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Review: 2012 Dacia Duster 1.6 4×2 Access

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I really enjoy eating crackers with just butter on them, not even cheese. I like the taste of butter, the simple crackle of the cracker, the dryness on your tongue and, possibly, the sting of a particle of salt if you’re really lucky. There’s nothing wrong with plain, whether we’re talking about cuisine, clothes or cars.

It has been with this in mind that I’ve been looking forward to driving the bottom-of-the-range, Dacia Duster Access for literally seasons on end. Legendary Finnish blooger Antti Kautonen wrote about the Dacia Duster for Hooniverse way back in October 2011, but it was a relatively lavish Laureate model that he got his mitts on. Access gives you literally the burger in a bun, no salad, no mayo and definitely no side order of fries.

But is this the kind of reconstituted meat product one might savour for its taste and simplicity, or is it rancid old horsemeat best left on the pavement next to the all-night kebab-house it came from? Find out after the jump.

As one of two demonstrator Dusters that Dacia had for us to sample during the SMMT driving day, this machine, finished in United Nations white, with its silver pressed steel disc wheels and black bumpers and body-side mouldings, unashamedly wears its heart on its sleeve. And what shapely sleeves it has. As a shape, the Duster in any trim level is a handsome beast, and the stripper model seen here demonstrates how appealing the basic form is without embellishment. It’s the nose treatment and the way the tail lamps are arranged that I like the most; there’s a bit of the Nissan Rasheen in the headlamps.

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Step inside and behold the, well, adequacy. Everything that Antti wrote about the interior is absolutely true; don’t look here if tactility is your thing. That all said; no end of prodding and poking revealed anything that felt due to fall off or snap. Everything herein is assembled well, but from rudimentary materials. A note as regards standard equipment; there isn’t any, although electric front windows have managed to creep in somehow. And it’s precisely here that we’ll stop and veer away from the course of a regular road-test, because it’s pointless.

What we’re looking at here is the most sensible car in the world.

Judge Dredd (1995) depicted a 2139 in which the only car manufacturer remaining was Land Rover, as theirs were the only vehicles robust enough to survive. Wind the clock back to today; imagine a sudden global announcement that all car production was to be stopped. The environment is fragile, there are already plenty of cars, we don’t need any more. Bad times.

Imagine that it’s agreed that just one car can be allowed to remain in production, to replace those machines which are finally worn out on a case by case basis. That car, they decide, is the Dacia Duster Access. It’s literally all the car that anybody realistically needs. Yeah, it lacks dozens of features that everybody takes for granted, but what you do get is all good stuff.

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Lets look at the package. You get a 1.6 litre petrol engine, front wheel drive and a five speed gearbox. The 1.6 is no performance legend, Antti expressed certain misgivings when he sampled it in 4×4 six-speed configuration, but perhaps it’s better suited to the ratios in this setup. Certainly it feels willing and relatively flexible, the gearbox itself isn’t slick, but the notchiness it possesses at least reassures you that you’ve actually made it into your intended gear. Topping all this, the mechanical package makes quite a pleasant noise.

It’s a noise you’ll become familiar with, due to the need to drive with the windows open as there’s no air-conditioning. And that’s fine! If it’s getting a bit stuffy, open the windows like people used to do for generations. No A/C means less mechanical drag, less weight and theoretically less to go wrong. And that later point extends to all the features which are noted by their absence in the Access.

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The direction indicators beep rather than tick, presumably because a clicker mechanism would have cost a Euro per car more during construction. This particular Access had received a stereo at some point; out-the-box there isn’t one at all. But this is fine, it gives you scope to install exactly whatever sound system you like at some point during ownership. And on the subject of customization, while I was at it I’d probably change the steering wheel and the gearknob for something a little more appetizing to grasp. It does the job, but is the worst possible reminder of the cost of the vehicle.

Once you start throwing your weight at the controls you’ll find that the handling and roadholding limits are rather easily reached, which can come as a bit of a shock if you’ve just come out of something more dynamically adept. It shocked me, when on a hairpin bend I found myself 20 feet from understeering off the road. So I calmed down and accepted what it was that I was driving. I could have guessed, really, from the ludicrously butch 215/65 R16 tyres on those gloriously utilitarian painted steel wheels, that a new style of driving would be required. New skills would be needed, that those people who regularly drive cars with impossibly sticky low-profile tyres and expect to attack any corner at any speed, just don’t have any more. Take your time, think of this as a utility vehicle, and it’s perfectly OK.

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It is a utility vehicle. It has acres of space in the cabin and the boot, the interior is easily cleaned- in fact I’d probably get rid of the carpets and fit rubber mats to facilitate interior detailing via jet-wash. It’s a car that makes itself useful in so many ways. Though it doesn’t have four wheel drive, it does have high ground clearance and good visibility for gentle off-road excursions. And, crucially, it’s cheap. Ridiculously cheap, in fact, at £8,995 on the road for the car you see before you.

