It's been a busy fortnight for Renault. The French giant has shown off for the first time its critical all-electric Megane crossover in Munich. Back in Ireland it has launched the new Arkana coupe-SUV onto a market hungry for such things.
And it has announced a new Dacia – the Jogger seven-seat MPV-kinda-SUV; a car which seems likely to turn out to be a firm favourite with Europe's cash-conscious family buyers.
All of which kind of overshadows the launch, also this week, of the updated Dacia Duster. Yet, it's the Duster which – in amidst the new metal, the coupe-like shapes and the battery power – could just still be the best of the bunch.
The Duster, since the original was launched in 2013, and this second generation three years ago, has been a paragon of good value. The sales pitch is disarmingly simple – spend the same money that you would on a small family hatchback and get a mid-size family crossover instead. Nissan Qashqai space for Renault Clio money.
The cost? Just the ability to put up with last-generation technology in the cabin and engine bay, and a slight sense of cheapness to all components.
Actually that cost has somewhat fallen since the introduction of the second-generation Duster. It no longer feels quite so much like a hair-shirt. It’s not, to stretch the analogy to its limits, a fine Egyptian cotton shirt either, but it is at least an utterly acceptable poly-cotton one.
This relative increase in luxury and sophistication is just as well as the Duster’s price tag has ballooned along with almost all other cars – when it was first launched you could nab a Duster for just over €15,000. Now the starting price is €19,995.
Then again that maintains the Duster’s roughly €10,000 price advantage over a roughly comparable Nissan Qashqai or Renault Kadjar. And to be honest the Duster might still be the better car.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s look at what is new. Which won’t take long, as there’s not much. The mid-life update changes are limited to new lights, front and rear, with Dacia’s new Y-shaped LED signature; there’s a new grille; a new under-bumper protection panel; new wheels (which are more aerodynamic and which contribute to a mild trimming of CO2 emissions; new roof rials; and a new rear spoiler.
Under the bonnet there’s a new engine – a 1.3-litre four-cylinder 150hp turbo petrol unit which for the first time in a second-generation Dacia can be combined with an automatic gearbox; a Renault-sourced DCT dual-clutch unit with six speeds.
There’s also a bigger LPG tank for the entry-level bi-fuel 1.0-litre TCE three-cylinder engine with 100hp.
Fill both the 50-litre petrol tank and the 48-litre LPG tank and you can squeeze a claimed 1,200km out of your Duster before needing to top up with either fuel. Dacia also claims that when running on LPG the Duster emits 9.5 per cent less CO2 than it does when running on petrol.
There are a claimed 48 filling stations selling LPG in Ireland, and while the Duster is less efficient overall when running on the stuff (LPG is less energy-dense than petrol), at circa 80 cent per litre, would you care? Dacia will not do a hybrid Duster in this generation, nor an electric version, so if you want to trim your CO2 emissions on a budget, LPG is the only way to go.
There are still two diesel-engined options, one with front-wheel drive, the other a 4WD model, if you prefer, and many Irish Dacia customers still do.
Of the three engines it’s the 1.0-litre bi-fuel unit that actually suits the Duster best. It’s smooth and free-revving, and if it’s hardly the quickest thing around then at least it sounds more enthusiastic than its 15.1 seconds 0-100km/h time would suggest.
The 1.3-litre version with the auto transmission will be a welcome addition to those who have been pestering Dacia to add an automatic option, and it works just fine, but nothing more. Renault’s EDC gearbox has often been at the back of the queue when it comes to snappy smooth gear-changes and that’s still the case, but given the Duster’s lower price point you’re more amenable to forgiveness than you might be in a more expensive Captur or Megane.
As for the way the Duster drives, that has not changed either. Dacia claims that it has firmed up the steering for a more enthusiastic response above 70km/h, but if you can tell the difference then you have the reincarnated palms of Stirling Moss.
It doesn’t matter anyway – what harm is light, twirly steering when the Duster rides smoothly on rough roads on its 17-inch wheels, and displays traditional French car attributes (especially for a car built in Romania) when you find some fast corners.
Like Renaults of old you aim the big bonnet, twirl the wheel, wait for the copious body roll to settle, and let the impressive grip levels carry you through. It’s not quite fun in the traditional sense, but fun nonetheless. At slower speeds the Duster just bumbles along very pleasantly, and the improved seats add to the general feeling of calm contentment.
It will even off-road up to a point. Dacia claims that it’s the most capable off-road car that doesn’t have a low-ratio transfer ‘box, and thanks to the 4x4 version coming with all-season tyres as standard that seems believable.
It was bone dry on our short off-road course (carefully designed so that the Duster wouldn’t get stuck) but the Dacia nonetheless performed admirably, dealing with ruts, lumps that left one wheel dangling in the air, and side-slopes that tipped the car up to a 30-degree angle, which feels all but vertical from inside the cabin.
So what if it’s slow or if the cabin is made of low-rent plastics? Or that the LPG tank means there’s no spare wheel for you? The Duster has proved itself reliable over the years, which is all the matters really. It is relentlessly adequate at all it does, never sparkling nor outstanding, but so thoroughly good that you can’t help but instantly regard it as a faithful companion. It’s an honest car, and that is perhaps the best rating of all.
LOWDOWN; DACIA DUSTER COMFORT TCE 1.0
Power: BiFuel 1.0 three-cylinder turbo petrol/LPG engine putting out 100hp and 170Nm of torque with a six-speed manual transmission and front-wheel drive.
CO2 emissions (annual motor tax): 144g/km (€270).
L/100km (MPG): 6.4 (44.1).
Price: €22,090 as tested. Duster starts at €19,990.
Verdict: Relentlessly adequate in every respect