Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 review

On paper, the Dacia Duster has the potential to be PetrolBlog’s perfect new car. A spacious family car for £8,995 or – should you fancy it – a proper 4×4 for just £10,995. But more than just a ‘PetrolBlog car’, the Dacia Duster could be just what I need right now. So, having driven it, am I more or less convinced by the Dacia Duster?

Put it this way – I’ve done more head scratching and number crunching following my drive in the Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 than I have following a drive in any other new car on PetrolBlog. I still maintain that – as with the Sandero – the basic, poverty-spec Access trim level is the way to go, but sadly I can’t take advantage of the Duster’s bargain basement £8,995 price tag. Because – for me at least – the 4×4 is the only option…

Rear of Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4

I was fortunate enough to drive three different flavours of Duster, pretty much back-to-back. First off was the top-spec, £12,995 Laureate with the super-efficient 1.5-litre diesel engine. Next I drove the mid-range, £11,495 Ambiance with the same 56.5mpg / 130g/km CO2 diesel lump. But finally I got behind the wheel of the Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 and – despite some obvious drawbacks – it topped the lot.

In fact, I was so impressed that, following a brief drive in the brilliant Renaultsport Twingo, I jumped back in the UN-spec Access 4×4 and had another go. No, really, it was that good. But it won’t be to everyone’s tastes…

And that’s because the plusher trim levels, with the option of the diesel engine, are arguably the most sensible option for the majority of buyers. I’ll come on to the 1.6-litre petrol engine in a moment, but the Renault/Nissan 1.5 dCi engine – as tested in the new Renault Clio – is very good. For a start, there’s the aforementioned economy, which should help to make the Duster an incredibly cheap car to run. Then there’s the level of spec…

As someone who is used to running a 1989 Land Rover 110, I can quite happily forgo a few ‘luxuries’ in my daily drive. But for anyone who has grown accustomed to the benefit of automatic-this and automatic-that, the basic Duster may come as a bit of a shock. To enjoy the benefit of air conditioning, you’ll need to fork out £12,995 for the Duster Laureate.

Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 interior

There are other things to consider too – like the fact that the Access model doesn’t have a 60:40 split folding rear seat. Or a height-adjustable steering wheel, USB connection, AUX input, radio or even a glovebox light. Your children won’t thank you for the ‘windy-up’ rear windows either – a luxury reserved purely for the top trim level.

And yes, the Laureate model does feel the most special of the trio. Perceived quality is enhanced by the leather steering wheel, piano black and chrome detailing, chrome door handles and ‘Compass’ black upholstery. I say ‘perceived’ because in truth – upon closer inspection – the quality isn’t all that great. Certainly not in comparison to say, the Skoda Yeti or Nissan Qashqai. But just remember the price…

Putting the running costs to one side for a moment – the diesel engine is arguably the nicer engine to live with. There’s plenty of low-end torque, although it does seem to run out of steam rather quickly. It’s also enhanced by a six-speed gearbox, with the two-wheel drive petrol engine having to make do with a five-speed ’box. The 1.5-litre diesel doesn’t feel the most refined in the Duster – there’s plenty of clatter at idle – but for the majority of buyers it’s the one to go for.

Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 side view

What does the Dacia Duster feel like on the road? Well – ambitiously reading your mind here – far better than you might expect. Ride comfort has definitely been prioritised over handling and that’s probably the way it should be. All but the worst of bumps are soaked up with aplomb and, assuming you don’t want to throw your Duster into corners like a hot hatch, it drives pretty well. Take a look at the Duster and guess how much body roll there is. Chances are, you’re about right with your estimation.

The steering is comically light, but again, given the Duster’s proposition and target market, is pitched rather well.

Right – prepare yourself for some old fashioned PetrolBlog Logic here. Or – to borrow a phrase from Peter Counsell – PetrolBlogic. If you’re planning to keep your Duster for a long time and your family is a bit precious when it comes to spec – buy the front-wheel drive Dacia Duster Laureate. It’s hard to justify saving the £1,500 by opting for the Ambiance because there will come a time in the next three to four years when you really could do with the air con. Or you may wish to raise the height of your steering wheel, split the rear seats, or even see inside the glovebox in the dark.

But my money would be on the Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 – a case of heart ruling the head once again.

The Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4

This has a lot to do with the Duster’s character, which shines through to a much greater extent in the Access 1.6 4×4. The stripped-out, wipe-clean, go-anywhere approach works because it’s a genuine case of ‘all or nothing’. By doing away with pretty much everything, the Access 1.6 4×4 feels the most authentic of the bunch.

Which just about manages to make the front-wheel drive Access 1.6 a redundant vehicle – existing purely for headline-grabbing price purposes. You’d do well to achieve the claimed combined 39.8mpg in the 4×2, which isn’t a huge amount more than the 35.3mpg you might see in the 4×4. And the 1.6-litre is a relatively unrefined petrol engine which sounds coarse when pushed hard.

