down torque helping it feel keen even at high speeds. The ride remains relaxed, although the door mirrors do produce some wind noise.

Ownership

So far, the Duster doesn’t demand any drastic compromises to justify its low asking price, but the source of the cost savings become more apparent when you examine the cabin closely. 

In contrast to many more expensive SUV rivals, the Duster’s interior is almost uniformly finished in the same dark grey shade of hard, scratchy plastic. Go for the higher-spec Journey or Extreme trims and the upholstery is highlighted with some orange stitching, but that’s about as exciting as it gets. The entry-level model doesn’t even get a touchscreen; instead, a large double-DIN DAB radio with a small LCD display sits in its place.

However, the layout is neat and functional; there are five large, round air vents across the top of the dashboard, and these can be controlled by a trio of chunky air-conditioning dials. Parts are lifted from Renault models past and present, including the intuitive steering wheel-mounted audio controls. 

There’s very little here that will wow you, but more importantly there’s even less that will get on your nerves. The instruments are clear and simple, the driving position is slightly raised and there’s a decent range of adjustment for the seat and steering wheel. The seats themselves are fairly soft yet have decent support.

The Duster comes with a three-year/60,000-mile warranty, but MG offers a seven-year/80,000-mile package with the ZS.

Storage: Four-wheel-drive models get a drive select dial just beside the handbrake; in front-wheel-drive models this is replaced with a small, circular recess that’s not much good for holding more than a tealight. Behind it there are two cupholders – one useful, the other too shallow to hold anything substantial – while deep door bins, a large glovebox, a wide smartphone tray and a shelf on the passenger side of the dash mean the cabin has reasonable storage for smaller items.

Practicality

The Dacia’s simple, boxy shape has big benefits when it comes to space inside – especially in the boot. 

Rear Space: The back seats are comfortable enough for adults, and thanks to a relatively flat and soft bench, it’s even fairly roomy on those occasions when you need to carry a third passenger in the back. Kneeroom is generous, and headroom is excellent.

Boot: There’s a total of 445 litres on offer in the Duster’s boot. The area itself is almost square, and the boot opening is wide, even if the floor isn’t quite level with the lower edge of the aperture. 

The rear seat backs don’t quite fold flat, but at 1,623 litres in two-seat mode, the overall amount of space is impressive. For context, the larger and more expensive Nissan Qashqai has 1,585 litres of space with its back seats folded.

What to buy?

Which engine and trim we’d choose

  • Engines: Dacia offers a 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol and the 1.3-litre 4cyl tested here. The latter is also available with an automatic gearbox, and benefits from a bump in power, up to 148bhp. A 1.5-litre diesel with 114bhp comes as standard with four-wheel drive and is exclusive to Extreme trim.
  • Trim: The range kicks off with the Essential, which at its cheapest starts from £17,295. The Expression, like-for-like, costs an extra £1,000, while the Journey sits above that. The Extreme is the highest of the four trims. 
  • Our choice: Our test car is the sweet spot in the range, for both trim and powertrain.

MG ZS

In fully-electric form, the MG ZS EV is very keenly priced against its rivals. With a petrol engine under the bonnet, however, the ZS is a little more pricey than its closest opponents. In top-spec Exclusive trim, the ZS we have here costs £22,070, which means it’s £2,375 more expensive than the Duster it lines up beside.

Tech highlights 

The mechanical make-up of the ZS is fairly simple. As with many of the cars at the more affordable end of the market, power comes from a three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine; the unit itself is derived from the one used by the previous-generation Vauxhall Corsa

With 109bhp, it’s a little down on outright power when compared with the Dacia’s 1.3-litre turbo, but more significantly, its 160Nm of torque is 80Nm short of its rival’s figure. The engine is paired to a six-speed manual gearbox and drive
is sent to the front wheels. 

At 4.3-metres long, the MG ZS has a slightly larger footprint than more expensive crossovers such as the Renault Captur and Volkswagen T-Roc, but is nearly identical in size to the Duster. 

Safety: As with the Dacia, the MG was safety tested by Euro NCAP in 2017, and was also awarded a three-star rating. The ZS scored lower for child-occupant protection than the Duster, but was stronger in the vulnerable-road-users category. 

The MG is slightly better equipped in terms of safety kit, with six airbags and autonomous emergency braking fitted as standard. The Exclusive model we have here also comes with a blind spot-monitoring system, and rear cross-traffic alert, which warns the driver about approaching traffic when reversing out of
a parking space or off a driveway.

On the road

There are elements of the MG ZS that compare favourably with the Dacia Duster, but in other areas, particularly the powertrain, it falls short. 

