David Motton
Tow Car Editor

See other tow car reviews written by David Motton

The subtle exterior changes underplay some extensive improvements to the latest Dacia Duster. But, does the new Duster maintain the old model's strengths?

Overview

Today's Duster has a better interior, cleaner engines, more equipment and improved safety.

But other things haven't changed: the Duster is very affordable, starting from £9,995. Even our diesel 4x4 test car is a modest £17,400, significantly undercutting almost all rivals. It should be affordable to run, too, with a low insurance group rating and modest fuel consumption.

Does the new Duster maintain the old model's strengths, though, while smoothing off its rough edges? Can it compare with more expensive rivals, and how well does it cope with the demands of towing?

Towing

The Duster is a small and light car. Petrol versions weigh as little as 1254kg (including 75kg for the driver, which Dacia does not include in its published kerbweights), although opting for a diesel with four-wheel drive pushes that up to 1480kg.

That gives an 85% match figure of 1258kg, comfortably within the 1500kg towing limit.

We matched the Duster to a Sprite Major 4 SB with a MiRO of 1281kg, and set off for a long tow on country roads, A-roads and motorways.

The Duster feels quite sprightly when pulling away, in part due to a low first gear that gets car and caravan moving quickly. But the vehicle's speed builds more steadily thereafter.

There's also enough pulling power to maintain that speed without too much gear changing on motorway inclines and hilly country roads, but this isn't a tow car with power to burn.

A relatively low top gear helps make the most of the available muscle on the motorway, and means that the gearbox can mostly be left in sixth at 60mph, even into a headwind.

The Duster is reasonably stable, although it's not as unshakeable at speeds as, say, the Nissan Qashqai.

The suspension is quite soft, and takes a while to recover from bumps and crests. It allows the car to bobble from side to side a little when the caravan is caught by a gust of wind or an overtaking HGV.

For the most part, the Duster pulls the caravan straight again with no help from the driver, but it's a little fidgety compared with the best small tow cars.

It does have other strengths, though. The low first gear helps when pulling away from a hill start, and the conventional handbrake had no trouble holding car and caravan still on a 1-in-10 slope. In the two-wheel-drive mode, it's easy to briefly spin the wheels; but switching the car to 4x4 auto or 4x4 lock mode takes care of that, and promises hassle-free starting in the wet, too.

The ability to send power to all four wheels is a big plus if you stay on grass pitches or prefer CLs and CSs to bigger campsites. Certainly, the Duster coped easily with slightly damp grass when we arrived at our site. Again, that super-low first gear helped with manoeuvring at low speeds.

When we needed to hitch up the caravan again, we were aided by the rear-view camera - a common enough feature these days, but not necessarily on a car that is as affordable as this one. It gives a clear view of the towball.

The Duster's towing gear itself is neatly installed, with the towball and electrics located well clear of the bumper.

Everyday driving

Although the latest Duster is nowhere near as rough and ready as its predecessor, you shouldn't expect a sophisticated driving experience.

There's a floaty feel over dips and crests, but so long as you drive steadily, it is reasonably comfortable. Four-wheel-drive models like our test car have more advanced rear suspension than two-wheel-drive models, which improves control.

The soft suspension allows a lot of lean if you corner enthusiastically, but that's really not what this car is all about. The steering is well weighted and so long as you don't push too hard, the Duster corners neatly enough.

Should you need to head off road, the Duster copes well. Although the Dacia doesn't have a low-ratio transfer 'box, like the Suzuki Jimny, its low first gear feels tailor-made for crawling around in the mud.

It's so low it's almost an irritation on Tarmac, as you need to grab second gear very quickly after pulling away. In fact, it's easy enough to start in second on a flat road. The gearbox itself has a rather clunky action - it's a shame there's no automatic available.

There's some wind and road noise at speed, and you can hear a faint grumble from the engine in the background, but it's still possible to hold a conversation at 70mph without raised voices.

Plenty of small crossovers and SUVs drive better than the Duster, but they cost thousands more. Given the budget price tag, we're quite content with the way the Dacia drives.

