'Basic, agricultural, old hat - I hate it.' Can a week driving the £11,000 Dacia Duster make us love the no-frills SUV?
'Here's the key to the Dacia...' the delivery driver says as she hands it over. And, almost to my surprise, it is a key.
After driving a host of new cars back-to-back for the best part of a decade I've become more accustomed to keyfobs the size of smartphones that magically open the boot at the flex of a thumb joint and start cars without being inserted. So this feels like a novelty. Old school. Nostalgic, even.
And that's the ongoing theme when running the cheapest new SUV on the market, the Duster. At £11,000, this is a no-frills hark back to times when wing mirrors had to be hand-adjusted and driverless cars were the figment of the imagination. At first, I absolutely loathed it...
Sports Utility Value: The Dacia Duster is priced from £9,945 (not this model pictured) - not bad for a family-size SUV. But with quality materials and modern amenities missing, could you live with this super-basic motor?
What do I need to know about the Dacia Duster?
The one we tested is the mid-spec Ambiance with the 1.6-litre petrol engine and front wheel drive, priced at £10,495 - ramped-up to £11,140 when you factor in the metallic paint (£495) and spare wheel (£150) fitted to our car.
And that's not the cheapest version they sell - the 'Access' model, fitted with the same engine, costs an astounding £9,495.
That's almost half the price of the entry version of the UK's best-selling compact SUV, the Nissan Qashqai, which coincidentally uses the same four-pot 115bhp motor.
So, how does Dacia (well, Renault actually, which now owns the Romanian brand name) offer it for such a bargain basement fee? Well, there's little in terms of creature comforts.
From the cheap plastic door handles to the 16-inch steel wheels, there's no mention of the words 'premium' or 'luxury' on the spec sheet, which barely manages to fill a single side of A4.
Instead of reams of paper detailing a magnitude of features, the print out reveals that you don't even get a radio on the sub-£10k model.
It really is a bare-essentials bruiser - a powertrain and four wheels with little else thrown into the deal.
ON TEST FACTS & FIGURES: DACIA DUSTER AMBIANCE TCE 115 4X2
On sale: Now
Price (standard): £10,495
Test car with options: £11,140
Options include: Metallic paint (£495) and Emergency spare wheel (£150)
Engine: 4 cylinder, 1598cc, petrol
Power: 115hp at 5500rpm
Torque: 152Nm at 4000rpm
Transmission: 5-spd manual
Kerb weight: 1147kg
0-62mph: 11 seconds
Top speed: 105mph
Fuel economy: 44.1mpg (combined)
But at least the parts used are fairly well proven. Okay, it might be a mishmash of unused Renault bits bolted onto an extended version of an old Clio platform, but it's so utilitarian there's barely anything of note to go wrong.
Reliability worries certainly aren't putting prospective buyers off. Since the brand relaunched just over three years ago, 3.5 million Dacias have sold worldwide, with well over 50,000 models gracing the driveways of UK homes.
And they've received their plaudits, too. Most of the range has picked up awards in the motoring industry, while owners have given the Romanian marque rapturous reviews, voting it the fourth best car brand in the 2016 Auto Express Awards.
It even topped Porsche for customer satisfaction in the latest Which? Car Survey.
But as I reach across the cabin to toggle the nearside manual wing mirror adjuster and gaze upon the wall of grey, scratchy hard plastics that is the dashboard, I have to wonder if 50,000 UK buyers have completely lost the plot.
Models are proving reliable so far and the four-wheel drive versions have proved capable when tested off-road
Brick design: The shape is far from aerodynamic, resulting in plenty of wind bluster on the motorway. But the squared-off proportions does mean loads of interior and luggage space
So, what's not to like?
A week doesn't give a car much time to change your opinion. To keep everything in perspective, I decided every mental critique of the cut-price Dacia had to be concluded with: '...but it costs eleven thousand pounds'.
However, there are times prodding around the Duster when this statement offers little solace for what eleven grand buys you.
For instance, very rarely will you step foot into a 2016 vehicle and wonder if you can adjust the height of the driver's seat - that feature is omitted from the Access' specification but not this one, thankfully (says the height-impaired 5ft 7in driver).
But it's not just the bare-bones model of the bunch that showcases disappointing corner-cutting to stay on budget.
It starts before you're even seated. Tug on the door handle and you'll notice they're that low-grade plastic - you know the type, that looks like it'll fade to a tarnished grey colour after prolonged periods in the sun. You get the same on the mirror covers and upper sections of the bumpers, too.
Get in and fold the sun visors down and you spot there are no vanity mirrors. Standing at the petrol station, pump in hard, you realise you need the key to unlock the fuel cap (it's not lockable at all on the Access model).
