Wolodymyr the Dacia Duster in Bender, Transnistria.
Our 10 countries in 10 days in a Dacia Logan epic adventure was such a hit with you BSCB readers that Dacia Romania agreed to lend me a Duster for 18 days in September 2019, well before COVID-19 travel restrictions temporarily put an end to such travels. And I thought what better time than now to start dreaming of future voyages with this new odyssey? Why the Duster? Simply because, sold under the Renault, Dacia and Nissan brands, it is one of the best-selling SUVs worldwide (#10 in 2019 with 413.000 units to be exact), and the 2nd most popular SUV in Europe. Last August, the Duster even peaked at a stunning 2nd European place overall below just the VW Golf. That’s the highest ranking ever hit by an SUV in Europe with the VW Tiguan which also ranked #2 one month earlier (July 2019). And last but not least, according to BSCB data the Duster is also the most popular Renault Group vehicle worldwide, toppling both the Sandero and Clio for 2019. If the Logan was the precursor to Dacia’s success in Western Europe, the Duster has managed to make its way towards the top of the booming SUV segment in less than a decade. Given this test drive happened after Vance the Toyota RAV4, we’ll name our Duster Wolodymir which is Ukrainian spelling for Vladimir – although my Ukrainian tour guide had something to say about that as we’ll see in Part 2…
Our playground for this test drive and Part 1 itinerary
Although exploring 10 countries in just 10 days in the Balkans with the Dacia Logan was a challenge, all-in-all “only” 4076 km (2530 mi) were driven over that itinerary. I want to push it a lot further with the Duster, with the country count still at 10 but a much bigger adventure in store. Like last year, we start from Dacia’s headquarters in Bucharest, Romania but this time the objective is to travel into countries around the Black Sea in a large loop of almost 9000 km (5600 mi). First heading north to Moldova, Transnistria, Ukraine and Belarus, then south across the Black Sea and east to Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and finally west to Turkey, Bulgaria and back to Romania. Border crossing are sure to be a lot trickier during this trip and the Black Sea crossing can only be done via a cargo ship ferry that only operates twice a week… Some fun ahead indeed. Our itinerary for Part 1 of this trip takes us from Bucharest through the eastern countryside of Romania, to the capital of Moldova Chisinau then to the mysterious and non-recognised “country” of Transnistria, a fascinating Soviet time warp.
Suicidal Romanian roads and a happy Apple CarPlay surprise in the Duster.
As it was already the case for the Logan last year, Dacia did things well with the Duster I am driving which is the top of the range 1.5 dCi 110 4×4 Prestige. In France, it is available for 19.550€ (US$ 21.200) which, although the highest possible price to pay for a Duster, is still extremely reasonable and leaves the nameplate without true new SUV competitors in Europe, bar perhaps the Suzuki Vitara. This variant offers auto air con, rear view camera and a touch screen featuring GPS navigation across a much longer list of countries than the Logan (even including the Caribbean French island of… Martinique) but no Moldova! Thankfully, the Prestige variant also comes with Apple CarPlay so Google Maps it will be for the entire trip. First impressions taking the wheel of the Duster in Bucharest: it does feel like an SUV – not a car on stilts – and the vehicle seems to me quite a lot larger than I expected, in a good way. The sound system is outstanding, and although the 6 speed manual gearbox is well levelled – head and shoulders above the screaming Logan gearbox, the 1st and 2nd gears are a little abrupt and the car is a little pushy in 5th. As expected, the Romanian countryside features all generations of Dacia Logan including quite a few 2004 first gens kept in pristine condition, as well as a surprising amount of Dokker vans. The Dacia Pickup (pictured above) is also well represented. But the main “attraction” of this part of the world is a weird and extremely dangerous 2 x 1.5 lane road (pictured above), with most cars driving across the right lane and the embankment and overtaking ones launching themselves right across the middle marking in the hope no one will come full frontal. It takes a bit of getting used to to say the least.
Our Dacia Duster staying at the Hotel Dacia in Chisinau, Moldova. Of course.
