Close to three decades ago, an encounter with a model from Romanian manufacturer Dacia might have involved driving a Renault 12-derived Shifter pick-up – a truly vile vehicle with no redeeming features.
Thankfully, the cheap and nasty products ground out in the bad old days of Romania's communist dictatorship have long been consigned to the dustbin of history. Owned by Renault since 1999 and making extensive use of that manufacturer’s modern systems and components, Dacia has emerged as a producer of quality products that can stand comparison with anything else on the market, yet are still sold at highly affordable prices.
Based on the five-door Duster SUV, and given its UK launch at last April's Commercial Vehicle Show, the Duster Commercial represents Dacia's first foray into the British van market.
Power comes courtesy of a 107hp 1.5-litre dCi Euro5 110 diesel, and you can order the vehicle as a front-wheel drive 4x2 or with selectable four-wheel drive that uses Renault-Nissan Alliance technology.
Two levels of specification are up for grabs: Ambiance and the more upmarket Laureate. All models come with electric front windows, remote central locking, 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. The package includes a tyre pressure monitoring system and front fog lights.
Opt for Ambiance specification and you get rather a lot of black trim plus 16-inch Matterhorn steel wheels. Stepping up to Laureate gives you 16-inch Tyrol alloy wheels, manual air-conditioning, electrically heated and adjustable exterior mirrors, cruise control, a speed-limiter, and leather trim for the steering wheel. To all that can be added a seven-function onboard computer not to mention satin chrome side sills, front and rear scuff plates and longitudinal roof bars.
We decided to have a crack at a 4x4 in Laureate trim – ideal for squelching around rural Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.
Access to the 1.0m3 cargo bay – the Duster's handful of rivals all offer more cargo space – is by means of a rear hatch and a hinged door on each side of the body shell. Both the side doors are completely opaque – the windows are fixed in place and blacked-out with film – but the hatch is glazed and fitted with a wash/wipe system and a heater.
The doors open to reveal sockets for a missing parcel shelf that betray the van's five-door hatchback origins. They also reveal a purpose-built toughened-plastic load bed that looks rather like a litter tray for a very big cat.
While a lip at the driver's end of the tray should hopefully prevent unsecured items from spilling into the cab, no bulkhead is fitted. That's a little unfortunate given that only two tie-down points are provided to secure up to 550kg of cargo. Two more would have been nice. It’s good that a 12V power point is present, though, and you'll find another one in the cab.
If you're looking for the (full-size) spare wheel you will find it under a panel in the load tray. The jack sits in an offside compartment close to the aforementioned rear hatch.
The Duster Commercial 4x4 was on the verge of being homologated for towing at the time of writing, with a maximum 1500kg braked towing weight. The figure falls to 1200kg for the 4x2.
Cab and equipment
Offering an attractive working environment along with a comfortable driver's seat, the cab is endowed with only a modest amount of oddment storage space. The roll call includes bins in each of the front doors, a lidded but not lockable glovebox with a shelf above it, a tray atop the centre of the nicely designed dashboard and a couple of cup-holders.
Our Duster Commercial was fitted with a seven-inch touch-screen multimedia system that includes satellite navigation plus USB and aux connection points. An extra-cost option, it will set you back £250 (all prices quoted here exclude VAT).
Remote controls for the radio and the cruise control/speed-limiter are mounted on the steering column. You hit a button on the dashboard if you want to lock/unlock the doors.
Employing a particulate filter, the four-cylinder eight-valve common-rail turbocharged direct-injection Euro5 diesel produces maximum power at 4000rpm. Top torque of 240Nm bites at 1750rpm.
All derivatives come with a six-speed manual gearbox, but the version fitted to the 4x4 differs from the one fitted to the 4x2 because it has a shorter first gear ratio that is better suited to off-road work.
Chassis and steering
MacPherson-type suspension with a rectangular lower arm and an anti-roll bar help support the front of the vehicle while a multi-link suspension set-up specially developed for the Duster 4x4 helps underpin the rear. Our test van's 16-inch alloys were shod with Continental Cross Contact 215/65 R16 98H mud and snow tyres.
Hydraulic power-assisted steering delivers a 10.44m turning circle between kerbs increasing to 10.76m between walls.
Disc brakes are fitted at the front while drums provide the stopping power at the back. ABS is fitted along with electronic stability control (which can be switched off), traction control, emergency brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. The van is also equipped with driver and passenger front and side airbags.
Okay, the gear change could be crisper, the cab interior is a little on the noisy side at times, the brake pedal feels a bit wooden and we would have liked slightly more power.
On the positive side, however, the handling is sharp without excessive rolling in the corners, the ride is smooth and nothing creaks or groans. Dacia build quality is remarkably good, with no loose or ill-fitting bits of trim and no cheap-looking plastic either.
A centre diff lock is fitted and you engage four-wheel-drive by twisting a dial at the base of the dashboard just in front of the gear stick. As well as 2WD and 4WD settings you can turn it to ‘Auto’, which automatically distributes torque between the front and rear axles according to the prevailing road conditions; for example, if you hit a stretch of highway covered in snow, or in mud deposited by tractors. It uses an electromagnetic torque converter sourced from Renault's partner Nissan.
An undemanding foray into a muddy field or two and up and down a slippery embankment showed that the 4.3m-long Duster Commercial copes well enough when the going gets squishy. Unladen ground clearance is 210mm with a wading depth of 350mm.
Buying and running
Service intervals are set at one year/12,000 miles and the Duster Commercial is protected by a three-year/60,000-mile warranty with emergency roadside assistance on tap for the entire duration. Further protection is provided by a two-year paintwork warranty and a six-year anti-corrosion warranty, and the brand is supported by 130 dealers who also represent Renault.
The official combined fuel consumption figure is 54.3mpg, but we averaged closer to 48mpg. However, we did not always follow the advice of the gear-shift indicator on the fascia.
Pushing the eco mode button would probably have cut diesel usage but we kept forgetting it was there. It brings down fuel consumption potentially by up to 10% by altering the throttle pedal's response and reducing engine power, hopefully without compromising unladen on-the-road performance too much.
Well-priced, well-equipped, and well put together, any drawbacks the Duster Commercial may have are more than counter-balanced by its capabilities.
|Dacia Duster Commercial Laureate dCi 110 4x4|
|Price (ex VAT) – £12,545|
|Price range (ex VAT) – £9595-£12,545|
|Gross payload – 550kg|
|Load length – 1400mm|
|Load width (min/max) - 1002/1168mm|
|Load bay height – 813mm|
|Load volume – 1.0m3|
|Loading height – 800mm|
|Rear door aperture – 978x737mm|
|Side door aperture – 724x991mm|
|Gross vehicle weight – 1879kg|
|Braked trailer towing weight – 1500kg|
|Residual value – tba [chk!]*|
|Cost per mile – tba* [chk2!]*|
|Engine size/power – 1461cc, 107hp@4000rpm|
|Torque – 240Nm@1750rpm|
|Gearbox – 6-spd|
|Fuel economy – 54.3mpg|
|Fuel tank – 50 litres|
|CO2 – 137g/km|
|Warranty – 3yrs/60,000mls|
|Service intervals – 1yr/12,000mls|
|Insurance group – 1A|
|Price as tested – £13,207|
|* after 4yrs/80,000mls; source: KeeResources.com|