The Dacia Duster changed the face of the family car market when it went on sale back in 2012. All of a sudden, buyers of tiny five-door superminis were offered crossover practicality and SUV style – all for less than £10,000.

It was an immediate hit with UK motorists thanks to its no-nonsense price and back-to-basics kit list. Buyers get a choice of 1.6-litre petrol or 1.5-litre diesel engines, as well as two or four-wheel drive. 

As well as engine and drivetrain options, you also get a range of three easy-to-understand trim levels. The basic Access is exactly that – basic. It only comes in white and does without modern-day necessities like split-folding rear seats, Bluetooth or even a radio.

• Check out our Dacia Duster long-term test review to see what it's like to live with

The mid-range Ambiance is better equipped, adding all of the above for a modest extra outlay, while the range-topping Laureate boasts alloy wheels, air-con and electric rear windows. A top-spec diesel 4x4 costs about the same as an entry-level Ford Focus.

Direct rivals are few and far between. While it may be a small off-roader similar to the Suzuki JimnySuzuki S-Cross and Fiat Panda4x4, favourable pricing actually puts it on a par with cars like theFord Fiesta and Kia Rio. Before the Duster went on sale, buyers after this much space would have had to look towards the used car market.

We’re big fans of Dacia here at Auto Express, and our sister siteCarbuyer has twice named the Duster as Small SUV of the Year – taking the title in 2013 and 2014. 

Our choice: Dacia 1.5 dCi 110 Laureate 4x2

Styling

As you’d expect, paying £9,500 for a brand-new SUV doesn’t get you much in terms of style or badge appeal. There’s a certain charm to the Duster’s back-to-basics, utilitarian personality, but if you want luxury you’ll need to look elsewhere.

The basic Access model makes do with steel wheels and black bumper plastic – and it’s only available in white. Inside, there are swathes of cheap black plastic, and if you want a radio, you’ll have to spec one as an optional extra. That said, everything feels robust and looks quite smart, with only the odd piece of switchgear giving away its Renault roots.

• Best 4x4s and SUVs on sale now

Opt for mid-spec Ambiance and above and you’ll benefit from luxuries like Bluetooth, USB connectivity, fog lights, body-coloured bumpers and nicer upholstery. Top-of-the-range Dacia Duster Laureate models come with 16-inch alloys, air-conditioning, electric door mirrors, and more stylish chrome roof bars, scuff plates and door handles.

Dacia also offers a range of option packs on the Duster. These include a Styling pack that brings daytime running lights and chrome finishing for the side bars and exhausts. There’s also a Protection pack, which includes an alarm, rear parking sensors and front and rear mudguards.

Driving

The basic Dacia Duster Access is only available with a Renault-sourced 104bhp 1.6-litre petrol engine, and while it's powerful enough to keep up with traffic, it isn’t particularly efficient.

However the 109bhp 1.5 dCi diesel taken from the Renault line-up – the sole engine available on Ambiance and Laureate models – is responsive and offers decent pace. It’s certainly the better engine, and thanks to the six-speed manual gearbox is fairly economical too. It's a little noisy though, so beware if you intend on spending a lot of time on the motorway.

The suspension soaks up bumps well, but there's a lot of body roll in the corners. If you want a fun-to-drive family car, stick with a Ford Focus. If you need a 4x4 you’ll need to stretch to Mazda’s brilliant (but expensive) CX-5. That said, a Suzuki SX4 S-Crossstrikes a good balance – and is better than the Dacia both around town and at speed.

Reliability

The Dacia Duster has been available to buy in continental Europe since 2010. The Duster’s tried-and-tested parts has ensured a strong reputation for reliability – and in the 2014 Driver Powersurvey, Dacia finished an amazing fifth place ahead of the likes of Mercedes, Kia and Audi.

All Dacias come with a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty, too. This can be upgraded to a Hyundai-rivalling five-year, 60,000-mile deal, or even a Kia-rivalling seven-year, 100,000-mile scheme for a small premium. At the time of writing, these cost £395 and £850 respectively.

While it's practical and good value, the Dacia Duster scored just three stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests, mainly due to a poor result in the pedestrian protection test and the fact that electronic stability control is only offered as an option on the higher-end Ambiance and Laureate models. Fortunately, in addition to passenger and side airbags, Dacia fits anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist to all Dusters as standard.

Practicality

In addition to its excellent value, practicality is one of the Dacia Duster trump cards. In fact, it gives some of the best space-per-pound you'll find in today's new car market.

The Duster's boot is 65 litres bigger than that found in a Nissan Qashqai at 475 litres, and despite the elasticated load cover feeling a tad flimsy, its opening is nice and wide. There should be plenty of room for most family’s day-to-day clobber, and even enough space for the odd trip to the tip.

However, Dacia only offers 60:40 split-folding rear seats on the Ambiance and Laureate models, with a single-piece rear bench as standard on basic Access cars.

Rear seat practicality is good though, offering plenty of space for three adults to sit abreast. We found the front seats a little unsupportive though, so if you cover lots of motorway miles, we’d consider a more conventional family car – such as theVolkswagen Golf or Ford Focus.

Running Costs

In addition to its no-frills personality, one of the most attractive aspects of the Dacia Duster is its value for money. With a starting price of around £9,500 for an entry-level model, it costs less than some similarly-priced superminis such as the Ford Fiesta or Volkswagen Polo. For an extra £2,000, all two-wheel drive models can be upgraded to 4x4, making it the cheapest off-roader on sale.

As for economy, the 1.5-litre two-wheel-drive Dacia Duster diesel is the most efficient option thanks to economy of 56.5mpg and CO2 emissions of 130g/km. If you go for the four-wheel drive Duster, the economy drops to 53.3mpg and raises emissions to 137g/km.

However, this is still more efficient than the 1.6-litre petrol Duster. That can only manage 39.8mpg and emits 165g/km, which means it will cost a lot more to tax and run than a 1.2-litre DIG-T Nissan Qashqai

Of course, by spending less to begin with, you’ve less to lose on the second-hand market. Residuals for the Duster are forecast to be similar to the Qashqai, so you should get a fair chunk back when the time comes to trade.

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