Dacia Duster – today’s Lada Niva?
Who remembers the Lada Niva 4×4? Design-wise, it had an engaging simplicity. A toddler could easily draw its two-box lines, the only tools needed being a blunt crayon and a slightly protruding tongue.
Under the Niva’s loosely-arranged collection of 90-degree panels was an equally straightforward but surprisingly adept 4×4 driveline. This was capable of taking the Niva to places you’d never heard of, like Tolyatti, the town halfway between Moscow and Kazakhstan where the Niva is still being built.
Although until a couple of years ago you could still order a new £10,799 1.7-litre left-hand drive Niva from a tiny Sidcup-based operation, official imports to the UK ceased several years back. So, in 2017, the nearest thing to the Niva offering of cheap 4×4 fun is surely the Dacia Duster.
The fully-optioned Duster that the chaps at PistonHeads have been running since January is not exactly cheap at around £18,000, but just like those Sidcup Nivas, the cheapest 4×4 Duster with little in the way of either bell or whistle is available at below £11k.
So far the PH Duster has cheerily mucked in on a shoot in the Yorkshire Dales with a Twisted Defender 110 and a Mercedes G-Class, successfully negotiated the North Coast 500 run around the Scottish coastline, and perhaps most impressively acquitted itself rather well on an Autocar group test.
In an ex-quarry that’s now become an off-road playground, the Duster spent two days mixing it with considerably more expensive 4×4 tackle. It scrambled up steep slopes and squelched through some pretty deep mudbaths. It didn’t quite make it along a punishing rock crawl, but that was mainly because the driver needed it to get home in and so chose discretion over valour when it came to risking the sump or busting a key suspension part. Basically, the human cried enough before the Duster did.
Of course, for a goodly proportion of off-road vehicles the toughest test will be negotiating a multi-storey car park or a school run. In exchange for its central locking differential, permanent four-wheel drive and a cabin that you could literally hose down after any journey, the Niva offered gulag-spec comfort. Nowadays, modern cars can’t get away with such single-purposedness. They have to deliver a level of sophistication along with genuine multi-tasking. Compared to the Niva, the optional-4WD Duster may have a smaller (but more powerful) engine, less ground clearance (210mm against 265mm) and less wading depth (350mm versus 600mm), but it’s a hell of a lot better for everyday modern motoring.
The Duster probably wouldn’t be the first choice for anyone looking to do serious off-roading, but if for whatever reason it was your only choice, our bet is that you would quickly learn to appreciate its deeper qualities.