David Motton
Tow Car Editor

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CHEAP ISN'T ALWAYS cheerful. Cheap can also be nasty. SinceDacia announced prices for the Duster back in June, we’ve been waiting for findout which adjective applies to this bargain-basement SUV.

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The Duster isn’t just a little bit easier on your bank balance than any comparable car – the prices read like a misprint. The most basic model costs just £8995. Plenty of city cars are more expensive than that, let alone five-seat SUVs with roomy cabins and a practical boot. Even the top-spec diesel 4x4 model retails for just £14,995. That’s £3800 less than the cheapest Ssangyong Korando 4x4.

After months of waiting, and more than one impatient email to Dacia, we’ve driven the Duster to discover if it’s the steal it appears to be.

Renault’s budget brand

Before we get behind the wheel, some background might be in order. The Romanian car maker, Dacia, was bought out by Renault back in 1999. It’s become an increasingly popular budget brand in mainland Europe, but has only gone on sale in UK showrooms this year.

You can buy a Dacia from any of Renault’s 149 dealers. Perhaps you already have – Dacia received 2000 pre-orders for the Duster before test drives began. It’s sold alongside the Sandero supemini (priced from £5995) and the Stepway crossover (priced from £7995 with customer deliveries starting in July).

It’s the Duster, though, which should prove of most interest to caravanners, especially the diesel 4x4.

Driving the Duster

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Slide into the driver’s seat of the Duster, and you’re presented with a neat and inoffensive dashboard with a workmanlike finish. It’s not especially attractive and the plastics are hard and shiny, but you can hardly expect anything more at the price.

Start the engine and there’s a loud clatter from the diesel engine. Get used to it, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot. Even when the engine is warm it still rattles and drones, especially if revved beyond 4000rpm. There’s not much point in going past this point on the rev counter, since 4000rpm is where peak power of 109bhp occurs.

Better to change up early and make full use of the 177lb ft of torque. That’s not a huge amount of pulling power, but in a car with a kerbweight of 1369kg (once 75kg for the driver and a small amount of luggage has been added to Dacia’s published figure), it’s enough for respectable if steady performance. Dacia claims a 0-62mph time of 12.5 seconds, which feels about right.

Once cruising along the engine noise is more subdued, although wind and road noise do make their presence felt. But while refinement is poor, ride comfort is surprisingly good, the soft suspension tackling all but the sharpest bumps well.

The Duster is at its best when driven gently. The steering is dead around the straight ahead, then suddenly sharpens up. It doesn’t make the Duster enjoyable to drive along country roads, and the suspension doesn’t like to be hurried. Whether it’s controlled enough to make a stable tow car remains to be seen – we’ve booked a Duster for the Tow Car Awards 2013, the results of which will be published in the August issue.

Featherweight Duster

One of the Duster’s limitations as a tow car is the modest kerbweight, which gives an 85% match figure of 1164kg for the diesel 4x4. The legal towing limit is 1500kg. Choose the two-wheel drive, and the 85% match figure falls to just 1088kg and the legal towing limit drops to 1200kg.

That’s a shame, because in other respects the two-wheel drive is the better buy. The official combined economy figure improves from 53.3mpg to 56.5mpg, and the list price is £2000 lower.

There’s also a petrol version with 105bhp but a feeble 109lb ft of torque in two- and four-wheel-drive versions. It’s painfully slow; the pedal on the right is more volume control than accelerator.

It’s easy to pick holes in the way the Duster drives, but it’s a bit like complaining a McDonald’s Happy Meal doesn’t taste like fillet steak. The engine noise is the only aspect of the driving experience that’s hard to live with. Otherwise it’s okay or better in most respects, and it rides bumps more smoothly than some more expensive SUVs.      

Rough but ready

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It’s a similar story inside the Duster. The cabin is bland and modestly finished, but reasonably roomy and practical.

There’s plenty of head and legroom up front but no rest for your clutch foot, and the wheel adjusts for height but not reach. In the back there’s room for six-foot adults, with headroom to spare and adequate legroom.

Two-wheel drive versions offer a healthy 475 litres of luggage space, although that drops to 443 litres for the four-wheel drive. Fold the back seats down (they don’t lie entirely flat and leave a small step in the floor) and there’s 1636 litres (1570 litres in the 4x4).   

Back to basics kit list

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It would be churlish to expect a long list of standard kit on an SUV costing supermini money, and the cheapest Access model is very basic indeed. There’s no air conditioning, no alloys, and even the exterior mirrors need adjusting manually.  You don’t even get a radio.   

Step up to Ambiance and you get front fog lamps, a height adjustable driver’s seat, 60/40 split folding rear seats and a radio/CD player and Bluetooth connectivity.

Upgrade to the top-spec Laureate model for 16-inch alloys, heated and electrically adjustable door mirrors, manual air conditioning, electric rear windows and a trip computer.

Safety kit is disappointing. There are driver, passenger, and side airbags, ISOFIX mounting points in the rear, and anti-lock brakes with Emergency Brake Assist. But stability control is a £350 optional extra. If Dacia was going through the EU type approval process now, it would have to fit the car with stability control by law, and to our mind this is one area in which the brand’s penny-pinching has gone too far.

In terms of warranty, there’s three years/60,000 miles of cover. That can be upgraded to five years/60,000 miles for £395 or seven years/100,000 miles for £850.

Cheerful versus nasty

So, cheap and cheerful or cheap and nasty? Go for the top-spec Laureate, choose stability control from the list of options, and you'll have a bargain-priced SUV that asks for few compromises. As a tow car, though, the jury is still out until we've had the time to hitch one up to a caravan. The light kerbweight and modest engine count against it, but if you own a lightweight tourer and know the value of the pound in your pocket, it looks like a cheery proposition.