The Dacia brand has come such a long way from the Renault low cost clone it started out in life as, with the carmaker now having a pretty good image throughout Europe.
Back in the late 60s', Renault had a love affair with the Romanian automotive industry, but the French didn't go too far past the "Don Juan" stage and after a rather brief development phase, the Eastern Europeans were abandoned. While the French carmaker, just like any other important car company in the world, kept refreshing its range with new models, Dacia, which was now developing on its own, kept trying to revamp the same 1300 model (a rebadged Renault 12) for a few decades.
The brand because an extremely important part of the Romanian culture, with most of the vehicles from the country belonging to it, and people being forced to live with cars that were not only designed generations ago, but also built with equipment that would have been sent to recycling by any Western European carmaker.
The years went by and capitalism took over Eastern Europe - people were no longer forced to choose Dacia, they could go for new or second hand imports, but many of them still drove it. A decade after the Western lifestyle invaded Romania, Renault considered that the political and economical climate had settled and came back to the lover it had left.
Now, more than another decade after the two sides reunited, Dacia has grown to be a low cost brand that offers decent propositions, with the success of its cars spreading far over the borders of Romania.
If we take a look at the German or British markets, some of the most important in Europe, we'll notice that the Romanian carmaker's products have their reserved place, with customers appreciating them for the honesty and value for money.
Dacia's most advanced vehicle is the Duster, a compact crossover that has proven the new Dacia has absolutely nothing to do with the old one and which has received positive reviews, including from us.
We're now back in the driver seat of the Duster, this time using the range-topping 110 hp 1.5-liter diesel engine. The appearance of our test car brings mixed emotions, makes us think about the tons of popular culture created around the brand and how almost none of it is now relevant.
As we take a look at out test car, we can't help think that Dacia needs a new name, as it is now a modern carmaker that can deliver such an original design. Why? Well, the vehicles from it's past were so awful, that people joked about "DACIA" as being an acronym for (Romanian) "Daca Ai Cap Ia-ti Alta". What does that mean? You don't want to know. Do you really want to find out? OK: if you've got brains, buy something else.
In our eyes, the Duster looks quite good, in the same way that a Nissan Juke does: it's original and fit for its job. However, we have to start with the color, which has its own name given by Dacia enthusiasts: "scortisoar", which is Romanian for cinnamon.
It's now time to get to the details, all of which are wrapped in a package the size of your average compact car, with the only difference being that, compared to a Golf or an Astra, the Duster is much taller.
The Duster comes with bold, rectangular wheel arches and how can you not like these after you drive the car over rough surfaces and find out that they're like a t-shirt over a climber's body?
Yes, there's no finesse here, but the the market needs cars that stand out though an utilitarian design that's mixed with city car elements. Make no mistake, the designers weren't lazy, they just wanted something simple, with no fuss. This can be seen to the slightest detail, such as the 16-inch alloy rims.
When you realize the message sent by the Duster's exterior, your first though is that the interior will scream "cheap" from the first moment you open the door. However, the car's cabin doesn't make yo feel bad - it just doesn't offer anything that can satisfy more than your basic needs.
Nowadays, automotive producers have made an obsession out of the notion of family image, so has Dacia decided to also take this to the inside of its cars - is this why all Dacia interiors look so similar? No, it's all just about cutting costs, but fortunately the Duster manages to be a decent place to sit in, albeit only just.
You will recognize the center console and the dashboard from the Logan, Dacia's best-seller and a more humble car, but the Duster does get some dedicated elements.
Somebody once said that poverty can serve as a subject for many movies, but none of them will be a comedy, but we beg to differ: while in a Lambo, you may find a few Audi interior pieces, in a Duster, you might find a few Duster cabin bits.
The vehicle we tested came with all the optionals on the list, minus the leather upholstery, which would have been a terrible choice in the cold season, since the seats aren't heated.
The dashboard came with plastic trimming that used the exterior color, a pretty nice touch which we appreciated , especially for the fact that the material didn't try lo look like wood. In fact, most of the materials used in the Duster's cabin are decent if we take the vehicle's pricing into consideration.
The ergonomics are disappointing, with the negative climax of this story being the moment when you want to open any of the electric windows: the controls of the front ones are located on the center console, while those for the rear ones sit almost on the floor, behind the handbrake.