Space

The improvements Dacia has made to the latest Duster are most apparent in the cabin. The finish isn't exactly plush, but it's as solidly screwed together as many more expensive SUVs. It's workmanlike, rather than bargain basement.

The driving position is sound for people of most shapes and sizes, but very tall drivers might want a few centimetres more rearward travel for the seat. However tall you are, it's a shame there isn't a proper rest for your left foot.

Legroom is modest in the back, although there's plenty of headroom. For a 4x4, the transmission tunnel is quite small, which will help if three sit on the rear bench. However, we'd like to see air vents in the back, and a USB charger or two would be handy.

Boot space varies, depending on whether you choose two-or four-wheel drive, and whether you settle for a puncture repair kit or upgrade to a full-sized spare wheel.

Our test car came with a proper spare, which reduced room for luggage from 411 litres to 376. So the peace of mind that a full-sized spare brings does require some compromise, but the boot's capacity is still more than four times that of Suzuki's Jimny.

Running costs

The Dacia Duster is superb value for money. An asking price of £17,400 pits it squarely against the Suzuki Jimny. But while the Jimny has an anaemic petrol engine, the Duster has a robust diesel. And whereas the Jimny is extremely cramped, the Duster is roomy enough to make a fine family car.

It hugely undercuts cars from mainstream manufacturers. The Seat Arona is smaller, but the cheapest diesel costs £1500 more than the Duster we're testing, and there's no 4x4 version, either.

The Škoda Karoq is slightly bigger and more spacious than the Duster, and is available with four-wheel drive, but the most affordable diesel 4x4 is £26,775.

The closest competitor is probably the SsangYong Tivoli, but a mid-spec diesel costs £18,495 and sends power to two wheels rather than four.

The Duster wouldn't be such a bargain if running costs were high, but the car is in insurance group 15E, which should keep premiums affordable. Official combined economy is 48.7mpg, and we achieved an impressive 33.8mpg while towing.

Despite the low price, the Duster is also well equipped. Comfort spec includes a seven-inch touchscreen navigation system, rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, cruise control, air conditioning and 16-inch alloy wheels.

The only minus point that stops the Duster scoring five out of five in this section is the modest three-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.

Technical specs

Engine size1461 cc
Kerbweight1480 kg
85% KW1258 kg
Towball limit75 kg
Maximum towing limit1500 kg
Power113.0 bhp
Torque192.0 lb ft
Official MPG48.7 mpg
Towing MPG33.8 mpg
CO2123 g/km

Verdict

Along with our colleagues at What Car? and The Camping and Caravanning Club, we rated the Duster highly enough to make it Best Budget 4x4 at the Tow Car Awards 2019. If anything, our respect for it has grown over longer acquaintance.

It's not perfect. We'd prefer a four- or five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, and the lack of a rest for your left foot seems like a bit of unnecessary penny-pinching. But otherwise it's a solid car, at a spectacular price.

It's not the sharpest SUV to drive, but the ride is reasonably comfortable. We could easily live with one, day in, day out.

For a car of this size, the Duster is also quite practical. A little more legroom wouldn't hurt, but it's far roomier than a Suzuki Jimny. Luggage space is reasonably generous, too, particularly if you are happy with a tyre repair kit rather than a spare wheel.

While the previous Duster looked cheap inside, the new model is better finished and more attractively designed. Plenty of SUVs with price tags starting with a '2' rather than a '1' are no better.

Most importantly, this is a sound tow car. Heavier and more expensive SUVs might feel more planted at speed, but the Duster's occasional fidget with a caravan in tow never got out of hand. The diesel engine is up to the job, and returns excellent economy. What's more, the switchable 4x4 system will get you out of trouble at a muddy campsite.

It has its faults, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better new tow car for the money.

Conclusion

Pros

  • Excellent value for money
  • Impressive fuel economy while towing
  • Neatly installed towing gear

Cons

  • Soft suspension
  • Clunky gearbox action
  • No footrest for driver