It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying a £100k sportscar or a £5 bag of chips, the concept of value for money is important. If you’re Dacia, a car shorn of lots of glitzy fripperies leaves you with few places to hide - no one’s arguing that the company produces cars for a reasonable price, but are they value for the cash? Well, Top Gear has decided to find out, by spending quite a lot of time in a relatively basic specification new Duster.
So. It’s a 1.3-litre four-cylinder - the new 130-ish bhp engine - with front wheel drive only (4x4 being an expensive and likely rarely used option in this context), with a six-speed manual. We’re also not exactly going to spend ages listing the options, because they consist of ‘Desert Orange’ paint that you could easily do without (£500) and a spare wheel (£150), which I’d rather keep. Totting up means that if you did do without the paint, this Duster TCe 130 4x2 would weigh in at £14,550.
That’s a big-ish car for little-ish money. To put it into some sort of random recognisable context, a smaller Ford Fiesta 1.1-litre Ti-VCT Zetec with 85bhp would weigh in at £15,670. A Hyundai I30 S 1.0 T GDi (Golf Sized) with 120bhp £17,130, a Skoda Fabia Estate S from £14,160. So you’re getting space for not much outlay. And the Duster doesn’t look half bad, either. This new version shares precisely no panels with the old one, and looks cheerful enough, a kind of happy little box. The same can be said of the inside, in that it’s not awful, but there’s a distinct lack of flair. So the seats are a bit basic-looking, there’s not much going on in the way of stylish additions and you can see where cheap and robust has won out over more sexy/tactile trim coverings.
But the point is not about making an impression, but paring down motoring to the essentials for something that still feels like a proper family vehicle rather than a military troop transport. Space in the back is good enough for three, though the seatbelt in the middle is one of those annoying double-plugged things. Luggage space with the seats up is generous rather than ridiculous, though it has to be noted there’s that actual spare wheel under the boot floor, and with the seats folded flat, 1,623-litres of luggage area should be more than enough.
As far as the standard spec, it’s slightly complicated. This is where a lot of people think they don’t get influenced, but do, and a set of mats and flaps can go a long way. Battles fought and lost in the trenches of standard equipment. The Duster breakdown goes like this: basically, the bottom-of-the-range ‘Access’ (from £9,995) gets very little, but more than you think: no radio or air-con, black plastic bumpers and steel wheels, though it does get electric front windows, central locking and four airbags. ‘Essential’ gets both manual cold air and 4x20W DAB tunes, as well as other stuff like 60/40 split fold for the rear seat, and body colour bumpers. Neither are what you’d call opulent, but they don’t have deckchairs for seats and remoulds for tyres, and have the right safety kit.
Ours is perhaps the most rational spec for spending your own money, and it’s called ‘Comfort’. Everything that comes on the Essential, but adding alloy wheels (16 whole inches), a SEVEN FUNCTION on-board computer that shows range, average speed, odometer and… four other things, cruise control (via a switch between the front seats, for some reason), map pockets (swoon), electric door mirrors and rear windows, CarPlay, MediaNav with a 7-inch touchscreen and a rear camera. There’s other stuff, obviously, but when there’s a list of plus points that stretch to ‘chrome gear lever cap insert’ and ‘chrome logo surround on steering wheel’ you know there’s an element of reaching going on.
There is no keyless entry (there’s a key, and an ignition barrel, though there is remote central locking). There are no heated seats, or windscreen, or iDrive or Virtual Pilot or gesture control, or leather, or an electrically-adjustable lumbar massage shiatsu robot. There is just a screen you can plug your phone into, via a single USB slot next to it. You sort of get in, look around once, adjust the seat and drive. No mess, no fuss, no bother. There are two more grades above Comfort, by the way (Prestige and ‘Techroad’) but I assume that they are so decadent as to not really be allowed to feature in this family-read article.
So yes, it’s basic. You can see that there are no wheelarch liners or engine covers, the suspension is a simple beam axle - with drum brakes - on the back, that there are a few rough edges not hidden under the usual plastic skirts. That some of the interior plastics are hard, scratchy and bizarrely loud. That there are switch blanks that lament the options you didn’t take, accusing with blind eyes, and a wholly accurate feeling that the surprise and delight will be limited to finding that little drawer under the passenger seat.
But that’s not to say it’s bad. There’s something really very refreshing about just getting in a car and driving it. Not spending twenty minutes setting it up, pairing and preening the 34 touchscreens and trying to find a comfortable position from the 2,347-position 94-way electric seats. We’ve done 1,500 miles so far, and I’ve not once worried about accidentally kerbing an alloy. I’ve parked it in public carparks and not been paranoid, moved people and stuff. It sets you free when your car is a little more utilitarian - like an original Fiat Panda or 500, or indeed a works van or pickup.
The engine is responsive and eager, and although you have to plan overtakes, they’re possible. Everything is super-light, and although there’s a general looseness to how some of the control surfaces interact, it’s again, not something that you don’t get used to. The seats are a bit flat and pewish over about an hour and a half, so that might prove to be more of an issue than it has been so far, but we’re getting just over 40mpg in general driving, and I couldn’t be happier. I think the question here is not if the Duster is the right price, but twofold: is it reliable, and will you get bored of the pared-back lifestyle?
A few thousand miles into Duster life and things are developing. It’s not lost the whole utility principle appeal, and there seem to be more people genuinely interested in whether they’re actually worth the cash than any other car I’ve run for the Top Gear Garage. Probably because a Duster can crop up on your reality radar for a variety of uses, from second car runabout to a genuine option over something like a - smaller - Fiesta.
