THE Dacia line-up has always been regarded as the bargain basement, cheap as chips, go-to brand when it comes to cost and value, but the latest Duster SUV proves this manufacturer is certainly upping the stakes.
Every panel on the latest second generation car is new and while the price is still very competitive, the quality has increased ten-fold. It's also more robust and muscular in its design and build quality and there are numerous trim levels and engines to choose from.
We opted for the Comfort grade (one below the high-end Prestige) and this car came kitted out with plenty of techno treats and creature comforts.
From a design viewpoint, the Duster is very easy to spot with its traditional grille, sweeping light clusters, athletic stance with raised waistline, rippled bonnet, front and rear skid plates, satin chrome roof bars with ‘DUSTER' inscription and 16-inch alloys.
Move inside and the spacious cabin can easily accommodate four adults, five at a bit of a squeeze. There is however ample space in the back for a trio of youngsters to stretch out making it the ideal car for any school run or family outing.
There is a seven-inch touchscreen with navigation system, Bluetooth with audio streaming, a DAB radio with a traffic message channel, a rear parking camera with sensors, plus SIRI Eyes Free voice activated control system.
While the interior build quality is quite low-key with lots of practical hard plastic, the design has been well thought out with all controls and dials easily accessible.
With its elevated seats, the driver benefits from excellent all-round visibility. In addition, the cloth seats are supportive and comfortable and there is plenty of scope for adjustment to the driver's seat so it's easy to get a good driving position.
Our car, priced at £15,400 (£16,045 with options) was powered by a 1.5-litre 115hp diesel engine mated to a six-speed manual gearbox.
It could reach 62mph from a standing start in 10.5 seconds and maxed out at 111mph, achieving a combined 51.3-57.6mpg (WLTP) along the way with carbon emissions of 111g/km.
Out on the open road, the Duster is deceptively quick. It is quite a light car weighing in at 1.2 tonnes, so skips across the Tarmac.
The acceleration is smooth and the power is constant. It's not the sharpest when it comes to rapid bursts of power so attempting an overtake takes some planning, but it is a smooth runner.
It also impresses out on the country lanes where the road holding was assured, although any unexpected ridges or potholes will likely send the car slightly off course. In addition, the engine rumble and wind noise can be heard inside the cabin, although it's not too loud.
In town, the Duster is agile and easy to manoeuvre with nice light steering that's ideal for lots of twisting and turning. The rearview camera and sensors are really practical when parking.
On the practicality front, the Duster has it all. There is a spacious cabin and the boot can swallow 445 litres of luggage.
Drop the 60:40 split-folding rear seats and that limit rises to an impressive 1,623 litres. Elsewhere there are door pockets, a glovebox and some rather small and shallow cup holders.
One area where the Duster does fall short though is safety. The outgoing model only secured three out of five stars when it was tested for its Euro NCAP rating. That said, the new model does boast a reinforced frame, cruise control with speed limiter, new curtain airbags, along with new seat structures to improve safety.
All in all, the Dacia Duster is outstanding value for money and, after clocking up almost 600 miles during my time behind the wheel, I concluded that although there's no sign of soft touch surfaces or flashy on-board technology, the latest model is still an exceptionally good buy.