You might ask what an international magazine of design and style is doing with one of the lowliest vehicles in the market, a chunky family-focused SUV that will set you back about the same amount as a scattering of trim and audio options in a Bentley or Porsche. It’s all about the attitude. The equation of function with beauty dates back to the very earliest days of the Modern Movement and this fetishisation of utility has spilled over into our appreciation of consumer goods; stripped down, essential equals worthiness and authenticity, not just value. Fiscal and visual simplicity engenders charm and admiration, setting up the kind of virtuous cycle that all brand engineers and designers seek in their products.
This wasn’t always the case. Dacia was born behind the Iron Curtain in 1966 Romania. Taking technical advice and designs from France’s mighty Renault, the company supplied its countrymen with knocked-down variants of Renault’s small saloon range, eventually exporting them abroad as cheap alternatives to more established marques. It was the era of Ladas and Skodas, when Eastern European meant cheap and dour and endless dodgy jokes. In 1999 the company was bought outright by Renault, sensing a sea-change in the Central European market. Through a series of well-built cars – still using tried and tested Renault mechanicals and other shared components – Dacia became a market leader in the region, branching out to North Africa and the European markets that once turned their nose up at the idea.
This new version of the Dacia Duster represents the acme of these market-driven approaches to design. It’s a handsome, functional machine that does literally everything a modern car needs to do with no nasty compromises. From the solid, chunky bodywork that eschews fashionable scoops and curves in favour of a Land-Rover or Jeep-like simplicity, to a hard-wearing, spacious interior, you certainly don’t feel like you stepped back in time. Plus there’s the warm inner glow you get from Dacia’s brand neutrality – emotional, unquantifiable but very definitely present. It drives and handles like all modern cars, i.e. a bit inertly and without much character and verve, but such neutrality is far more acceptable when you’re not paying for virtues like dynamics and performance. It’ll even do a decent job of light off-roading, doing just as credible a job as cars costing many times the price.
There are very few wrong notes. The credit card-like key is a needless attempt at premium design (a regular key would have sufficed). The dash is admirably simple and functional, although the flatscreen system in the top-end models looks a little bit stuck-on, and not seamlessly integrated. And that’s about it. In certain circles, the automotive output of the former Eastern Bloc retains a sense of spartan chic. The Duster is hardly retro, but it mines a similar vein with aplomb. §