2015 Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual review – Solid, Capable, Affordable!

Dacia & Dacia Duster?

Dacia Duster Ambiance manual

Usually I don’t do an individual piece on the manufacturer, but Dacia (pronounced ‘Datch-ya’) cars are a fairly new sight on UK roads at this point, but we’re seeing more and more about now so let’s give you a bit of background info on them.

Dacia is marketed under its own name only in Europe and Euromed regions, and in the rest of the world they’re under the Renault branding. Dacia is Romania’s largest national vehicle manufacturer, with a massive 28% market share, and since 1966 have been building Renaults under licence. They were bought by Renault in 1999, and now sell vehicles into 38 countries. They part share with Renault-Nissan Alliance vehicles, and use the same engines too.

Dacia centres everything about the brand (from their cars to the showrooms) around “eliminating the unnecessary”, which allows customers to “pay for what they value.” The brand stands for “high quality, “shockingly affordable” vehicles”, and offers a car for the price of one from the class below, so effectively they say you can buy – for example – the Duster, as a ‘family-sized SUV for less than a decent-spec’ city car.’

They are Europe’s fastest-growing automotive brand eight years in a row, and the Dacia/Renault Duster has claimed some top car and reliability awards in Europe and the UK, plus other parts of the world too. Dacias have been developed to cope with extreme weather and terrain in such far-flung places as Colombia, India and Russia, so they’re reliable, and do very well in ownership surveys.

They’re also safe, scoring decently in Euro NCAP tests, especially in individual areas such as adult protection, child safety and pedestrian protection.

For 2015 the Duster has been updated on the outside and cabin area, and I was sent the mid-spec Duster Ambience dCi 110 4×4 to test and review. Would I like this cheaply-priced SUV, and can it really be that much of a bargain without being terrible? Read on to find out…

Exterior. Butt-ugly or beauty?

Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual-1306

With an update for 2015, the Duster benefits from a ‘more stylish’ front grille, ‘Duster’ branded roof bars, a black tailgate trim with ‘Duster’ branding above the number plate. That’s that out of the way.

As a fan of genuinely rugged 4x4s, the first time I saw the Duster in 2014 I liked it immediately. The version I saw was the base model in white with steel wheels, and the first thought I had was how refreshing it was to see an un-blingy SUV finally.

While modern SUVs feature some neat stuff, such as slit-thin LED running lights, modern, edgy styling, and aggressive looks, they somehow still look a little bit weedy, like they’d start sobbing at the mere sight of muddy, potholed farm track, and be more at home in a climate-controlled garage than sat outside getting rained on.

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The Dacia Duster, on the other hand, looks genuinely purposeful, rugged and ready for action. The version I was sent had steel wheels and was painted in the optional (£495) Khaki colour, which gave the Duster a bit of an edgy military vibe.

I like that there’s a mix of rounded and modern lines and styling here and there, such as the grille, headlight clusters and oversized flared arches whilst still projecting a simplistic, tough, real old-school 4×4 image. Actually, the Duster could almost be the modern version of the Lada Niva – a vehicle renowned for its tough, no-nonsense approach.

Even the matte-black heavy-duty metal roof bars- which comes as standard – look and feel the part, and add to the overall good practicality of the Duster.

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What I like about the Duster is that you can tailor the styling to your needs. A farmer using it as a workhorse could go for the basic Access 1.6 16V 105 4×4 version in white with steel wheels, or, should you want something more urban, go for a Lauréate Prime dCi 110 2×4 with nice metallic paint and alloys.

Actually, if you’re planning on using the 4×4 for the rough stuff regularly, I did find an issue with the steel wheels on the Ambiance 4×4 which needs addressing, but I’ll go into this more in the off-road section further down. I don’t think it’d effect the petrol version as its steelies are a different style, but I’ll talk about that later.

Overall though, for an SUV priced from £9,495, I really think Dacia/Renault have done well with the looks.

Interior. Neat or nothing special?

