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Car group tests

Dacia Duster vs MG ZS

The Dacia Duster has been updated with a new engine, so can the MG ZS match it?

 The Dacia Duster is one of our favourite small SUVs. Probably the best thing about it is the price, which undercuts nearly every other new car on sale, but that would mean nothing without the product itself being good on merit – and the Duster is. It’s proven itself a winner in previous tests, yet when you take a closer look at the car’s engines the Dacia was beginning to look a little old hat compared with more modern rivals that use more sophisticated turbo units than the Duster’s old-school non-turbo 1.6.

However, for 2020 Dacia has upgraded the car with a new petrol engine taken from sister brand Renault and its proven Clio supermini.

The 1.0-litre unit replaces the old naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine as the entry-level motor. The turbo should bring a more modern-feeling power delivery, more easily accessible performance and therefore greater flexibility, plus lower running costs. Here we’ll find out how well it does in these areas and more, as it goes up against another affordable SUV with a 1.0-litre turbo engine: the MG ZS. This is one of few rivals that is also focused on value for money, but both must offer more than just an attractive price to end up as our winner.

Dacia Duster 

Model:Dacia Duster TCe 100 4x2 Comfort
Price:£13,995
Engine:1.0-litre 3cyl petrol, 99bhp 
0-60mph:12.8 seconds
Test economy:29.4mpg/6.5mpl 
CO2:126g/km £145
Annual road tax:£145

Here we’re testing a Dacia Duster 1.0 TCe 100 in Comfort trim, which costs £13,995; and despite the affordable price, this is actually the most expensive model you can get with this engine.

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Design & engineering

This updated version of the Duster was launched in summer 2018, using the same basic architecture as the previous model (and some older Renaults), and with a naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol at the bottom of the range. That engine is now gone, and instead Dacia has introduced this new 99bhp 1.0-litre unit.

That old engine was never one of the car’s strong points. The 1.6-litre motor was noisy and needed to be revved hard for any performance. This new engine solves both of these problems, although it’s not faultless. 

It powers the front wheels only, because there’s no 4x4 option with this engine, and does so through a five-speed manual gearbox. While the MG ZS in 1.0 form is auto-only, the Dacia is available just with a clutch pedal in conjunction with the new TCe unit.

Given that this is a budget car, there are no driving modes or complex suspension set-ups. Just about the only mechanical change you can make from the dashboard is to turn off the stop-start function.

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The Dacia’s interior is quite old-fashioned and drab. The materials look and feel cheap (but then this is a cheap car), so sitting in the Duster feels like being in a car from years gone by, rather than a new machine. Although the MG also suffers from this problem, it’s slightly better than the Dacia in this respect. It’s still acceptable given the low price, though, so we don’t mind too much.

In Comfort trim, the Duster is well equipped. It comes as standard with a seven-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, air-conditioning, 16-inch alloys and a reversing camera with parking sensors.

Driving

The new 1.0 is much quieter than before and it’s actually barely audible at low revs once you’re on the move, only bringing noise into the cabin from around 3,000rpm. You don’t need to rev it much further than that, because its maximum torque of 160Nm is produced from 2,750rpm.

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In our performance tests the Duster took 12.8 seconds to go from 0-60mph, which was just under a second slower than the ZS, because the MG has a touch more power and more gear ratios. The Duster doesn’t feel far behind its rival, though, because it loses quite a bit of time in the shift from second to third gear; in normal driving it feels just as punchy.

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In fact, it was even quicker than the MG from 30-50mph in third, taking 5.3 seconds where the ZS took 6.3 seconds. Plus, it went from 50-70mph in fifth gear in 15.7 seconds, yet the MG took 17.4 seconds to do the same.

The new TCe engine’s main problem is its throttle response, which is poor and can result in unwanted surging, especially on the motorway. 

Thanks to the soft suspension, this can also cause forward and backward body movements. However, the suspension set-up is largely good; the Duster is not a driver’s car because of the amount of body roll this set-up brings, yet that’s not too important; it gives a comfy enough ride, although it is a little crashy and loose over bad surfaces.