Around town:  Our test car didn’t feel very slick even before we’d managed to pull away, because engaging first gear felt rather obstructive. Once on the move, the rest of the ratios aren’t much more pleasant to use either, because both the gearbox and the clutch pedal feel mushy. 

The steering has a little more weight than the Duster’s, but it’s still more than light enough to be easy to use around town.

A & B-roads: On paper, the ZS is claimed to cover the 0-62mph dash in 10.5 seconds – 0.1 seconds faster than the Duster. However, in the real world, the MG feels much more lethargic than its rival. The turbocharger doesn’t fully come on song until fairly high up the rev range, which means that you need to use far more of the engine’s revs to make any sort of decent progress. 

The MG’s ride is a little firmer than the Dacia’s, but the body feels better controlled and is more adept at absorbing small bumps. While there’s a little less body roll in turns, the ZS feels more stodgy through a series of corners. It’s also a little more top heavy, which means that it inspires less confidence for those rare occasions that you need to make evasive manoeuvres.

Motorway: That shortfall in low-down torque brings its issues on the motorway, where more extended uphill periods at 70mph will force you to change down to fifth gear – and sometimes even fourth – just to maintain a constant speed. That’s a shame, because the engine itself is very quiet at a cruise, and the car feels reasonably stable.

Ownership

Much like the Duster, there’s a strong need to manage expectations when climbing aboard the ZS. The design is very generic, with an attempt to jazz up the layout by going down a rather predictable route of red stitching and fake carbon fibre to give an impression of sportiness. 

Some soft-touch plastics mean that there’s a veneer of a premium product that the Dacia lacks. But the centre armrest, which obstructs the handbrake, has a lid whose hinge is so loose that it feels moments away from breaking off.

These negative points are offset by some genuinely smart touches, though. One of those is the part of the cabin that you see and touch the most; the steering wheel feels great to hold and looks smart. The panoramic sunroof is a feature that is also unexpected at this modest price point. 

The driving position has a reasonable amount of adjustment, but some testers found that the headrest forced their head a little too far forward.

While Dacia’s 26th place finish in our Driver Power satisfaction survey is hardly impressive, MG fared worse, finishing in 32nd position out of 32 brands. One third of owners experienced a fault of some sort within the first year of ownership, and the brand was rated worst for overall quality. The one saving grace was its second spot overall for value, although it was pipped to the number one spot by Dacia. 

Storage: Unlike the Dacia, the MG gets a central armrest with a closed cubby space beneath it. Along with the glovebox, it means that there’s plenty of room to hide away valuables. A couple of cupholders are positioned beside the handbrake, and are deeper than the Dacia’s. But the shelf beneath the dashboard, the place where many would put their smartphone, is small and angled awkwardly. Unless you have a small device, you’ll need to store it elsewhere. 

Practicality

By most measures, the MG is very closely matched to the Dacia, which means that it is a usefully practical family SUV.

Rear Space: The one exception to how it measures up against the Duster is in terms of rear headroom – it’s not tight as such, but it isn’t as roomy as its rival. In terms of kneeroom and elbow room, there’s nothing to separate the two, though. The centre seat isn’t quite as comfortable in the ZS because it’s a little perched, but it’s fine for shorter trips. The Isofix points are presented as exposed bars, which are fairly easy to get to.

Boot: The 448-litre boot is a great size, and just beats the already-roomy Duster by a mere three litres. There’s plenty of under-floor storage, but the space isn’t lined, so items can rattle around. The back seats drop flat, although there aren’t any release levers in the boot.

What to buy?

Which engine and trim we’d choose

  • Engines: There are two choices under the bonnet, with the 1.0-litre turbo sitting above a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre four-cylinder option. The pair have similar power outputs but the 1.5’s peak torque of 141Nm is 19Nm less and doesn’t arrive until 4,500rpm. 
  • Trim: The choice of trims is between Excite and Exclusive. The former is £2,500 cheaper, but misses out on satellite navigation, a 360-degree parking camera, heated front seats, front foglights and a blind-spot monitoring system. None of that kit is vital, so it’s worth saving the extra cash.
  • Our choice: The cheaper Excite still comes with most of the kit you really need.

Results

Which car comes out on top?

Winner: Dacia Duster

Dacia really has the budget angle sewn up across several categories, and the Duster continues to be the bargain, no-frills SUV that we’d pick. There’s more than enough space for a family and their stuff inside, while the driving experience doesn’t feel compromised, due to a comfortable ride and a punchy petrol engine. 

While the Duster isn’t without its flaws, these niggles are fairly minor, and the low asking price makes them easy to forgive. Finally, it has a sense of charm that is largely lacking elsewhere in this segment.

