Renault has hit the nail on the head with an SUV that looks more swanky than its price tag and is coming up trumps against rivals
Words: Stephen Smith
Pictures: Stephen Smith and supplied
I don’t know if any of you follow the South African Car of the Year competition, but those who do will have seen that Porsche has won for the last two years. While there’s no doubt that Porsche makes some of the world’s best vehicles, the competition is missing the mark if such an exclusive sports car can come out trumps. If it were up to me, first prize would go to something attainable to Everyman. Something practical that you’ll see on the road all over the country, and something that causes an excited flutter in the local media and motoring industry. Something like Renault’s new Duster SUV.
Why is the Duster exciting? Well, these days almost everyone wants to drive an SUV, but they’re expensive, both to buy and to run. Aren’t they? That’s where the Duster creates its maelstrom of interest. For the price of a relatively small hatchback or sedan you can have a spacious SUV with an all-wheel drive powertrain and a turbodiesel engine, and even a few luxury features.
The closest rival is the Suzuki Jimny – an incredible off-road klipspringer that is too small and too limited as a long-range vehicle to be a direct alternative. Another is the Daihatsu Terios, but it doesn’t come in diesel and also feels like a smaller car, especially on the open road. Ford’s EcoSport is a popular new rival, but it is more of an urban runabout than the rugged Duster.
Look at the Duster’s price and you might think it’ll be short of features, but even the entry level 1.6 Expression 4×2 comes standard with air conditioning, a CD/MP3/USB audio system, electric windows and mirrors, rear parking sensors, ABS braking and four airbags. All the other models come in Dynamique trim, which means they also get a decent touch-screen system with navigation, 16-inch alloy wheels and some chrome exterior trim.
In terms of hardware, only two engines are available, both using six-speed manual gearboxes. The petrol model is a 1.6ℓ that produces 75kW and 145Nm and uses a claimed 7.5ℓ/100km. The other option is a 1.5ℓ turbodiesel good for 80kW and 240Nm, and uses just 5.5ℓ/100km. This diesel engine is used around the world in Renaults, Nissans and even, hard to believe, the new Mercedes A-Class. It is the only diesel engine available with the 4×4 system, and is undoubtedly the pick of the range.
From a few reviews I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to, I’ve learnt that some seem to think the Duster is an SUV in name only and shouldn’t leave the safety of decent roads. The all-wheel drive Duster, however, is a proper SUV, and to prove this to myself I took it to a fairly rugged mountain track that I use for exactly this reason.
The Duster’s 4×4 system comes straight from the Nissan X-Trail, which means that it’s a tried and tested part-time system. A dial dictates power delivery, with the option of two-wheel drive, auto (where the vehicle senses a loss of traction and sends power where its needed) and 4×4 lock, where all four wheels get down to the nitty gritty. The Duster doesn’t have low-range, but neither do any of its competitors and while the ground clearance (210mm) isn’t game changing, it’s as good as you’ll get in this category.
But Renault has been canny – the first gear in the six-speed transmission has been made very short, which helps the driver to maintain control off road, and also prevents clutch damage at slow speeds. As I bumped down my alpine path, this first gear came in mighty useful. And when I got to slippery rock patches the traction control pretended the car had a limited slip diff and we carried on regardless. On one occasion I got two wheels off the ground and the vehicle wouldn’t go any further, but another attempt with a bit more momentum got us through. It was an impressive show.
So the Duster is good off road. That’s handy for those of us who will use it, but what is much, much more important is just how good it is on gravel roads. This is what pushed me off the fence and into Renault’s backyard. The Duster is outstandingly comfortable and stable on gravel and, as on tar, there is little noise and few rattles. It really does live up to its name and the hype around it.
Renault has hit the nail firmly on the flat bit with the Duster. They’ve spent money where it needed to be spent, and they’ve saved money where they could. The result is a vehicle that feels far more expensive and spacious than its price tag and so comes up trumps against its rivals.
One of the biggest reasons why the Duster is so affordable is that Renault hasn’t had to start from scratch in building it. They’ve gone through the entire Renault and Nissan range and scavenged whatever parts they could to use in the Duster. Research and development costs were slashed and this saving passed on to the buyer. The 1.5 diesel engine has been used in a number of Renaults and Nissans. Then there’s the X-Trail 4×4 system, and there are even major mechanical pieces from the Nissan Murano in there. It’s a winning formula that has allowed Renault to serve up an SUV at a price point where other manufacturers have delivered sedans and hatches. And for me, the choice is an easy one.
For R200 000 you can buy a Duster 1.6 petrol 4×2, while the most expensive model is the 1.5 dCi 4×4 at R250 000. All models come with a 5-year/150 000km warranty for peace of mind and a 3-year/45 000km service plan.