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The Dacia does suffer from some wind and road noise at higher speeds, but it’s quieter than you might expect, and long trips aren’t a problem.

On the other hand, the Dacia’s five-speed manual gearbox isn’t much fun to use. There’s some flex in the lever and linkage, so it feels imprecise, and that means you have to take your time with shifts.

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Practicality

Rear-seat space is strong in the Dacia, because there’s plenty of room even for adults to sit comfortably, with enough head and legroom. The cheap materials mean it’s hardly luxurious, but there’s no shortage of space.

The Duster’s boot has a capacity of 445 litres with the seats up, and that expands to 1,623 with the rear bench folded. Meanwhile, the MG has 448 litres with the seats up and 1,375 with them down. Both cars are practical, but the Dacia makes slightly better use of its space and is easy to load up. 

Hard-wearing materials in the cabin should mean it will wear the battle scars of family life well – and when we ran one on our test fleet last year, we found that the Duster’s rugged looks weren’t just for show. It took everything we could throw at it.

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Ownership

In our 2019 Driver Power satisfaction survey, Dacia finished in a poor 30th place overall, although that was only three places behind its MG rival. 

Autonomous emergency braking isn’t available on either the Duster or the ZS, so both scored poorly in their Euro NCAP assessment, each getting three stars. Neither car performed strongly in crash safety either, so safety may be a concern for some buyers.

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Running costs

According to our depreciation experts, the Duster will hold on to 53.8 per cent of its value after three years (£7,524). By contrast, the ZS will keep just 43.8 per cent (£7,025) of its original value, so it’ll lose over £2,500 more than the Dacia in that time. This also has an effect on the PCP prices, and the Duster is much cheaper than its rival as a result.

The Duster returned 29.4mpg on our test route, while the MG managed 36.1mpg. This works out at £2,369 a year (12,000 miles) to fuel the Dacia and £1,930 a year for the MG at current fuel prices.

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Testers' notes

“Even in two-wheel drive form, the Duster does a decent job off-road, because of its high ground clearance. We’d go for the 4x4 model if you need to go further than a field or farm track, though.”

MG ZS

Model:MG ZS 1.0T GDI Auto Excite
Price:£16,045
Engine:1.0-litre 3cyl petrol, 109bhp 
0-60mph:11.9 seconds
Test economy:36.1mpg/7.9mpl 
CO2:145g/km 
Annual road tax:£145

Although our pictures show a higher-spec ZS, we’re testing an entry-level version, because it’s closer to the Dacia in price, at £16,045. In other words, even the cheapest version of the MG is still over £2,000 pricier than its rival in top-spec form.

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Design & engineering

Two engines are on offer in the MG ZS: a naturally aspirated 1.5-litre petrol and the 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol we’re testing here. The former is manual-only, while the latter only comes with a dual-clutch automatic gearbox, and it’s front-wheel drive.

With 109bhp, the MG’s engine is a little more powerful than the Duster’s, yet both have 160Nm of torque. But that torque arrives lower down in the rev range in the ZS than in its rival: the Duster’s figure arrives at 2,750rpm, while the MG’s comes in from 1,800rpm. The Duster’s five-speed gearbox uses shorter ratios, so you’re in the right rev range more of the time, while the MG uses a six-speed auto.

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This is the only gearbox available with this motor, and if you want a manual MG you need the 1.5-litre petrol. But that engine isn’t very good so we’d still opt for the smaller and crucially turbocharged motor.

The MG’s interior has a different feel to the Dacia’s, yet the overall effect is similar; there’s no disguising these are budget cars, and the quality of the materials inside reflects that. The MG has some better-looking plastics in key places, so you could say it’s a bit more pleasant inside, but it’s still drab. Few will choose either of these cars based on their interior designs, which are plain and uninspiring.

