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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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)