The Dacia Duster Commercial was crowned What Van?’s 4x4 Van of the Year for the second consecutive year in 2017. Steve Wilson, LCV product manager for Dacia and its parent company Renault, insists it was more important for the subsidiary’s niche product to gain recognition than it was for Renault – which scooped the Editor’s Choice Award for the Trafic, having taken the Medium Van gong in the previous two years – because it can help to establish a new brand in the marketplace.
“It’s a niche market (4x4), but there is a demand for it,” says Wilson. “Most people who buy a Duster Commercial want it for off-road.” He explains that the vehicle is specifically aimed at rural-based customers such as farmers and country vets, and adds: “It takes time to get traction on any model.”
“When people see what value it is, you get more people looking at them.” Getting the Duster Commercial on customers’ radars is important because the niche 4x4 sector is often overlooked. It is dwarfed by the burgeoning pick-up segment that caters for most operators’ off-road needs and also satisfies family and lifestyle requirements. In fact, recently, sales of 4x4 LCVs, other than pick-up trucks, have slumped.
In February, for example, registrations plummeted by 94% year-on-year to just 17 units, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, and in 2016 sales were down almost 60% to just over 4,300.
Wilson says: “You buy a Duster for a specific need, whereas a pick-up is a [Land Rover] Discovery alternative.” He points out the pick-up market is driven overwhelmingly by demand for double-cabs whereas the Duster Commercial is a two-seater only – a passenger car with the rear seats removed. Renault does market a pick-up based on the Duster in South America – it is badged the Renault, rather than the Dacia, Duster Oroch, because the parent brand does not use the Dacia name in South America. However, there are no plans as yet to bring it to the UK or Europe.
But the Duster Commercial has a lot going for it: competitive pricing, a high standard of equipment, support by a comprehensive servicing network courtesy of Renault, plus an ability to keep going in mud and snow, all help its cause. It is exactly what you want if you need to tackle rural lanes that have not been gritted in the depths of winter, or if you have to venture into a muddy field.
Fitted with selectable four-wheel drive that uses Renault-Nissan Alliance technology, the Duster Commercial is based on the five-door Duster SUV. Power comes from a 109hp 1.5-litre Euro6 dCi 110 diesel and you can also order the vehicle as a front-wheel drive 4x2.
Prices for the Dacia Duster Commercial start from around the £11,000 mark, excluding VAT, and for that you get a decent amount of equipment. All models come with remote central locking, electric front windows, roof bars, a driver’s seat and steering wheel that are both height-adjustable, and an MP3-compatible radio/CD player with steering column-mounted remote controls and Bluetooth connectivity – not to mention front fog lights and a tyre pressure monitoring system.
From a practical point of view the Duster Commercial offers a payload capacity of 550kg, a load volume of 1.6m3 and, if called upon, it can haul a trailer load of up to 1,500kg across the farmyard or along a forest track.
One satisfied customer is Karl Gerhardsen, head of Recreation and Park Management at the North York Moors National Park Authority. The authority currently runs one Duster Commercial, but Gerhardsen says that as its fleet ages it could well buy more. The authority runs a couple of Fiat Professional Fiorino vans with traction control but Gerhardsen does not consider them robust enough for the job.
“I thought about specialist 4x4 conversions of Ford Transits, but these are too big and expensive for our needs. Old Land Rover Defenders were too expensive to run and new Discovery models too luxurious – we need a basic workhorse,” he explains.The authority also uses a number of pick-ups, but Gerhardsen admits cost played a part in its decision to add a Duster to the fleet.
“Price and cost of ownership featured highly in the purchase decision, even though we get good discounts from other manufacturers through the Government Framework Agreement [vehicle supply deal],” he says.
Simon Bassindale, senior ranger, is the vehicle’s main driver. He uses it for all aspects of his work, including to access remote areas of the North York Moors National Park to inspect rights of way and access land; to monitor works being undertaken by the authority’s staff, contractors and volunteers; and to assist the police in combating rural crime, particularly illegal off-road driving and motorcycling.
Bassindale explains no two days are the same and that while going about his business of maintaining public rights of way on the Moors and looking after visitor facilities he must allow enough flexibility to deal with any other issues that arise.
Bassindale’s patch covers a quarter of the National Park’s 554 square miles.
“Essentially, my work vehicle is my office away from my office,” Bassindale says, and explains the LCV has to be able to carry himself and the equipment he requires to and from site.
“The load bay in the back has a selection of commonly used tools and personal protective equipment as well as my equipment as a co-responder with the Yorkshire Ambulance Service, and this is all arranged so it is easy to get either from the tailgate of side doors, but still leaves a good load area above this,” he says.
“Also, between the safety bulkhead and seats is an area where long tools such as spits and spades can be secured without rattling around.”
Bassindale’s Duster is fitted with a tow hitch as well, to enable him to use a trailer to get specialist equipment onto site. But not all of Bassindale’s work involves traversing the Moors, and he reckons that, on balance, his Duster Commercial combines the right mix of off-road ability and on-road manners to get the job done.
“It is not uncommon for me to attend a meeting in the morning in a local town and then call into a work site as I drive back through the North York Moors, so it can be from tarmac A-road to rutted farm track in a matter of minutes,” he says.
“The majority of time being able to drive as close to site as possible is about efficient management of my time, so whilst it is fantastic to walk to site, if the ability to get closer to a location by driving is there then that is the best use of my time,” Bassindale concludes.
Whatever the assignment, the Duster Commercial is proving to be up to the task, and the versatile vehicles could well become a more common site in the rugged terrain of the North Yorks Moors in the future.