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There’s a decent amount of standard equipment, though, which is perhaps more important to buyers. This Excite model is fitted with 17-inch alloys, air-conditioning, a leather steering wheel and an eight-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay functionality, although there’s no sat-nav.

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Driving

The MG’s 1.0-litre engine is similar in character to the Dacia’s, because it delivers its best performance in the middle of the rev range, feeling rather unenthusiastic at higher revs. It has a bit more power than the Duster’s motor, but it’s only 10bhp, so it’s not hugely noticeable on the road.

Our performance tests did show that it had an advantage from 0-60mph, though, taking 11.9 seconds to do the sprint, while the Dacia took 12.8 seconds. However, the ZS fell behind in our in-gear tests, because it was slower in every one apart from 30-50mph in fourth gear, where it took eight seconds flat, the same as its rival. 

The Duster went from 30-50mph in third gear a second faster than the MG, and the British model was also 1.7 seconds slower than its rival in our test from 50-70mph in fifth gear.

The dual-clutch transmission in the MG sounds promising on paper, because this type of gearbox is usually known for its fast shifts. However, the MG’s DCT is sluggish, bucking this trend, and even the imprecise manual shift in the Duster is better to use, because it allows smoother progress. The ZS sometimes picks the wrong ratio when accelerating out of a bend, only to kick down late, causing a surge in the revs that you don’t always expect.

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Still, like the Duster’s new 1.0-litre engine, the MG’s motor is quiet at a cruise. There is some wind and road noise at speed that drowns it out, though, and the poor ride sometimes adds interior creaks and rattles to the soundtrack.

The MG doesn’t match its rival for comfort; it can’t keep body movements over bumps under control as well as the Dacia does. It’s never fully settled, so long trips will be tough. The car isn’t much fun to drive either; body control and grip aren’t strong points.

Despite the MG badge, the ZS is about as far from sporty as cars get – and the switchable driving modes do little to alter the way it drives.

Practicality

If the MG has a strongest point, it’s how much space it has inside. There’s enough room for passengers in the back and there’s enough light in the cabin. We’ve already seen there’s plenty of boot space, at 448 litres with the seats in place, which is a little more than in the Duster. The ZS’s price-to-space ratio is impressive.

However, don’t pick the MG if you need to tow a trailer; its maximum capacity for a braked trailer is just 500kg. The Duster can pull 1,400kg, but its wheezy engine would likely struggle if you tried.

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Ownership

The Duster scored poorly in its recent Euro NCAP crash test, with a rating of three stars. It does come with emergency brake assist (which boosts brake power in an emergency stop) and traction control, but not AEB. 

The MG also scored poorly here, and both models finished near the bottom of our Driver Power customer satisfaction survey in 2019. 

Running costs

Higher CO2 emissions mean that the MG loses out when it comes to company car tax. It emits 145g/km of CO2, putting it in the 33 per cent bracket for Benefit-in-Kind (BiK). This means a standard-rate earner will pay £1,041 to the Treasury each year. The cheaper Duster sits several bands lower in the 28 per cent bracket thanks to emissions of 120g/km, which mean a yearly bill of £771 for the same taxpayer.

Fixed-price servicing at just £350 for the Duster means it should be cheap to maintain as well as to buy, and even the limited options available on the Dacia are cheaper than their equivalents on the MG. For example metallic paint costs £40 more on the ZS.

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Testers' notes

“MG provides a seven-year warranty, which is one of the best around. Dacia matches the industry standard with its three-year warranty, and much of its tech has been proven in the Renault range.”

Verdict

First place: Dacia Duster

The Duster takes victory on many fronts. It’s cheaper than its rival, more comfortable, equally practical, and the new engine is quiet and delivers just enough performance. Plus, its rugged feel gives it charm and character. Perhaps most importantly, it’s much better value for money than the MG, and this is crucial given these are budget models. It has more equipment at a lower price, which is a huge advantage.