ProsCons
Low priceShort on standard kit
Soft rideVague steering
Decent performanceNoisy at motorway speeds
Spacious cabinCheap plastics in cabin

Runner up: MG ZS

As an EV, the ZS is something of a bargain alongside its rivals, but it isn’t as compelling with a petrol engine. This is partly because the powertrain, particularly the manual gearbox, falls short of the Dacia’s, but also because the ZS costs more. 

The top-spec car we tested isn’t the one we’d go for, but even entry-level ZSs are pricier than the Duster – and by some margin when monthly payments are calculated. The MG has a strong warranty and generous kit, but the Dacia is the better bet.

ProsCons
Plenty of equipmentSloppy gearbox and clutch
Firm yet controlled rideTop-heavy handling
Roomy cabinBreathless engine
Precise steeringDriver Power performance

Rivals and other options

The Duster wins our twin test but what else is out there?

The great debate

What the Auto Express test team would do…

John Mcllroy, editor–at–large: “Finance departments can be as clever as they like with interest rates and deposit contributions, but Dacia proves that nothing can get close to a punchy retail price where the Duster is concerned. It’s impossible to get this much new car for the money anywhere else.”

Richard Ingram, deputy editor: “A key reason for the Duster’s success – beyond its price or other objective strengths – is that it has bags of character. At this end of the market, that’s a quality which is often hard to find, so it helps the chunky Dacia to stand out even more clearly from the crowd.”

Dawn Grant, picture editor:  “We've sampled MG’s entire electric car range, and each model is very impressive in its own way. Cars such as the petrol-powered ZS offer a cheaper way into MG ownership, but if you can make life with an EV work, it’s worth skipping that first step and going for one of its battery models.”

Steve Fowler, editor-in-chief: “Skoda used to have the perfect foil for the Duster in the boxy form of the Skoda Yeti. That, too, was a charming, likeable family SUV, but it was replaced by the Karoq – an even more competent family SUV and something of a used-car bargain. But it can’t make you smile like a Duster or a Yeti can.”

Dean Gibson, senior test editor: “The Duster isn’t just a better bet on finance, it’s also our first choice if you’re buying outright. The Dacia is expected to cling on to 55.2 per cent of its value after three years, compared with 51.7 per cent for the pricier MG ZS, making its costs per mile even stronger.”

Which would you buy? Let us know in the comments section below…

Specs and prices

 Dacia Duster Expression Tce 130 4x2MG ZS Exclusive 1.0 T-GDI
On the road price/total as tested£19,695/£20,465£22,070/£22,615
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)£10,872 (55.20%)£11,408 (51.69%)
Depreciation£8,823£10,662
Annual fuel. cost (10k/20k miles)£1,787 (£3,573)£1,445.68 (£2,891.40)
Ins. group/quote/VED19/£935/£17015/£935/£170
Service costs (3 years)£467£744
Length/wheelbase4,341/2,673mm4,323/2,580mm
Height/width1,621/1,804mm1,653/1,809mm
Engine4cyl in turbo/1,332cc3cyl in/999cc
Peak power127/4,500bhp/rpm109/5,200bhp/rpm
Peak torque240/1,600Nm/rpm160/1,800Nm/rpm
TransmissionSix-speed man/fwdSix-speed man/fwd
Fuel tank (litres)50 litres48 litres
Boot capacity (seats up / down)445/1,623 litres448/1,375 litres
Kerbweight / power-to-weight1,234/515/1,200kg1,259/463/500kg
Turning circle10.7 metres10.7 metres
Basic warranty/recovery3yrs (60k)/3 yrs7 yrs (80,000)/1 yr
Driver Power manufacturer position26th32nd
Euro NCAP: Adult / child / ped. / assist / stars71/66/56/37/3 (2017)71/51/59/29/3 (2017)
0-62mph / top speed10.6secs/112mph10.5secs/112mph
Test economy / range35.8/39435.1/371
WLTP combined (MPG)45.6mpg42,7mpg
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket182/141g/km186/149g/km
Number of airbags/Isofix pointsFour/twoSix/two
Parking sensors/cameraRear/yesF&r/360
Lane-keep assist/blindspot/AEBNo/no/noYes/yes/yes
Climate control/adaptive cruiseAir-con/noYes/yes
Leather/heated seats/wheelNo/no/noFaux/yes/yes
Metallic paint/LED lights£650/no£545/yes
Keyless entry & go/powered tailgateNo/noYes/no
Sat-nav/digital dashboard/USBsNo/no/twoYes/yes/four
Online services/wireless chargingYes/noYes/no
Apple CarPlay/Android AutoYes/yesYes/yes
Chief reviewer

Alex joined Auto Express as staff writer in early 2018, helping out with news, drives, features, and the occasional sports report. His current role of Chief reviewer sees him head up our road test team, which gives readers the full lowdown on our comparison tests.

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