Until last year, I had not driven a modern Dacia model nor felt any compelling reason to do so. However, the huge sales success of the Duster SUV encouraged me to try one of the models made by Renault's low-cost subsidiary.
I wanted to know why buyers were choosing the Duster over the similarly sized Suzuki SX4, Fiat Sedici and Toyota Urban Cruiser. What I discovered was that the Duster is a perfect product for these complicated times when appearance is more important than substance.
The Duster has a modern, nicely executed exterior. Renault's 1.5-liter diesel engine does a decent job and while the Duster's gearbox is not a champion of precision, the SUV performs moderately well both on road and off road.
The trouble with the Duster starts when you try to open a window. There is a closed hole on the door panel where the power window switch should be, forcing the driver to reach to the center console to open the window. Perhaps Renault did this to reduce costs, but the result is ugly.
Using the turn signal in the Duster is almost frightening because the ticking noise it makes is so loud that you fear you have accidentally activated a time bomb.
Simply put, the Duster is OK to look at from the outside, but once you're inside you are very aware that you have made a budget-conscious purchase. I wouldn't offer a ride to a friend I was trying to impress or pick up a date in this car.
Despite its flaws, it's easy to understand why the Duster is selling so well: the car's starting price in Italy is 11,900 euros. For the same price as a boring subcompact sedan you get a more trendy small SUV.
To be fair, Dacia is already improving its car interiors. The fit and finish of the second-generation Logan sedan and Sandero hatch unveiled at the Paris show last September show a bold step forward. Hopefully each has a better-sounding turning signal. The progress shown by its sister models leads me to believe the interior of the second-generation Duster will match the attractive exterior of the current model. If the Duster's price remains competitive, it will become an even tougher competitor in this segment.