Front seats and console on the 2015 Dacia Duster Ambiance

2015 Dusters benefit from new upholstery and seats, but other than that it remains the same. When Dacia offer the Duster in the base ‘Access’ spec (with the 1.6 petrol engine only), it really is absolutely that – basic, at least by modern standards. The most extravagant things on it are front electric windows, and a heated rear window. There’s not even an FM radio! However, the wiring is already there to add one, so you could probably just buy a cheap stereo and fit it yourself.

However, below the surface of this very minimal cabin, there still lies good safety equipment: front driver and passenger (with deactivation function) airbags, plus front side airbags, tyre pressure monitoring, ABS with emergency brake assist (EBA) and traction control (ASR) with electronic stability control (ESC).

On the other hand, should you go for the top Lauréate Prime spec, you’ll also get rear electric windows, heated & adjustable power side mirrors, cruise control, a front armrest, air conditioning, a 7″ satellite navigation system with smartphone connectivity and live traffic alerts.

If you want a decent amount of kit, I’d recommend the Lauréate as you get everything the Lauréate Prime has aside from the sat nav, arm rest and (weirdly) floor mats, but you’ll pay £500 less overall.

Practical hard plastics on the door and decent speakers -Dacia Duster Ambiance review

With the 1.5 dCi turbo-diesel, the base model I was sent is the Ambiance, and about the only things you benefit from over the petrol Access version are: a stereo with 4 speakers, CD, MP3, AUX, USB, Bluetooth for phone calls and music, and steering wheel controls. Other than that, it’s the same as the Access.

Starting with that point though, the speakers are actually rather decent, with plenty of bass and easily heard at motorway speeds, plus if anyone calls their voice is nice and clear too – both of which have been an issue on some of the other budget and city cars I’ve tested.

I like that the centre console is straightforward. It is well thought out, with every control clearly marked and easily accessible to the driver, equating to zero distraction should you need to adjust something. There’s no fuss or glitz about it – just uncomplicated switchgear which is large enough buttons for gloved hands in winter. It’s actually not bad quality either, and there’s no clicky-ness or looseness about the switches.

Dacia Duster Ambiance centre console

The dials in the instrument cluster are the same. An analogue rev counter and speedometer, plus an LED fuel gauge with indications as to whether you’re in two or four wheel drive.

It is genuinely refreshing to not have a million controls and screen menus to deal with, and to have to try and remember what each one does. There’s nothing to adjust, look at or distract you from the journey, and I actually found the Duster to be very relaxing to drive because of this.

It’s all well and good having a ton of luxury stuff at your disposal, but you can sometimes have so much that it can be an interference with the journey. My seat isn’t quite right, let me adjust the lumbar by a millimetre. Oh my goodness, suddenly my backside feels a degree too warm – I’ll wind the seat ventilation dial around one click. Wait though, I must check on the graphs, bar charts and overall score as to how my fuel economy is doing – it’s that important! Meanwhile, you’ve just missed a mind-blowing sunset to the left of the car.

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Something I did think overly cheap though was the steering wheel. While it’s there to do one job, it’s what you’re holding from the beginning to the end of every journey, and the one on the Dacia Duster looks and feels like it’s been taken from a 2001 Renault Laguna. In fact it probably has. It’s not comfortable to hold, and the plastic feels rather spongy and naff under your fingers. I hate them, but I’d rather use a steering wheel cover than have to hold that for hours on end.

The rest of the dash and door cards are all made from tap-hard plastics, but you have to remember that this the Dacia is priced extremely cheaply next to other SUVs, so I can forgive it that. On the plus side, there are lots of practical storage areas around the cabin, such as large pockets in the front doors, a huge glovebox, a couple of sections on the dash you can chuck your gadgets, maps etc, plus three good-sized cup holders that’ll actually hold real coffee cups and bottles, instead of the minuscule ones you get on some cars.

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The seats in the front offer surprisingly good comfort, while the rear have a backrest that is angled well enough so you’re not bolt-upright, and seat cushions that finish far enough along the thigh that you don’t feel your legs are hanging off the edge, as I’ve found with some cheaper cars.

There’s plenty of headroom front and rear, and that alongside the large side windows make for a light and airy cabin, plus good vision out of the large front windscreen.

