IAIN ROBERTSON 

It seems that genuine excitement can emerge from the torpor of the motor industry, suggests Iain Robertson, even though much of it comes from the budget brands, because they can bust preconceptions far more readily than the higher-priced ones.

The last time that one single brand made a major impact in our car scene was in 1996, when Daewoo was launched. Promising a ‘no hassle, no haggle’ fixed price, allied to three years’ worth of AA membership, warranty and free servicing, it set standards that would soon become common around the industry. Daewoo set trends, before its illustrious South Korean chairman (Mr Kim) made off with a trillion Dollars and went on the run from the authorities. From having been a charge of the General Motors Corporation, the firm transitioned into total Korean ownership and, then, back to GM (for a token $1), once Chairman Kim was proven to be the crook that most people believed him to be.

While not wishing to delve into any scatological references, there is a lot to be said about the domestic comfort attached to Andrex and other ‘soft’ toilet tissues. I cannot have been alone in attending a school that seemed to believe that Izal (or any of its resilient and non-absorbent rivals) was perfectly acceptable for a schoolboy’s nether regions, when a banana leaf and running water may have been preferable.

In a world of ‘you-get-what-you-pay-for’, it was clear that sanitary supplies fell into an also-ran classification that elicited few complaints, largely due to intense user embarrassment. Money was clearly the object. While not comparing Dacia to a supermarket’s ‘own brand’, although I am sure that some non-major brand labels are more than acceptable in terms of content quality and nutritional value (where applicable), there is a whiff of baseline integrity, with the Renault-owned marque, that insists on lower expectations.

In fact, Dacia has been very clever with its product marketing. The company benefits from lower salary demands in Romania. While the model designs are unique, Dacia does rely on technology shared with Renault, which may be of older origins but is still current engineering, with the notable difference being that many of the costs are already amortised by the parent company, thus reducing the unit cost significantly. Therefore, Dacia assumes a stance of ‘realistic frills, allied to realistic prices’.

Carrying a list price from £9,995, to £16,395, prior to metallic paint (£495), or leather seating (£500) being factored into the Duster’s invoice, highlights that Dacia produces the lowest priced crossover model sold in the UK. As long as SUVs and crossovers remain as popular as they are, Dacia has managed to chisel out a most acceptable niche for itself, especially for the Duster line-up, which does not seem to carry any negative preconceptions at all, further warranting the model’s halo image for the rest of its range.

Completely new ground-up, the second-generation Duster is a chunky, muscular and unchallenging proposition that presents a prodigious amount of charm. It looks the business. However, consumer choice is an element of its remit and there are four trim levels to choose from, with well-tried and dependable petrol, or diesel power. While front-wheel-drive is standard, the 4WD option proves as capable in an off-road environment as its predecessor, which possessed strong credentials in that arena.

In every respect, the Duster is the archetypal toughie, not merely by appearance, as it is very capable and strong regardless of application. A revised radiator grille, complete with LED daytime running-lamp signature, enhances its wide-tracked appearance. It is supported at the rear by Jeep-like square tail-lamps that are now common to other Dacia models. The high-riding suspension (210mm) provides essential ground clearance for adventurers, while the 4×4 transmission option will aid extraction from showground parking and assist caravan owners with its greater traction and stability.

While the exterior has been extensively revised, so, too, has the interior, with a bold new dashboard moulding that now contains a much-revised and technologically-advanced multi-media touch-screen (for sat-nav, stereo and around-car visuals received from four cameras located outside) in its centre. The plastic mouldings are all significantly better than ever and the test car features the optional leather interior, which is of a most durable quality, while the seats themselves have been comprehensively revised to add extra comfort and support. Combined with the adjustable steering column, the driver’s seat features an in-built armrest, lumbar support and 50% greater height adjustment (up from 40mm to 60mm range) for enhanced flexibility.

There is bags of space inside the car for up to five adults. The boot capacity ranges from an excellent 445-litres for two-wheel-drive versions, the bulkier 4×4 transmission reducing the carrying capacity (prior to the rear seats being split-folded) to 376-litres. Re-geared power steering, remote central locking and a pushbutton starter are now also available.

The raft of improvements does more than appeal visually, as denser sound-deadening materials, thicker glazing and higher-grade trim materials, including larger speakers for the stereo, are all responsible for raising the refinement bar in the Duster. A completely new climate control system, with three top-centre of dashboard circular air vents, forms part of its much-improved equipment level. Auto-on headlamps and Blind Sport monitoring (with the customary tell-tales in the door mirrors) are among an array of items never seen on a Dacia before. When you consider that the Duster’s body is now even stronger, as are the seat frames, and that curtain airbags now protect occupants in the event of a collision, you can tell that Dacia has gone to town in up-speccing its popular crossover.

As mentioned earlier, both petrol and diesel engines develop 115bhp but they are differentiated by the 115lbs ft (at 4,000rpm) and 191lbs ft (at 1,750rpm) of torque respectively that, despite a general ‘anti-diesel’ feeling around the new car scene, hallmarks the diesel as being the better option, especially when the Duster is to be worked hard. The dCi unit zips from 0-60mph in around 10.2s (11.6s for the petrol; 12.6s for the 4×4), with posted top speeds of up to 111mph, the petrol being just a few mph slower.

As a new member to the compact crossover sector, its real-time fuel economy ratings are up to 64.2mpg (dCi; 43.5mpg petrol; 40.7mpg 4×4). While the CO2 ratings can be as low as 115g/km for 2WD diesel, the petrol alternative is a meatier 149g/km (158g/km for 4×4), which translates into £205 first year road tax (£515 for 4×4). Overall, the new Dacia Duster is comprehensively equipped, engineered to higher standards than ever and is sure to build Dacia’s growing market share even further.

Conclusion:    Forget ‘cheap and nasty’, Dacia is growing up very nicely indeed and the all-new Duster model is going to throw a cat among the pigeons, in terms of tangible value-for-money. Ally its long list of improvements to enhanced safety, security and equipment levels and Dacia will percolate to the top undoubtedly.