Dacia’s New Crossover Revives Memories Best Forgotten
By Andy Bannister
Dacia, Renault’s economy car brand, has unveiled its entrant into the burgeoning small crossover sector, the Duster, which goes on sale in 2010.
The Romanian marque, owned by Renault since 1999, has taken a leaf out of the book of other manufacturers by reviving a model name from the past.
The company’s marketing men must be wearing exceedingly rose-tinted spectacles, however.
They have clearly forgotten that the previous Dacia Duster was a nightmarish incarnation of the very worst aspects of car production under the old communist system Romania has been trying to shake off for a generation.
Let’s take a look at the new vehicle first. It is based on the same platform as the company’s ultra-successful cheap-and-cheerful budget offerings, the Logan saloon and Sandero hatchback, which are sold in many parts of Europe and are also manufactured outside Romania in countries as diverse as Brazil, Iran, Morocco and India.
The Duster is aimed (in Europe, at least) at the recently launched the Skoda Yeti, and may have a tough job convincing buyers it is up to the job of taking on its ultra-competent rival, unless prices are particularly attractive.
In emerging markets its competitors will include Indian and Chinese products, against which it looks much more impressive. Customers in these countries are also likley to be less aware of the negative conotations attached to the Dacia name, or might even see the car badged as a Nissan (as already happens with the Logan in Mexico).
The Duster does have the advantage of boasting a far more stylish design than other current Dacias, many of which have a rather homespun look about them, particularly the hideous estate car version of the Logan.
Dacia’s new offering is a chunky, tough-looking five-door vehicle which no-one is going to be ashamed of being seen in. It promises to be roomy and practical for a family of five.
The new model features tried-and-trusted Renault mechanicals, in the shape of a 1.5-litre, diesel engine in 84hp and 104hp versions, plus a 1.6-litre 106hp petrol.
It will be available in 4X2 and 4X4 versions – the latter billed as genuine off-roaders – and is undoubtedly set to broaden the appeal of Renault’s budget brand.
Its phenomenal sales growth in recent years has been the envy of many rival European makes, leaving many scrabbling frantically to come up with their own Dacia competitors.
After years of distancing itself from the bad old days of the horror that was once Dacia, bringing one of the communist-era company’s former model names out of retirement seems a slightly strange move.
During the repressive reign of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Dacia was set up to produce a national car for a country with little heavy industry at the time.
With a lot of technical help from the French, it was soon manufacturing inferior versions of the Renault 8 and then Renault 12 under licence.
These were, for the most part, abysmally made, and the quirky 12 design, hamfistedly-facelifted, lingered years beyond its natural lifespan.
The Dacia badge was occasionally also appended to the products of a related company, ARO, makers of utilitarian four-wheel-drives.
Dacia and ARO worked together on a new “recreational” 4X4 launched in 1979 as the ARO 10, exported under various names including the Dacia Duster, and featuring Romanian-built Renault engines.
In true communist style the Duster – despite looking reasonably modern for its day – was shoddily put together and soon acquired a fairly evil reputation in western export markets, where an extremely low price was its only real attraction.
Although it was aimed at the leisure market rather than serious off-road work, it was inevitably compared to its much more rugged and indestructible Russian rival, the Lada Niva, and found badly wanting.
During this era, luckless Romania was groaning under the malign influence of Ceausescu, whose regime increasingly plumbed new depths, even for eastern Europe. His all-pervasive secret police snooped into every aspect of citizens’ lives, and basic commodities like foodstuffs and electricity were often unavailable.
It’s hardly surprising, in such circumstances, the workers on the production line had little interest in the quality of the vehicles they churned out, which they had virtually no prospect of owning personally anyway.
To avoid the atrocious build quality issues of the Romanian product, the vehicle’s Italian importers even decided to start assembling it themselves, but their version of the Duster was not a great success either.
In true eastern European style, though, the model lingered on with ARO badges long after Ceausescu and his regime had been toppled.
The French, in particular, continued to buy it in small numbers until well into the 21st century, helped by the belated introduction of a version called the ARO Spartana, which was intended to be a fun car in the spirit of models like the Mini-Moke.
Given the average longevity of these cars, it seems unlikely there will be many examples of the old Dacia Duster around to embarrass customers who sign up to buy the shiny new version.
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And my sincere apologies to our American readers who are fans of the late Plymouth Duster, whose brand name and model name disappeared from the U.S. sometime ago. I understand that it was a good car in some of its iterations. No intent has been made to malign it by name association…