Boot space is generous at 475 litres behind the rear seats, and 1,636 litres with those folded. They actual fold completely flat if you pull the base of the seat up first, and fold the backrest into that space. This gives much more space and actually came in handy when I was transporting a load of flooring, which needed to be stacked flat.

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The square-shaped boot opening, plus the floor width and the cabin height means you can get a heck of a lot of stuff in if needed. An averaged-sized lawnmower sat in sideways easily, with just the top section of the handles folded, and my large dog was quite happy with his vast space to lay down in.

Overall, while the Dacia Duster’s cabin is quite basic in the way of amenities, very plasticky and in areas looks like they’ve got parts from a nineties Renault, it is refreshingly simplistic, practical thanks to a huge boot, offers lots of space in the rear for passengers, and the seating is comfortable front and rear too. It’s also surprisingly quiet on the road, which I’ll talk about in the drive section.

Engine & gearbox

The Duster comes a choice of two engines, which normally drive the car through the front wheels (when in 2WD mode in the 4×4): a naturally-aspirated 1.6 litre 16V 105 hp petrol engine, or the one I was sent – a 1.5 dCi 110 4×4. This time-proven Renault engine is a 1.5 litre, 4-cylinder, 8-valve turbocharged diesel motor producing 109 bhp @ 4,000 rpm and 177 lb ft (240Nm) of torque at 1,750 rpm. Both have a 6-speed manual transmission.

Dacia Duster Renault engine1.5 litre, 4-cylinder, 8-valve turbocharged

0 – 62 mph is undertaken in 12.5 seconds, and it’ll go on to 104 mph. Official UK mpg fuel economy stats are: urban: 47.9, extra urban: 56.5, combined: 53.3, with 135 g/km emissions. While it hasn’t got a live or average mpg readout, long-term test reports I’ve seen are generally saying it’ll average around 42 miles per gallon in the real world.

Ready to roll? Let’s drive!

Firing the Duster’s 1.5 dCi turbo-diesel into life, I’m surprised that its noise isn’t more intrusive inside the cabin, and considering this is very much a budget SUV, the diesel chug is actually decently dampened.

Pushing it into first gear, I notice it clicks in well and doesn’t slop about. The clutch is light enough to use in heavy stop-start traffic without getting a painful left leg too. Setting off, first is a noticeably short ratio, which is a feature on the 4×4 versions specifically designed for setting off up steep hills, or descending down them, or towing.

Driving the Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual

Up from there the ratios are spread well and thankfully the torque kicks in at fairly low revs, allowing easy round-town pottering without having to work the engine hard or slipping in and out of gears constantly.

Out into lighter traffic, and the mid-range torque from the 1.5 dCi is lovely, giving nice, flowing in-gear acceleration up to 60 and 70 miles per hour. At motorway speeds, I (wrongly) assumed the Duster would be a noisy affair with a strained engine, but actually it makes for a really rather adequate cruiser, thanks to low engine and road noise, and a long 6th gear keeping the rpm low. Wind noise isn’t too bad either, and whilst it could would benefit from being better, I think it’s fine bearing the cost of the Duster in mind.

Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual

The Dacia’s suspension isn’t really tuned for handling, and while I wouldn’t entirely call it wallowy, it’s not set up for tackling twisting tarmac at speed either. Actually, the Duster isn’t a quick car and I found you quickly set into a rhythm of an easy pace, so the suspension and handling is perfectly fine, and in fact soaks up bad road surfaces and speed humps very well.

Something else to remember: the Dacia Duster is sold into places like India, Russia and Colombia, where dirt tracks are as commonly used as roads are, and that suspension will be perfect for that sort of terrain. It’s likely not cost-effective to change it for firmer handling simply for European taste either, so I’d be surprised if they change it.

Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual-1239

Something I didn’t like is the steering, which feels strangely numb, barely giving any feedback and on motorways it seems rather vague and floaty, a bit like when wind buffets a car about. Improvement is definitely certainly needed in that area, then.

The brakes on the Duster – discs up front, drums at the rear – are positive enough, and the hill-start assist is a good feature too, holding the car in place on an incline for a few seconds after you’ve taken your foot of the brake pedal (while the car is in gear and clutch down).