That’s almost a grand less than the cheapest Fiat 500. It’s Ford Ka money, for a full-size, hi-utility car that doesn’t feel disposable. In fact, you can imagine this car gradually acquiring, or even earning a Land Rover Defender style patina as it ages and accumulates more experience. And it should. This is a car that should be bought and kept in the family for years and years, before being passed down through the generations. It’s the most sensible car in the world.

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Except, sadly, it doesn’t make any sense at all. As noble as the concept is, and it truly is a wonderful thing, Dacia expects that the majority of Dusters it will sell in the UK will be the Laureate model, at four grand more, and loaded with features, but none of which make the thing any more effective as a mode of transportation. People will be wowed by the alloy wheels and metallic finishes, and being that they’ll be buying it on finance anyway they’ll have no incentive to go for the pure, simple Access.

Shorn of its simplicity, the Duster becomes just another well-priced mini-SUV. In this refreshingly pared-down Access model it becomes something that nobody else offers; an urban survival tool designed to cope with all that life can throw at it. Good news!  This genuinely is, in my opinion, one of the most exciting new car offerings on the market right now. I just hope that people see the point.

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[Images copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Chris Haining]

(Disclosure: Renault UK passed me (and dozens of others) the keys to the Duster during a press event. All opinions are mine, not necessarily shared with Hooniverse or any right-minded person. All photos were mine but have been handed over to Hooniverse for them to do what they like with)

Currently there are "43 comments" on this Article:

  1. dukeisduke says:

    Were parts underneath already rusting, like on the one Antti drove? Yes, I've got a good memory, and I think the Duster article is the first one by Antti that I can remember reading.

    • julkinen says:

      Yes, this is what I also had in mind.

      The stripper model (oo-err) just like this white Renault-like appliance is exactly how I imagined the perfect Duster. If I was really fussy, I'd get it in black navy blue so any rust wouldn't show up so easily. Non-metallic, of course. Great write-up!

    • Rust-MyEnemy says:

      Had I been doing my job properly, I would have checked. I think the rust only came on the more expensive models, though. On this it's optional.

  2. Tanshanomi says:

    "Access gives you literally the burger in a bun…"

    [INSERT OBLIGATORY CRAP-GIVING ABOUT MISUSE OF THE TERM "LITERALLY"]

  3. dukeisduke says:

    I think what would make it complete is "UN" painted on the front doors and hood, in big black letters.

  4. Jay_Ramey says:

    I remember when VW was going to do something like this, and it ended up being a $43K Cayenne analogue, named for a tribe that kept slaves well into the 20th century. But I think VW has more sensible trucks down in South America, right?

    United Nations white doesn't photograph well in extreme clear conditions, I've noticed. Why would they give out white cars to journalists to photograph?

    Is it too late to second-guess Renault's decision to keep the Dacia brand name alive, and slap it on UK-market cars?

  5. Hatchtopia says:

    I dig it and I want one. The only thing I would change is to add some black paint or vinyl to visually connect the black bits at the wheel wells.

    Oh, and those wheels are beautiful. We need more simple steelies here in the States. Instead, low-end cars get horrible-looking wheel covers over black steel wheels. How is that any cheaper or more efficient?

    • JayP2112 says:

      I remember 15+ years ago that TireRack sold OEM steel wheels for those who wanted cheap wheels for their winter tires. Some looked pretty cool. They are still out there if you look but the cheap aftermarket aluminum alloy pretty much killed the steel wheel market.

      • dukeisduke says:

        Yeah, the ones on the Duster remind me of some old Borranis.

      • CJinSD says:

        I bought TireRack steelies with the winter tires for my E30. They arrived painted black, and they didn't have the mounting points for the BMW dog-pans of my dreams. I didn't even know that they don't offer them anymore, but it doesn't snow where I live now. I liked the way the black steel wheels looked on my Cinnabar red BMW, but I didn't like it when they rusted to the rear hubs. I also liked the black steel wheel look on my wheelcover-shedding '85 Jetta GL, but I was pretty much alone in liking the look.

        • JayP2112 says:

          I had a set of steel wheels for my 5000q autox tires. I eventually tried them on my lowered A4.
          Looked mean… I have a photo somewhere.

          I wish I could use steel wheels on my Mustang. Dodge wheels are the same pattern but I doubt they'd cover my brakes.

  6. pj134 says:

    Too bad us Americans will probably never see this. It has all the makings of a spiritual successor for the Cherokee.

    • duurtlang_ says:

      You might see one with Mexican plates and Renault badges. But that's probably not what you meant.

    • Devin says:

      Given corporate connections, I'd love this to wear Pathfinder badges. And then the current Pathfinder can wear different badges. And everyone's happy!

