By Ronan Glon
Tuesday, Dec 17th, 2013 @ 11:45 am
 

Better known in North America for its connection to Top Gear's James May, the Dacia brand has been making waves in Europe for its blend of ruggedness and affordability.

Dacia initially designed the Duster for buyers in rural areas with tough road conditions, but the small 'ute became an unexpected hit when crossover fever crossed the Atlantic and spread throughout the Old Continent like wildfire. Sold in over 110 countries worldwide under the Dacia, Renault and Nissan banners, the Duster has morphed from a Lada Niva for the 21st century into one of Renault-Nissan's most popular - and profitable - products.

Entering its fourth year on the market, the Duster recently underwent a host of updates inside and out to stay competitive on the crowded crossover segment. Aesthetically, the 'ute gains a modestly updated front end characterized by a new grille with two chromed slats and plastic honeycomb inserts, thoroughly redesigned headlamps and a more rugged-looking bumper. Out back, the changes are limited to new trim on the tailgate and revamped tail lamps.

The bulk of the updates are found inside, where the Romania-built Duster has moved just upmarket enough to leave behind its low-cost origins behind but not too high in order to avoid overlapping with the Renault Captur, the new kid on the crossover block. In addition to a new, more upscale-looking dashboard, the Duster is available with convenience features like one-touch power windows, rear park assist, heated front seats and cruise control with a speed limiter function.

Specifications sheet

Riding on a strengthened Logan platform (a distant cousin of underpinnings found in the Nissan Leaf), the Duster stretches 169 inches long, 78 inches wide and 66 inches tall, dimensions that make nearly the same size as the vastly more expensive five-door Land Rover Range Rover Evoque. The two-wheel drive version tips the scale at roughly 2,650 pounds.

Buyers are asked to choose from two four-cylinder, gasoline-burning engines rated at 105 and 125 horsepower, respectively, and the less powerful unit can be ordered ready to burn liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) straight from the factory with only a minor drop in power. The LPG infrastructure in Europe is still developing, so the Duster can switch back to running on gasoline at the flick of a button when the LPG tank is empty.

An overwhelming majority of Dusters are equipped with either a 90- or a 110-horsepower version of Renault's ubiquitous 1.5-liter dCi turbodiesel. Tried and tested in a dizzying array of tunes, the dCi equips every member of the Dacia family, most of the Renault lineup, several Nissans and even European-spec versions of the Mercedes A-, B- and CLA-Class.

The 105-horsepower four-banger is fitted with a five-speed manual transmission but all other engines are bolted to a six-speed manual unit. To further break down the lineup, the 110-horsepower oil-burner and the 105-horsepower gas-burner can be ordered with a four-wheel drive system designed with input from Nissan, while the rest are front-wheel drive only. Logically, opting for four-wheel drive reduces gas mileage and raises the price but it is a must for buyers looking to take their Duster off the beaten path.

Quieter, better-built
A well-equipped Duster overlaps with a base-model Renault Captur so company execs have taken several measures to differentiate the two. Undoubtedly the more rugged and utilitarian of the two, the Duster is not as customizable as its Renault-badged sibling and it does not come with nearly as many storage bins cleverly scattered across the interior. Although better screwed together than the outgoing model, it remains an entry-level offering so buyers seeking top-notch plastics will be better-served elsewhere.

The front seats are softer than before but they still lack bolstering, a trait that becomes exceedingly obvious in tight corners or while driving on unpaved, uneven surfaces. They are mounted high in order to give passengers a good view of the road ahead, and the view can be enjoyed in relative silence as Dacia has gone to great lengths to reduce the excessive road, engine and wind noise emitted by the previous Duster.

The Duster's LG-designed MediaNav infotainment system is commanded through a seven-inch touch screen mounted on the center stack. It is fairly straightforward to navigate for even the most inexperienced users, and buyers adverse to touch screens can operate it using buttons and knobs on the center console. It packs the Duster's navigation, connectivity and entertainment functions into a single unit that the driver can connect with Bluetooth-equipped phones to make hands-free phone calls or stream music. Overall, MediaNav is a well-executed software but it is not as fast to respond as the similar R-Link system that is offered as an option on Renault's more mainstream products.

Docile off-roader
In its 110-horsepower tune, the dCi mill provides the Duster with an ample amount of punch, and the 177 lb-ft. of torque give plenty of low-end grunt to get by until the turbo kicks in. The power is best used to merge on the freeway as the Duster's chassis is ill-equipped to handle high-speed stunts and the newly-standard electronic stability control regularly kicks in if the pace picks up on a twisty road. Alternatively, the 110 ponies will tow up to 3,300 lbs.

The six-speed manual transmission is well-geared and operates with a smoothness typically found in cars several price brackets up. In addition to lending a hand in the aforementioned noise reduction, the six-speed 'box lowers fuel economy and we averaged close to the 50 mpg predicted by Dacia in mixed driving. Dacia does not offer the Duster - or any of its cars - with a start/stop system for cost reasons.

Our tester was front-wheel-drive. While the generous 8.2 inches of ground clearance and its high approach and departure angles enable it to get over obstacles with ease, the wheels predictably slip when extra traction is needed, making four-wheel-drive a must for buyers looking to take their Duster off the beaten path. The suspension is remarkably well-tuned and provides a comfortable ride on the freeway, on dirt roads and on virtually any surface in between.

Leftlane's bottom line
Not all versions of the Duster have left behind their low-cost roots and buyers who trade €11,900 (about $16,500) for a base model get steel wheels and black plastic bumpers. However, in addition to more standard equipment the facelifted Duster boasts a comprehensive list of options that makes it possible to get a fully-loaded, no-nonsense four-wheel drive SUV for less than €20,000 (approximately $27,000), a symbolic threshold on the European car market that none of the crossovers that compete against the Duster manage to slide under.

In a market where crossovers are more about form than function, the noticeably improved Duster remains a unique offering that puts an equal emphasis on both.

Photos by Ronan Glon.