First Drive: Dacia Sandero and Dacia Duster

The once maligned Skoda brand has been turned in to a huge triumph thanks to investment from Volkswagen, and one would imagine thoughts of a similar level of success were going through Renault’s mind when they took control of Dacia in 1999.

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Fourteen years later and the Romanian brand is finally ready to launch in the UK, spearheading their cost-conscious attack with the Dacia Sandero and Duster.

Slightly larger than a Ford Fiesta, the Sandero is a compact hatchback starting at just £5,995 for the Access model. There simply is not a cheaper car on the market, but does that make it good value?

The Sandero has not been designed to be particularly quick, stylish or interesting, the brand focussing instead on being cheap. Given that, the external styling may come as a surprise to many, its modern and chunky design giving a substantial and attractive presence.

Dacia Sandero Access 2013 Left FrontThe entry level Access model also comes in any colour you like as long as it’s white, with grey plastic bumpers and 15 inch steel wheels. To my eyes it’s an appealing minimalist look, to others it’s a visual reminder of austerity. Spend a little more and there is a wide range of colours and alloy wheels available.

Inside it’s functional, if uninspiring. Swathes of hard, two-tone grey plastics cover every surface with a functional dashboard sitting ahead. There are also manual window winders, with no sign of air conditioning, central locking or a stereo, such is the level of cost cutting.

Out on the roads around Cambourne it felt very reasonable. It’s certainly comfortable enough for most, although there can be a fair bit of noise coming in to the cabin from the engine and tyres. It goes, turns and stops without fuss, never doing any of them quite as quickly as you might expect from a Fiesta or Corsa, but without any drama.

Dacia Duster Access 2013 Front RightIt’s all much the same with the Sandero’s big brother, the Duster. This sits on the same platform as the Sandero, another move towards cutting manufacturing costs, but is modified to produce a compact 4×4 crossover that comes in at 4.3 metres long. It’s aimed squarely at the Nissan Qashqai and Skoda Yeti, or would be if it also didn’t undercut them by a significant margin.

As with the Sandero, I tried the Access trim level. For the four wheel drive version tested you would need to pay just £10,995, but by keeping things as just two wheel drive a further £2,000 can be saved. Once again you’re limited to white at this level, but the full range of colours open up if you spend a little more.

Driving the Duster feels remarkably familiar after stepping out of the Sandero. Again, the car is safe and predictable, never doing anything too untoward even when pushed unnecessarily hard.

There’s real off road capability with the Duster too. It might not be challenging the latest Range Rover, but it will be able to get you out of some very sticky situations. However, by sticking with the cheaper two wheel drive option you do get a bigger boot.

Dacia Duster Laureate 2013 InteriorIt is the interior that marks the biggest difference between the two, the stretched platform offering much more space for occupants. The boot is also quite sizeable, with folding rear seats making it a remarkably practical proposition.

Of course you still have low levels of equipment at the bottom end of the range, while refinement is someway short of its more expensive rivals, but instead you get a significant amount of metal for your money.

The Duster is a little bit of everything, from family hatchback to large estate car with a bit of 4×4 thrown in too.

On both cars you have to pay more for the better engine options, although the 1.2 and 1.6 petrol engines fitted to the Sandero and Duster are fine for everyday use. Economy can improve with the diesels though, reaching up to 75 mpg.

Dacia Duster Laureate 2013 Profile

It’s also possible to add plenty of options to both cars too, with leather seats being an option on the top Laureate model. In doing so you can more than double the price of the car, although there’s no denying a few more creature comforts wouldn’t go amiss.

But in paying more for the car, you’re missing the reason it exists. Doubling the price to have those toys means you’re paying nearly as much as a similar mainstream model, but without the more luxurious feel or driving dynamics.

Both cars are designed to be cheap to buy and run. There’s no pretending from Dacia that they’re something they’re not. There is a palpable air of honesty about the cars, the budget price tag being worn like a badge of honour.

For all their flaws, I’m convinced. I’ll have a base model Duster please.

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Phil Huff

Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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