All said, the Dacia Duster drives better than I thought it would. The 1.5 dCi provides decent low-mid range torque, while a long 6th means an unstressed engine at motorway cruising speeds, and it’s also fairly quiet in the cabin as well. The numb steering feel is slightly off-putting, and needs improvement, but aside from that it’s okay really.

AWD and off-road. Stuck or superb?

Mud plugging in the Dacia Duster Ambiance 4×4

Some stats ‘n’ facts to start off. Nissan helped develop the Dacia’s 4×4 system, and the Duster gets a centre diff lock with selectable 2WD, Auto and Lock modes (4×4 models), and importantly has 210 millimetres (8.3″) of ground clearance, with a front approach angle of 30˚, departure of 36˚ and a 23˚ ramp angle, plus a wading depth of 350 mm (13.8″).

That’s some fairly impressive figures, and that ground clearance beats the Jeep Cherokee (only by 2mm, admittedly), but is significantly more than the Suzuki S-CrossHonda CR-V 4WD,  Toyota RAV4, Kia Sportage, Lexus NX, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Qashqai and Fiat Panda Cross.

So, it’s serious about the rough stuff then. To test how the Dacia Duster 4×4 actually performs off road, instead of just copying from a press release, I took it to a disused quarry, where I’ve taken many of my own 4-wheel-drives in the past, as well as other SUVs I’ve tested.

Drive mode selector on the Dacia Duster

Twisting the drive mode selector from 2WD to Auto means power will also go to the rear wheels automatically. Twist the mode selector again to select Lock, and power will split permanently 50:50 between the front and rear wheels via a centre differential.

I found that over terrain such as gravel and broken-up hard mud, Auto mode worked fine, giving plenty of grip when the traction to the fronts broke loose. This will be good for many of the everyday conditions you’d encounter on the roads too – heavy rain with standing water, a snowfall, or perhaps a country road where the farmer has decided it’s fine to leave three tons of mud behind off his fields.

With several boggy sections of the quarry to tackle, I know from experience these small sections are deceiving, and will catch out a 4×4 or SUV if you’re not properly prepared. Below the murky water lies slimy mud that sucks at tyres, filling the gaps in the tread almost instanly. If you’re not in the right gear or correct 4×4 setting, you’re going to get stuck, and once you are it’ll be wet shoes and a red face for you.

Off road in the Dacia Duster Ambiance 4×4

I put the Duster into Lock mode, and as I’m turning tightly I note the outer wheels are dragging and protesting – a good sign as it means the differential lock is definitely engaged. Tackling the boggy tracts of water saw the Duster do very well. I could feel the wheels slipping at times, but it kept going strongly, in a confidence-inspiring manner.

Up steep hill sections, the Dacia again does well, the short-ratio first gear making driving easy and controlled both up and down inclines. The hill start assist I mentioned earlier worked brilliantly, making re-starting up steep angles a breeze, and also allowed controlled rolling backwards, if needed.

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One issue that needs addressing is that there’s a flaw with the steel wheels that come standard on the Duster with the dCi engine. There’s a delve all the way around the inside of the rim, and should you go through boggy areas, the mud then collect in the rim and cannot get out.

Driving the Dacia back from the quarry, the wheels had so much mud in them that they were completely unbalanced. Even after I’d jet-washed them as thoroughly as possible, the mud just would not come out, and the only way to make sure it was would be to take each wheel off clean them out individually – certainly not ideal. It looks like you wouldn’t have that problem with the steelies on the petrol version, so I’d look at spec’ing those on the diesel Duster instead.

Dacia Duster Ambiance steel wheels flaw

Taking into account the price of Dacia Duster 4×4, its overall practicality and that it is genuinely capable on rough terrain, I would call this a good budget alternative to the tough Subaru XV (which are £8 – £13,000 more), should you not have the money for one of those.

