Diesel engine is fine and the Duster is comfortable to ride in, but body control and steering are sloppy
Dashboard is easy to use but there's not enough adjustment for the driver's seat
Poor Euro NCAP result and no rear airbags
Built from tried and tested parts
Space for five and a huge boot
Decent if you avoid the basic model
The Dacia Duster is passable to drive: the suspension soaks up bumps well, but the car leans on bends (which won't do anything for those with motion sickness) and the steering is slow to respond. The Dacia is noisy, too, so you may have to shout to make yourself heard. A vague clutch action makes it hard to drive smoothly in stop-start traffic, too. Still, the 1.5 diesel engine has enough oomph to let you keep up on main roads or reach the motorway limit, but the 1.6-litre petrol engine is weedy unless you press the accelerator quite hard. The diesel engine comes with the choice of two- or four-wheel drive.
The dashboard is pretty user-friendly, with simple dials and clearly labelled buttons. However, the steering wheel adjusts only for height so some people may struggle to get comfortable, and over-the-shoulder vision isn't great. A big part of the Dacia's appeal is the amount of space it offers: there's loads for both front and rear occupants, and it's possible to fit three child seats across the back, depending on the type and model of seats - we managed to get our models of Group 0+, Group 1 and high-backed booster in a row with decent access to the seatbelt buckles. Without a child seat, the centre rear seat passenger will have to straddle quite a wide central hump (which covers some of the car's major mechanics), but there's a handy space on either side for feet up to about size 9, and those with shorter legs can comfortably rest their feet on top of the hump. Another useful feature is the relatively low height of the door sills, which means young children sitting on booster cushions should still get a good view out. The boot is bigger than those in a Skoda Yeti or Nissan Qashqai. Bear in mind, though, that on entry-level cars the rear seats fold only as a whole bench. The cheapest trim, Access, is so basic it doesn't even have a radio; step up to Ambience and you get a stereo, Bluetooth, split-folding rear seats and height adjustment to the driver's seat. Laureate adds alloys, air-con and rear electric windows. There are Isofix points on the two outer rear seats of all models but without top tether points.
Part of the reason the Dacia is so cheap it that it uses many existing Renault parts; this also means they've been mechanically proven: take the engines, which Renault has used for years. The whole car seems solidly built and we know it's tough enough to withstand the rigours of much tougher terrain in Europe, where the Dacia cars have long been widely available. However, the Dacia's low price also translates to limited safety kit: it has four airbags up front but no curtain airbags on any model and stability control comes only with the diesels. It's not surprising, perhaps, that it received a paltry three stars in Euro NCAP crash tests, although this included a fairly decent 78% for child safety. At least it comes with an engine immobiliser to make it difficult to steal.
You can't buy a bigger new car for the money; the Dacia is fairly cheap to run, too, with low insurance costs and an average of 47.6mpg in our True MPG tests. However, there are some significant compromises: not everyone will think the sloppy handling, noisy cabin, poor safety provision and scant equipment on the cheapest models, are worth the cost saving.