Fortunately, the interior is spacious - few vehicles of the Duster's size offer so much room in the back. And it's not just that, as the luggage compartment is also extremely generous.
We'll end where we began the test - in the driver's seat, which even though lacks any form of lateral support, offers a comfortable position that's also pretty high- a valuable asset when yo, u drive the Duster in the city, on of its favorite places to be.
Here's a little riddle: the Duster lies on a platform that's a modified version of the previous generation Renault Clio's chassis, so what do you think is one of its main purposes? You are right - to be driven in the city.
Forget many of the things you knew about driving a manual in the city: like most diesel Renaults, the Duster's gearbox comes with incredibly short ratios, which means that you'll often find yourself driving at city speeds... in fifth gear.
The suspension has been made to withstand off-road driving without complaining and while this does affect handling at high speeds, inside the city the Duster will cushion any blow coming from the road and follow your orders without too much hesitation.
At the moment we tested the car, the winter was one of the harshest in decades, so the city was covered in snow and ice. In these conditions, the Duster brought a smile on our faces every morning.
As we approached the car shivering, we knew that we'd get a partner that's not just ready to use its 4WD
and ground clearance to get us through the snow, but also its compact dimensions to make this a fast process and it's strict ESP
to keep the back from stepping out when entering ice-covered streets. It's amazing how you look at other crossover and SUV
drivers in front of you, see them sliding all over the place over a bumpy, icy section, prepare for the worst and then see that almost nothing happens when you reach that area.
However, one you've reached you destination and you have to park, you will be annoyed by the fact that you have to struggle with the mediocre rear visibility and you can't rely on any parking sensors, as these can't even be found on the list of optionals.
Like we said, at city speeds the Duster manages to listen to the driver despite its off-road-biased suspension. As the speedometer travels further towards open road values, things being to change, but the car never feels unsafe.
The fact that the Duster comes with a hefty ground clearance and a rather soft suspension doesn't help it to much when you want to use it for covering long distances, but here is where another disadvantage of the car (for this chapter) becomes an asset.
We are talking about the 110 hp 1.5-liter dCi diesel engine, which, despite the fact that it's working with a short-ratio six speed manual doesn't manage to take the car past the 62 mph mark quicker than 11.8 seconds. Past the point, things can climb up to around 90 mph (145 km/h) at an acceptable pace for this kind of vehicle, but if you want to reach the 105 mph (170 km/h) top speed, you really need a long stretch of road.
This provides enough grunt for relatively decent overtaking maneuvers, but any more power and the suspension would've needed stiffening, which would've ruined the vehicle's off-road side.
The Duster can be used on the open road, but it struggles to meet your demands, offering performance similar to that of a V6 diesel Land Cruiser.
However, the vehicle does something special, a feature inherited from its Dacia ancestors: it pretty much lacks soundproofing, and while that will annoy some drivers, it means that it is the kind of car in which you can have fun at legal speeds.
However, we've been itching to tell you just how good the Duster is off road ever since we wrote the first line and now we finally have the occasion to.
The Duster is compact, pretty light and lacks special rough terrain driving assistance systems, which means that when you go off-roading in one of these, you get a totally different experience compared to the big boys in the field, such as the Land Cruiser and the Range Rover - much more engaging one.
Unlike in the big, electronic-filled SUV, here you feel connected and every contact that goes on between the surfaces under the car s transmitted to you. There are times when you have to fight the terrain, rather than plow through it as you would in a large 4x4, but this makes the experience much more involving.
Just like in performance on-road driving, people praise a driver's car and criticize lack of feedback offered by certain machines, which are otherwise extremely fast, we had more fun in the light, bare-bones Duster than in the two aforementioned off-road icons.
The non-permanent 4x4 system does its job extremely well: it might be front-wheel drive-based, but the rear axle really comes alive when this is necessary, even taking over and allowing you to throttle steer in the "lock" model. With all this and the help of 8.1 inches (206 mm) of ground clearance and proper tires, we managed to get pretty far through a snow & ice-covered mountain river.
Of course, the lack of locking differentials, a more fragile construction (it does have underbody protection but it uses a a unibody chassis and it's not as reinforced) and no electronics mean that the Duster can't keep up with the big boys until the end, but in most situations it can.
In fact, the main difference comes in terms of comfort, as the Duster doesn't separate you from the war going own underneath it.