The unashamed modesty continues. Want to adjust the nearside wing mirror? Forget about fine-tuning the angle using a button on the arm rest - you have to stretch over the passenger to manually make the modifications.
Need to cool down? Even that's not straight forward, with air conditioning not available on this model or the cheaper Access version. Passengers in the back even have to wind the windows down by hand - that swift wrist movement required to lower the glass at pace we thought had become redundant decades ago might need to make a comeback, it seems.
Not for the vain: How much does a vanity mirror and light cost in a sun visor? Too much to make it into mid-spec Dusters, it seems
When you fill up with fuel you have to unlock the filler cap with the ignition key (left), though entry-spec models don't have a lockable cover at all. As you can see from the picture on the right, there's no air conditioning button in our test car
High spec models have power mirrors. Ours didn't. That means a lean over the passenger seat to adjust
Redeemed by being brutally honest about what it is
Dacia is unapologetically blunt about what its cars are about - they're marketed resolutely as fit-for-purpose affordable tools. Not exactly the thing to set hearts racing but you have to applaud them for cutting through the advertising hogwash that has compounded the car industry for years.
There should be no quibbles about it, the Duster isn't a car you expect to enjoy owning. In fact, it's so agricultural that it's difficult to form a tangible bond with it at first, even after some time behind the wheel.
The 115bhp petrol version we drove isn't the most refined engine. You need to rev it fairly enthusiastically to get the best performance out of it, meaning most journeys are backed by a chorus of hard-worked components. As a direct result, you're unlikely to match the 44.1mpg fuel economy claims. The cave-like impact of the rock-solid plastics probably don't help the booming acoustics either.
With little in terms of sound proofing (come on, that stuff is expensive), the 1.5-litre dCi diesel is the more muted choice. The lazy grunt provided by the torquier 110 horses results in a more sedate soundtrack in comparison and it won't be as fuel thirsty.
The fact it's shaped like a brick doesn't make it the most aerodynamic, so be prepared for a bit of wind bluster on the motorway no matter which engine you opt for.
In fact, dynamically, don't expect to be blown away by the Duster in any department. Rather than expecting it to do something new, be prepared for it to be adequate at all the major requirements.
It steers. Not with much feeling or excitement, but the turning circle is small enough to circumnavigate a mini-roundabout without panic.
It rides fluidly enough, helped by the coaster-size steel wheels and tyres with plenty of sidewall, which collaborate with the suspension to offer decent cushioning. The gear change is robust - not what we'd call slick, but it has a workman-like sturdiness to it.
Brutally honest: Dacia hasn't talked up the attributes of the Duster, it simply shouts about the budget price
The boot is an extremely usable space. The square shape, high roof and flat floor makes it ideal for carrying bulky items
Even the all-wheel drive versions (which ours wasn't) are said to be capable off-tarmac, if you're looking for a rural runaround.
In terms of family credentials, it's more than up to the task of coping with carting the kids around. The interior is spacious, the boot is a simple square compartment and the hard plastics we once ridiculed are now a godsend as they can withstand a barrage of kung-fu kicks from under-entertained toddlers.
The only thing that might deter a parent from purchasing one is the three-star Euro NCAP crash test rating it received back in 2011.
However, this was issued when Dusters weren't available with stability control and the model was further marked down for not having any modern-day passive systems the safety body renders a requirement to get full marks.
But some might argue that features like lane departure warning and autonomous city braking systems offer as much distraction as they do assistance.
There's nothing evolutionary or exciting like this in the Dacia to steal your attention. Actually, the most interesting thing to do in the Duster is drive it - surely being so dull that you don't want to take your eyes off the road is an overlooked safety feature, is it not?
A question of affordability: Don't think of the Duster as a car you would buy because you can't afford anything else - it's much more than that
The Cars & motoring verdict
The lack of equipment and quality finish will be a hurdle of varying heights for buyers dependent on what they're used to. But once you're over it, you begin to appreciate how focused the Dacia is.
That word is overused to describe cars: they're 'focused' because it has the interior stripped out so it can lap the Nurburgring in under ten minutes, for instance.
But what the Duster is focused on is being a car for a fraction of the cost of a similarly-sized car.
It's that level of simplicity that helps you gel with the Dacia after a bit of time. It's so uncomplicated that it makes you feel more integral to the package than just about any other model you can buy new today, and in that way it can even be rewarding for those who want to enjoy their driving.
So, think of the Duster not as a car you buy because you can't afford anything else - consider it a car that you should buy if you can afford to live without luxuries.
And it's a brand new car that costs eleven thousand pounds.
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