And you will need to push it hard if you’re intent on getting somewhere in a hurry. Overtaking manoeuvres can be a nervy affair, to the point where you might be wishing you’d gone for the diesel. It’s forgivable in the 4×4 as it makes up for it in other areas. Such forgiveness will be harder to come by in the 4×2.

But don’t let this put you off. Driving the Dacia Duster 4×4 is a huge amount of fun, which left me grinning from ear to ear. There’s a proper old-school, mechanical feel to it that puts you at the centre of the experience. Though I would have to spend longer in the Duster’s company to see how long the novelty factor lasted…

Then there’s the spec – or rather lack of – which is a monumental success in the Access 4×4. Those 16-inch steel wheels are a thing of beauty – just the thing for a spot of green-laning at the weekend. You certainly won’t mind scratching or kerbing them.

Rear of Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 side Eiger steel wheels

The same can be said of the black bumpers. Pick up a few dents and scratches on them and it will look like your Duster has been used in the way nature intended. Each ding and dent will act like war-wounds – stories to recount at the bar on a Friday evening.

That’s because the Dacia Duster 4×4 is a proper off-roader. For sure, there are no electronic gizmos and gadgets to impress your mates with, but you do get to choose between front-wheel drive, permanent four-wheel drive or automatic mode. There’s also an incredibly low ratio first gear which works in lieu of a low ratio transfer box. Neat. What’s more, unlike the two-wheel drive petrol, the Duster 1.6 4×4 has a six-speed ’box.

The Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 all-wheel drive control

During the admittedly light off-roading I managed to do, the Duster gave the impression it would go anywhere and not give up trying until it had explored every last inch of its ability.

So what’s the catch with the Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4?

Well, aside from the 35.3mpg, which arguably isn’t all that bad considering the Duster’s status as a ‘proper 4×4’, there’s the emissions. At 185g/km CO2, the Duster 4×4 is plonked into road tax band I, meaning £335 in the first year and £220 for each year thereafter. Comparatively, the Duster 4×4 with the diesel engine emits just 137g/km, resulting in a flat £125 fee. That’s quite a difference.

Then there’s the impact the four-wheel drive system has on boot space. In two-wheel drive form, the Duster offers 475 litres with the rear seat up, extending to a total of 1,636 with the seat folded down. This drops to 408 and 1,570 respectively in the 4×4. You need to remember the earlier comment about a lack of a split folding rear seat too.

The Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 dashboard

There’s also no getting away from the fact that the Access 4×4 is just about as stripped out as you can get today. Heck, most vans feel more plush and inviting these days. For some – myself included – it’s not an issue. In fact, it’s part of the Duster’s charm – something that begins to erode, the more bells and whistles you chuck at it. The best advice? Try each flavour.

And finally, there’s the issue of safety. Regardless of what anyone says, a 3-star safety rating is going to weigh heavily on the mind of someone who is thinking of ferrying their children in a Duster. It certainly does for me. But, read between the lines and the Euro NCAP verdict isn’t totally damning. Have a read here and make up your own mind.

When all is said and done, I remain a big fan of the Dacia Duster. Enough to go out and buy one tomorrow? Well yes and no.

You see, the amount of cash we’re chucking at the Audi A6 Avant is becoming laughable. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the distinctly unfunny impact the 3.0-litre quattro is having on the monthly cash flow.

So we’ve been looking at alternatives for around the same price we could expect to get for the Audi. And it’s not that easy – most of the cars available are either leggy, tired, uninteresting or have the potential to be financially ruinous. Some could even be a combination of all four. Bonus.

Which means the idea of a fixed monthly payment for a new car with a three-year warranty becomes appealing. I’m sure other people have had similar conversations about the Duster. But then it becomes tricky.

The Dacia Duster Access 1.6 4×4 4WD sticker

Given our circumstances and location in the country, the 4×4 is the only option to go for. So immediately we need to find an extra £2k on top of the £8,995 headline price. But then, following monthly cost comparisons against the Audi, there’s actually little financial benefit to be gained by buying a petrol-engined Duster. And we’re not about to fork out £13,495 for a new car, so the diesel option is null and void.

Of course, none of these concerns are down to the Dacia Duster itself. It’s a hugely appealing 4×4 that provides just about everything you need rather than want from a modern SUV. An unpretentious, spacious, practical machine with a commanding driving position and a wheelbarrow full of charm. If I could create a watertight case for ownership, I’d buy one tomorrow. But sadly, as things stand today, I can’t.

Which ultimately means I’ll probably end up with a Lada Niva or Daewoo Musso. Two retro cars delivered in the same spirit as the Dacia Duster 4×4. And on that note, I’m off to look at Auto Trader…

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

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