Price

(Figures correct June 2015) With 4×4 versions of the Dacia Duster costs between £11,495 – £15,995 (and the 2WD version from just £9,945), the lower-spec’d the Dacia Duster far out-prices even reasonably-priced SUV like the Suzuki S-Cross and Fiat Panda 4×4 / Panda Cross and SsangYong Rexton, with only the much smaller Suzuki Jimny and Suzuki Swift 4×4 really competing on cost.

Personally, I believe that if you’re going to buy the Duster as a budget 4×4 because you really, really want a brand-spanking new car, then go for the Access 105 4×4 at £11,945, because the next diesel version up is £2,000 more, and by that point you’re at SsangYong Rexton SE4 territory, which is better equipped.

2015 Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 verdict & score

Competent off roader: the Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4

The Duster being sold in Europe and the UK is a product wanted and borne from the fact we’ve been through a ridiculously bad recession. People now see the value in budget products more – from clothing to supermarket shopping, and cars are no exception to that.

With the Dacia Duster 4×4, it allows you to own a brand new SUV which is spacious, practical, comfortable, reliable, and which offers genuinely decent off-road ability, all for the price mid-sized family saloon in base spec.

Okay, it’s not the nicest looking cabin, and there’s more knock-hard plastics used than a Lego factory, the steering feel is numb, and the handling isn’t exactly great. But, you’re getting an SUV that has been built to soldier on through harsh Russian winters, and drive pot-holed, rock-strewn Colombian tracks regularly in comfort, so if you want a relatively cheap, tough 4×4, the Duster is definitely worth a look.

Do you own a Dacia Duster, or have questions about it? Share your thoughts and leave a comment below!

Exterior  7
Interior  4
Engine  5.5
Gearbox  6
Price  9
Handling  5.5
Drive & Ride  6
 Off-Road Ability  8
Overall Score  6.0 / 10 

Specs

Model (as tested) 2015 Dacia Duster Ambiance dCi 110 4×4 manual (also known as the Renault Duster)
Spec includes  16” ‘Matterhorn’ steel wheels, front electric windows, black ‘compass’ cloth upholstery, Height-adjustable driver’s seat, 4 x 20W Radio with MP3 CD player, steering-wheel mounted fingertip controls, AUX & USB ports plus Bluetooth for music and calls, front fog lights, ECO mode, ABS and Emergency Brake Assist, ASR Traction Control with ESC Stability Control, driver/passenger front & side airbags, Centre differential lock with selectable 2WD, Auto and Lock modes. See website for more details
Options you should spec  Petrol versions steel wheels or alloy wheels. Diesel’s steelies collect & hold mud.
The Competition  Suzuki SX4 S-Cross ALLGRIPFiat Panda 4×4 / Panda CrossSsangYong RextonSuzuki JimnySuzuki Swift 4×4
Price  (June ’15) 4×4: £11,495 – £15,995. 2WD from £9,945
Engine (as tested)  1.5 litre, 4 cylinder, 8-valve, turbocharged diesel
Power, Torque  Power: 109 bhp @ 4,000 rpm  | Torque: 177 lb ft (240Nm) @1,750
Drive, Gears (as tested)  Front wheel drive with selectable auto and centre-diff lock 4WD | 6-speed manual
Ground clearance, Off-Road Ability, Towing Capacity  Clearance: 210 mm (8.3″) | MINIMUM CLEARANCE: 215 MM (8.5″) | WADING: 350MM (13.8″)| APPROACH ANGLE: 30˚| DEPARTURE ANGLE: 36˚ | RAMP BREAKOVER ANGLE: 23˚| Towing (diesel 4×4): 1,500 kgs (3,307 lbs)
Top Speed, 0 – 62 mph, Euro NCAP  Max speed: 104 mph | 0 – 62 mph: 12.5 seconds | Euro NCAP rating: 3/5 stars
Fuel economy (UK mpg), CO2  Urban: 47.9, Extra urban: 56.5, Combined: 53.3 | CO2: 135 g/km
Weight (Kerb) / Luggage capacity  Weight (kerb): 1,294 kg (2,853 lbs) | Luggage (VDA litres): Seats up: 475 | Seats folded: 1,636
Websites  Dacia UK, Dacia global

Words: Chris Davies | Photography: Chris Davies, Matthew Davies

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