It has not been without its issues, mind you. I may have mentioned the flat seats more than once, but they’re not great for extended (+2hr) stints, even though the little 1.3 turbo is more than happy sitting at motorway speeds (and now returning 46-48mpg on a run). The place where you rest your right elbow on said jaunts is also an issue. Summer weather inevitably brings t-shirts and bare lower arms, and the perch for the bony bit has the comfort factor of a concrete step. I find it genuinely annoying, and have actually progressed to carrying around a microfibre cloth to rest my arm on. I know, it sounds daft, but I’ve also been thinking of cutting up an old foam mouse mat and sticking it to the offending area to give it that soft touch feel. And I don’t feel daft doing it because… well, because Duster. I’ve also added a phone mount and some cable tidies to stop the phone charger from dangling around - the USB feed for the multimedia is at the top right of the unit itself, so cables need to be wrangled.
Of more annoyance was a recent puncture. Now, you can’t blame the car for a screw in the tread, and having the (optional) spare wheel was a good choice - a quick swap and I could whip around to a tyre shop and get a plug. Except for the fact that, having jacked up the car on completely level tarmac and removed the flat, I realised that the supplied jack wasn’t actually tall enough to allow replacement of a fully-inflated spare. Obviously plopping a short length of stable plank under the jack would solve the problem, but I was away from home, and had to re-fit the flat to undo the jack and shim it with something. Also obviously, it was hammering it down at the time, which meant many muttered swear words. With no handy slabs, I reversed over a small hump, jacked the car in the wrong place and managed to gain the last 10mm necessary to get the spare on. So not exactly world-ending, but annoying.
We’ve also been scrabbling around a little bit off-road. Now, I’m completely aware that this is a front-wheel drive model, but with the extra ground clearance and in dry conditions, the Duster is perfectly capable of the odd farm-track or two. You don’t want to go attacking the north face of the Eiger, but it won’t break anything tottering across a field if you take care. I’ve had a crawl around underneath, and the suspension is extremely simple - basically hatchback stuff jacked up - so even if you did bust something, it wouldn’t be a complicated or expensive repair. I’ve also been scouting some more finance deals, and think that there are quite a few that are well under our quoted monthly figure of £260. I need to go into more detail though. I also want to investigate how useful a Duster might be as a first car - just need to find the time to delve into the minefield of insurance to work some stuff out. More soon!
Five months or so since the Duster first appeared, and I’m still enamoured. That doesn’t mean to say I’m immune to the shortcomings, mind: they just don’t evaporate because you like the overall ethos. And so the hard plastic bits in the Duster haven’t transmogrified into something more plush, the gearchange – which was already a kind of accurate-but-looping arrangement – has become slightly looser (leading to some serious shape-throwing of the left arm during vigorous upchanging) and you can’t help but notice that the driver’s seat has dropped/squashed/died approximately an inch and a half on the right-hand side. Doesn’t sound like much, but my complaint about the seats being too flat isn’t assuaged by now having a lower-back-assassinating lopsided bottom. I’m wonky enough without help. That’s just over 9k miles in, and I’m thinking about adding a seat cushion, like an old person. I’m one step away from a gilded tissue-box holder on the rear parcel shelf. OK, so I’m bigger than average and spend a lot of time driving the Duster, but still.
On the plus side, the little 130bhp, 1.3-litre turbo motor is still a quiet joy. A ‘group’ motor (it’s also shared by the Nissan Qashqai and Mercedes A-Class), it’s eager, torquey and more than enough for the Duster’s acceptable but limited chassis. I know I’ve said that before, but it’s a definite bonus of being the lower end of shared kit: the Duster is punching upwards with this engine in terms of sophistication. After all, if it’s good enough for Merc, it’s good enough to wang around in a £14k Dacia. Not that you’d ever drive a Duster on the doorhandles just for fun, because that would be irresponsible. But fun. I’m also getting low-to-mid 40s mpg without trying and for 50 per cent running with a roofbox. That’s excellent, and adds up to 500-miles on a tank, slightly less when five-up and loaded on a recent family holiday – although the little orange car performed absolutely perfectly when put to hard use. This is all good stuff for a vehicle in this price bracket – fitness for purpose is strong here.
Saying that, I’ve started messing with it. I fitted both the optional roof bars and small rooftop box for extra capacity – a remarkably simple procedure that even I managed in under 30 minutes, giving a heap more room in the boot when you need it. I just detach the roofbox when I don’t need it, but leave the roof bars in place. I’ve also had the ‘4x4 Pack’ black plastic arches and side mouldings fitted (£360), because I just think the Duster looks better with them on, and I’ve been busily fiddling with some friends who just happen to make quite exceptional steel wheels. A situation arising from the puncture situation when I thought the Duster looked better on its steel spare than it did on the standard Comfort-spec alloys. I’ve also had a bit of a poke around some other… uh… items, which should make the Duster a little bit more eye-catching. But don’t tell the Top Gear Office or they’re going to try and stop me…
Good: managing 43.2mpg even with a roofbox. Engine is very strong. A five-up-plus-luggage family holiday? Completed it, mate.
Bad: driver’s seat has dropped slightly on the right-hand-cheek = bad for one’s back. Gear change has loosened slightly, rear suspension creaks a bit. Plastics have not become nicer.
The one thing that really strikes when you have a Duster is that it offers freedom. It’s not that it’s disposable in any way (cheap plastics aside), more that you don’t get precious about the ownership proposition.
I have a dog, and a waterproof blanket in the back is all that’s required. Trip to the local recycling centre? Drop the seats, throw in a tarp and you’re set. Need to navigate multiple parallel parks and tight shopping centre carpark kerbs? Simple - the tyres are balloony enough that you can’t scratch an alloy anyway.
And when you do park it, you don’t feel like you need armed guards. In many ways it’s like the old Land Rovers I used to have: a faithful companion that can look after itself. Real life is its element.