Second place: MG ZS

The ZS is more expensive than the Duster, and falls behind its rival in many key areas, so simply can’t compete. Its chassis and ride are disappointing, the gearbox is frustrating, you don’t get as much kit, and it’ll cost more to run, too. Poor residual values mean it’s costly on finance, and the frustrating infotainment set-up is harder to forgive without sat-nav or Android Auto being included. 

Also consider...

Skoda Karoq

Used: Skoda Karoq 1.0 TSI SE (2018)Price: £14,635 Engine: 1.0-litre 3cyl, 113bhp

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Of all the options at this price, a used Karoq is most likely your best choice. We found one with 25,000 miles for less than £15,000 with the fine 1.0-litre petrol engine in SE form. It’s comfortable, good to drive, spacious and well built.

SsangYong Tivoli

New: SsangYong Tivoli 1.6 SEPrice: £14,495 Engine: 1.6-litre 4cyl, 126bhp

Few brand-new SUVs fall into this budget, but the Tivoli is one. It’s not at its best in basic petrol form, but it is quite well equipped and has a decent amount of room inside. There’s also the chance to move up to the larger XLV version. 

Figures

 Dacia Duster TCe 100 4x2 ComfortMG ZS 1.0T GDI Auto Excite
On the road price/total as tested£13,995/£14,675£16,045/£16,045
Residual value (after 3yrs/36,000)£7,524/53.8%£7,025/43.8%
Depreciation£6,471£9,020
Annual tax liability std/higher rate£771/£1,542£1,041/£2,083
Annual fuel cost (12k/20k miles)£2,369/£3,949£1,930/£3,216
Ins. group/quote/road tax cost11/£424/£14510/£548/£145
Servicing costs (years 1/2/3)£350 (3yrs)£161/£393/£270
Length/wheelbase4,341/2,673mm4,314/2,585mm
Height/width1,621/1,804mm1,611/1,809mm
Engine3cyl in-line/999cc3cyl in-line/999cc
Peak power/revs 99/5,000 bhp/rpm109/5,200 bhp/rpm
Peak torque/revs 160/2,750 Nm/rpm160/1,800 Nm/rpm
Transmission 5-spd man/fwd6-spd dual-clutch/fwd
Fuel tank capacity/spare wheel50 litres/£17548 litres/repair kit
Boot capacity (seats up/down)445/1,623 litres448/1,375 litres
Kerbweight/payload/towing weight1,191/450/1,400kg1,231/499/500kg
Turning circle10.7 metres11.1 metres
Basic warranty/recovery3yrs (60,000)/3yrs7yrs (80,000)/1yr
Driver Power manufacturer/dealer pos30th/29th27th/7th
NCAP: Adult/child/ped./assist/stars71/66/56/37/3 (’17)71/51/59/29/3
0-60/30-70mph12.8/12.7 secs11.9/11.8 secs
30-50mph in 3rd/4th5.3/8.0 secs6.3/8.0 secs
50-70mph in 5th/6th15.7 secs/N/A17.4/23.3 secs
Top speed/rpm at 70mph 104mph/2,900rpm112mph/2,200rpm
Braking 70-0/60-0/30-0mph 60.1/34.6/10.6m51.9/34.0/11.2m
Auto Express economy/range29.4/32336.1/381
WLTP combined mpg45.9mpg38.6mpg
WLTP combined mpl10.1mpl7.9mpl
Actual/claimed CO2/tax bracket222/120g/km/28%181/145g/km/33%
Airbags/Isofix/park sensors/cameraFour/yes/yes/yesSix/yes/yes/no
Auto/lane keep/blind spot/AEB No/no/no/noYes/no/no/no
Climate ctrl/cruise/leather/heat seatsAir-con/yes/no/noAir-con/yes/no/no
Met paint/LEDs/keyless/pwr tailgate£505/no/no/no£545/no/no/no
Sat-nav/digi dash/DAB/appsYes/no/yes/noNo/no/yes/no
Wireless/CarPlay/Android AutoNo/yes/yesNo/yes/no
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