By Alisdair Suttie 15 August 2012
Wednesday 14 August 2012. Fleet Voice Column.
For those of you with very long memories, you may recall Dacia is not an all-new brand to the UK. Back in the dim and distant 1980s, the Romanian firm followed in Lada and Skoda’s wheel tracks to try to sell some cars in the UK.
The boxy, ungainly Duster of that period found very little favour with UK buyers who had the alternative of the chunky Suzuki SJ range, which had the distinct advantage of some build quality compared to that original Duster’s almost wilful disregard for construction detail.
Fast forward to now and Dacia happily admits there are two clear periods in the company’s history: pre-1999 and post-1999. That year is important, not just because we all got into a tizzy about the Millennium Bug whilst humming the eponymous song by pint-sized pop star Prince, but because it was when Renault took control of Dacia.
Just as Volkswagen took over Skoda, so Renault stepped in to steer Dacia in the right direction and the rest, as Prince might have penned in a song, is history. Perhaps not overnight but very swiftly, Dacia went from Eastern Bloc producer of crummy cars to a provider of affordable transport.
Cars such as the Logan have been providing Europeans with low cost, high quality wheels for some time and now it’s the turn of the UK. Given the polar difference between Dacia three decades ago and now, we might as well accept this is the launch of an all-new brand in the UK, and that is a rare thing.
Unlike Infiniti, which has entered the UK with a range of luxury cars led by an SUV, Dacia’s SUV debut in the UK is almost assured strong sales. Who won’t be keen to find out what a proper family-sized SUV is like when it costs from just £8,995.
Dacia itself admits the £8,995 Access trim version of the new Duster will be a marginal seller, accounting for only 30% of sales.
It will also only be available with front-wheel drive and a 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine. Even so, that sub-£9k price tag will draw many into the 130 or so Dacia showrooms that will be up and running by the time the Duster sets tyre in the UK in right-hand drive form in January 2013.
Go to the other end of the spectrum and choose the 1.5-litre turbodiesel 4x4 Duster in top line Laureate trim and you’ll still only spend £14,995. That’s the same as you’d spend on a reasonably well equipped Ford Fiesta and the Duster offers the same space, comfort and family accommodation of a Nissan Qashqai or Skoda Yeti, which are the Duster’s natural rivals in size and spec, if not price.
This is the genius of the Dacia plan: they have recognised there is no longer a viable value brand in the UK. Kia and Hyundai have long since joined the mainstream establishment, and rightly so, alongside Skoda. Chevrolet’s range is more expensive and, frankly, the Chevy Captiva just isn’t as good to drive as the Duster.
Here is the second element of very clever thinking on the part of Dacia. It has not only found a sector of the market crying out for metal to satisfy buyers, the Romanians have come up with a car that in no way compromises quality of construction or the driving experience.
Cover up the badges of the Duster and ask anyone to identify its maker and I’m convinced most would guess at Skoda or Nissan. That’s very good company to be keeping and goes some way to explaining why there has been a phenomenon of pop-up Dacia owners’ meetings across the continent. It’s the sort of car to inspire devotion.
Dacia and its Renault parent expect 63% of UK buyers to head straight for the top of the range Duster, which you can have for £12,995 if you forego the all-wheel drive and stick to front-drive.
Those who insist on all-wheel drive will be very pleased to hear the 1294kg Duster 4x4 is one of the lightest SUVs on the market, which allows it to pick its way over tough terrain in a way heavier rivals cannot. Add in the ease of the diesel engine for off-road work and a low ratio first gear for tackling slopes and ascents and the Duster is again something of a marvel from behind the wheel.
Even in 4x4 trim, the Duster offers economy of 47.9mpg and 137g/km carbon dioxide emissions, so company drivers need not worry about being punished for choosing an SUV. If you prefer the front-drive model, these figures improve to 49.6mpg and 130g/km.
Nope, sorry to disappoint, but it’s very good on the road thanks to supple suspension and sensibly sized wheels that soak up potholes, ruts and ridges with ease.
As for equipment, Dacia has a chuckle and says the Access model comes in ‘UN spec’. This means it’s only available in white with steel wheels, no air con and plain bumpers sans foglights. For some, this will be the ideal trim to keep prices down and not worry about such fripperies as metallic paint or the odd dent.
The Ambience ups the kit count, while the Laureate goes further with air conditioning as standard. All Dusters have twin front airbags as standard and ASR traction control can be ordered as an option on the top two trims.
The Duster may not be dripping in kit, but for the money, it’s well enough equipped and the top of the tree Laureate is on a par with any rival yet costs significantly less.
Which all brings us to the question of company drivers and whether or not we should be considering a Dacia Duster for our next car if an SUV is a likely choice. The simple answer here is an emphatic one: yes.
Get down to your nearest Dacia showroom and try this car. It is a revelation and refreshing to find a car so brimming with fun, quality and lack of pretension. The Dacia Duster is a joyful car and one this column suspects will be a surprise hit with company drivers.
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