© JAMES TAYLOR
Editor: Land Rover Enthusiast Magazine
The Dacia Duster dates from the bad old days when Romania was part of the Communist Bloc and all motor manufacturers were owned by the state. It was the result of collaboration between ARO (who had built Soviet GAZ 4x4s under licence in Romania since 1964) and Dacia (who had close links with Renault and had been building some of the French company's products under licence since 1966).
The collaboration between the two produced a recreational 4x4 which made its debut in 1979 under the title of the ARO 10-series and used Dacia built Renault engines. Sold in other European countries as AROs, these came to Britain as Dacia Dusters in 1985. The Dacia name was chosen because Britain was already familiar with the Dacia Denem, a licence-built Renault 12 introduced in 1982.
The history of the Duster in Britain has been plagued by problems with the importers. Plans announced to bring the vehicles in during 1982 were held up when the first importers ceased trading; there was a hiccup in autumn 1990 when the new importers gave way to a third company; and then imports ceased in 1993, apparently permanently. The last Duster was sold in Britain in September 1993, but the vehicle remains available in Romania and in other European countries, as the ARO 10-series.
As a result, the Duster does not enjoy a good reputation in Britain. Fundamentally, however, it is a soundly-conceived lightweight 4x4 aimed at the cheap end of the recreational market.
The square-rigged Duster somehow contrives to look too flimsy to be a credible 4x4, especially in soft-top Roadster guise. Always intended as a cheap vehicle to buy, its general aura is exactly that. As an inexpensive recreational vehicle, it has some interest as a secondhand buy. However, its general lack of credibility in off-roading circles means that it is not perhaps the most sensible for weekend fun in the mud. Similarly, the Duster's negative image may be sufficient reason for not buying one as an everyday vehicle.
The lack of a current dealer network places the Duster firmly at the cheaper end of the recreational vehicle market. This Roadster Plus model, with white hood and black trim, was introduced in 1989. In practical terms, the Duster is a reasonably spacious short-wheelbase four-seater. The five people it should carry in theory will not find it very comfortable. Luggage-space is also limited when all the seats are in use.
The Duster's road performance is adequate but rather lacklustre, especially in diesel-powered form. Handling and road-holding are also unremarkable, although more power under the bonnet would probably expose some weaknesses. The gearchange is heavy and awkward, and the steering rather wooden. Overall, this is not an inspiring vehicle to drive on the road.
Off the road, the Duster justifies itself rather better. The fairly short wheelbase and short overhangs allow it to perform quite well, although the small 14in wheels mean that ground clearance under the axles can often be less than with other lightweight 4x4s. Torque delivery is only adequate with either engine, but the Duster manages to clamber about well enough to be an enjoyable recreational vehicle.
Reliability, weaknesses, spares
The build quality of the Duster was always variable and often doubtful. Particular weaknesses include the soft-top. However, the mechanical components - many of Renault origin although made in Romania - are generally reliable.
As the Duster is no longer sold in Britain, spares will be problematical. However, many Renault components can be used to keep a vehicle in mechanical health. It is also worth remembering that the Duster is still sold in several continental European countries, and that spares should be available through ARO dealers there.
Now that the Duster is no longer imported to the UK or supported by a dealer network, resale values have sunk through the floor. As a result, very few Dusters will be sold through trade outlets; most will change hands privately.