After being asked for the “passport for my car” (aka green card insurance and ownership papers) by a smiling border officer who only really wanted to inquire my opinion about the new Duster, we are now in Moldova, population 2.7 million. Part of the Principality of Moldavia for 500 years, this landlocked country became known as Bessarabia in 1812 and has oscillated between Russian and Romanian rule over the following 180 years. The Russians dominated from 1812 to 1856, from 1878 to 1918 and from 1940 to 1991, and was part of Romania from 1856 to 1878 and from 1919 to 1940 although disputed by Soviet Russia during the latter period, before declaring independence in 1991. The Dacia Logan has been the best-selling vehicle in Moldova for at least the past decade, but in the capital Chisinau I rarely saw any private Logans, most of them being taxis. The Moldovan car park is very fragmented, with no one car standing out. Among new ones the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage and Suzuki Vitara are relatively frequent but I was surprised by the amount of Audi, BMW and Mercedes recent used SUVs (pictured). The Lada Niva is overwhelming in the countryside. Everyone I was in contact with in Chisinau was constantly smiling, from the hotel receptionist, to the restaurant waiters and service station pump operators. Really great to see. I couldn’t resist staying at the aptly named Hotel Dacia in Chisinau, and it didn’t disappoint by displaying all the expected soviet touches including elevator buttons that push in and noisily clang out when you reach your floor. Where’s the KGB hiding?
Welcome to Transnistria, the country that doesn’t really exist.
Now to the most fascinating section of our Part 1: Transnistria. Never heard of it? Don’t panic, I only discovered it the night before driving through it thanks to the Lonely Planet… Transnistria, population 1/2 million, officially the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) is a breakaway state in eastern Moldova between the river Dniester and the Ukrainian border. Transnistria has only been recognised by three other mostly non-recognised states: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Artsakh, these four entities being post-Soviet “frozen conflict” zones. Don’t believe me that this is a different country? Well wait for it: the border crossing (pictured above) is real, the additional road tax I had to pay on top of the Moldovan one to spend four hours in the country is very real, there is a local currency and the cars have different licence plates… What the heck happened here? After tensions between Moldova and the breakaway Transnistrian territory escalated into a military conflict in 1992, a ceasefire appointed a Joint Control Commission composed of Moldova, Transnistria and… Russia (not neighbouring Ukraine) to supervise security arrangements, but the territory’s political status remains unresolved to this day. Transnistria is an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, constitution, flag, national anthem, military, police, postal system, currency and vehicle registration, and considers its birth to be in 1990 (see above billboard).
Wolodymyr visits Transnistria.
In the border tax container-office, large “Stop Corruption!” signs encouraging “Dear travellers” to “immediately inform the Hotline in case of inducing to bribery by Pridnestrovian customs officers” are placated right above the aforementioned officers. If you ask me, the mandatory road tax amounts to bribery as it becomes obvious as you drive in that not a single cent was ever spent maintaining the roads of this country… Entering Transnistria is like travelling back in time to – what I assume would have been – the late Soviet Union, and driving through the capital Tiraspol is one of the strangest experiences I ever had. Time literally stopped in 1990, complete with Soviet-style large and seemingly empty buildings, oversized avenues and Lenine statues along with, as we’ll see below, the large majority of the car park. It is the only country in the world still using the hammer and sickle on its flag and these symbols are still very common in Tiraspol. Everything is written in Cyrillic contrary to the rest of Moldova, people dress and look like Russians which are the largest ethnic group in the country (34%) – not Moldovans. In fact many Transnistrians also have Russian citizenship, yet Transnistria isn’t recognised by Russia! Don’t ask. The first main town I cross is Bender, and the only sign in English is “Sheriff” which I naively thought would be the Police Station but after seeing one at almost every corner I realised this is the main supermarket chain in the country, yet this is an insignia I wouldn’t never see again during this entire trip.
Transnistria car park: a sea of Ladas, Moskvitch and Volgas and a… Tesla?
As was to be expected in this time-warped Soviet country, Lada is the language every Transnistrian speaks, with legions of Zhiguli sedans of each of the past four decades swarming the city streets and an army of Niva 4×4 dominating the countryside. But that’s not all: the Moskvitch 2141 pictured atop the pictures above, launched in 1986, is a frequent sight as are the Moskvitch 2140 (1975), the GAZ Volga station wagon (1972) and most recent sedan (1985) as well as the UAZ Hunter (2002). I didn’t see any totally new vehicles during the time I visited, notably no Dacia Logan or Duster even though they are the best-sellers in Moldova in 2019, but I did spot one Tesla Model S registered in Transnistria (pictured above)! Also common are Audi 80, 100 and BMW 5 Series from the eighties, likely imported from Germany via Albania (?). The most recent vehicles I saw were a handful of Hyundai Genesis and Sonata such as the one pictured above, with the Tiraspol licence plate system having progressed to T 865 MX by September 2019. Travelling east towards the Ukrainian border, the poor road conditions resume with pot holes, moss and cracks: it does feel like driving on an abandoned road. Where did my road tax money go? But as I already witnessed in the Logan last year, Dacia vehicles are made for bad roads and I hardly notice any bump, a testimony to the Duster’s handling whereas the cars I overtake can only slowly creep up to avoid to breaking under the staggered road.
Next we go from strange to stranger as we next visit Chernobyl in Ukraine… Stay tuned!