      • Jay_Ramey says:

        I wanna see this wearing a VAZ badge. All they need to do is start shipping knock down kits over there, they're already assembling the Logan MCV under the Lada Largus badge.

  7. ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq says:

    So the deluxe model gets the power windows in the back and cranks in the front where it makes sense? And those rear side windows pop out for some good airflow too then?

    • FuzzyPlushroom says:

      That always pissed me off about the original Neon… power windows up front where you don't need 'em, cranks in the back where they're annoying. Why bother at all? Four power windows or none, please.

      • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq says:

        Fuzzy, you're probably the one that made me realize just how dumb it was some time back. I wonder if this one has power mirror on passenger side by sheer dumb luck cause the steering wheel is on the other side. I guess it's a possibility though that it might not have a passenger side window at all.

  8. TurboBrick says:

    Just waiting for that EU-USA free trade agreement to get hammered out and I see no reason why we shouldn't be getting some of those sweet sub-10K Dacias in the US… sold through Harbor Freight stores or Walgreens, no doubt, but still…

  9. Van_Sarockin says:

    Seems like an old Isuzu Trooper would be a much better option for that cheap utility job.

  10. XRSevin says:

    Isn't this the equivalent of a vehicle like the Jeep Patriot in the U.S.? Didn't everyone here hate the Patriot?

    • Devin says:

      People mostly hated the Patriot because it was kind of terrible from top to bottom. The Dacia is a different car from a different company.

      • XRSevin says:

        My point is that the Duster and the Patriot fill a similar hole in the marketplace for minimalist family transportation, as did the Rondo below, and that it seems most folks would rather buy a used car with more gadgets.

        • Devin says:

          Granted, but the Patriot's general cruddiness offsets any minimalist family transport itch. Also you can't see out of it. So that's why nobody actually liked the Patriot, not because it was a simple family transportation tool.

          Now the old Cherokee was the same thing but was actually generally beloved. It was also pretty solid.

        • ˏ♂ˊ mzs zsm msz esq says:

          You know you are kind of right! I was looking at these for a day, on paper it was great. The MSRP was about $15.5K with destination. I had discount from insurance (counted as Dodge truck) and current Chrysler owner discount too. There was 5spd manual, 2L, FWD, sport trim level no AC with power nothing really. But here's the thing, you could not get that FWD manual 2.0L version, simply not made at all. In fact I think all the sport models came with the 2.4L and CVT, or at least that was all that I could find anywhere, and that CVT was reviewed very poorly. The manual only came with 2.4L and I think 4WD only and then that was in something like limited trim with all the extra doodads, except I think it was the side airbags, the only extra I might really want, that was only in the top of the line, and that was expensive then. So there really was no low price manual FWD no frills what so ever version at low price yo could get. So after a bit of internet hunting, I did not even drive one and ended-up getting a used minivan for what the loaded Patriot would have cost.

          • Maymar says:

            For a very short period, I worked for a Chrysler dealer that bad a pretty basic Patriot in stock – definitely a 5-speed Sport, although it likely had the 2.4 and possibly 4WD. I sort of respect the Patriot for what it is, although I've yet to encounter a situation where I really needed the extra ground clearance.

  11. XRSevin says:

    May I recommend a used Kia Rondo?
    <img src="http://www.auto123.com/ArtImages/98210/2008-kia-rondo-i01.jpg&quot; width="600">

  12. BlackIce_GTS says:

    To this day, I remain impressed by the ability of Britons of all ages and social backgrounds to get genuinely excited by the prospect of a hot beverage.
    – Bill Bryson (from "Notes from a Small Island")

  13. FuzzyPlushroom says:

    The styling makes sense as far back as the C-pillar, but the way the rear-side window sweeps upward doesn't suggest wonderful visibility. What'd you think, Rusty?

    • Rust-MyEnemy says:

      You'd think so, but that glass is in a part of the car that you can't really see from the drivers seat anyway. They'd be blocked by the rear head restraints even if they were bigger. The rear screen is fine and the view via the tailgate fine for reversing. Another tick in the "Perfectly OK" box, I'm afraid.

  14. Sjalabais says:

    Chris, you are an excellent writer! Both this post and today's got me reading and enjoying all of it.

    That said, I agree on the Duster being a real alternative to the people who bought, say, a Volvo 240 in the 90s. But how big is that market? My impression is that the market does not cater to the minimalist, instead, these cars are made for those who can't afford better. And they will always try to stretch a bit more, beyond "Access". It is like the Tata Nano: Could have been a huge success, but hardly anyone wants themselves associated to the "world's cheapest car". In other words, I agree with the twist towards the end of your text.

    • Rust-MyEnemy says:

      Thanks man; I'm afraid the occasional mistake creeps in every now and again, but I mean well….

      The Access is, I'm sad to say, probably occupies far too narrow a niche to take off. But the Laureate is fine anyway.

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