The new Renault Duster: so much nice for the price
This handsome SUV offers serious value, impressive fuel consumption and all-wheel drive capability
Ah, the new Renault Duster. I always liked the old one
So did I, believe it or not. Launched locally in 2013 and cobbled together from a smorgasbord of obsolete Renault parts (the chassis apparently dates back to Clio models of generations past), the Duster is a solid, no-nonsense SUV that offers a lot of space, practicality and capability. Though six years in the automotive world is an eternity in this age (probably on a par with dog years), which is why Renault recently unleashed this new second-generation model upon our shores.
Though those well-proven underpinnings of old remain, the new Duster cuts a sleeker and more upmarket silhouette. According to the media bumf, every body panel is different. While the front end looks wider and more sculpted, the biggest single improvement has been at the rear, where the taillights (once upright) have morphed into neater, square-shaped units.
Other highlights include a handsome new radiator grille, flashy LED daytime running lights, plus front and rear skid plates. It's a good-looking machine - one almost at odds with its modest pricetag.
What of the interior? The cabin of the previous Duster wasn't all that…
Indeed. It's always easy to criticise an outgoing model but I've got to say the innards of the old car were cheap and certainly not cheerful. Though still not skinned in any soft-touch material, the dashboard doing duty in the new Duster is a big improvement both in terms of appearance and ergonomics. Yep, it no longer feels like you're sitting behind repurposed takeaway cartons.
The seats (optionally leather covered here in my middle-of-the-range Dynamique) offer better support and are noticeably more comfortable on longer drives, the jaunt from Cape Town to Montagu proving an absolute cinch.
FAST FACTS: Renault Duster 1.5 dCI Dynamique 4x4
• ENGINE: 1461cc turbodiesel
• POWER: 80kW at 4000rpm
• TORQUE: 260Nm at 1750rpm
• TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual
• 0-100KM/H: 12.5-seconds (claimed)
• TOP SPEED: 168km/h (claimed)
• FUEL: 5.4l/100km (achieved combined)
• PRICE: From R327,900
Equipment-wise, Renault has been quite generous and you'll find a smart seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system that offers everything from Apple CarPlay and Bluetooth audio streaming right on through to a special 4x4 monitor and "MultiView" camera system. The latter allows you to monitor the ground not just in the front and rear of the vehicle but on the sides too - actually quite handy when you're tackling tight urban parking spaces or more rugged country terrain.
There's also cruise control, automatic climate control and satellite navigation.
Downsides? Well, as I alluded to before, the quality of some of the interior plastics is still a little disappointing - especially when you poke around the boot or take a closer look at the door cards. The headlight leveler switch is actuated via an old-fashioned cable, which also smacks of cost cutting.
So what motors can I pair this bad boy up with?
For the time being, the new Duster is available with a choice of two engines: a gutless naturally aspirated 1.6-litre petrol engine and 1.5-litre turbodiesel that's been in just about every Renault-Nissan product made in the past 100 years. In my mind it's the only one worth speccing as it provides a good blend of performance and frugality. While lesser Duster models can be had with a six-speed automatic gearbox, the diesel-powered 4x4 version that I had on test is available exclusively with a six-speed manual.
Though first gear is ridiculously short (apparently for the purposes of traversing tricksy off-road terrain) it's nice enough to use and provides reasonably long legs when cruising on the highway. Fuel consumption proved impressive as a result and I was able to average 5.4l/100km over 420km of driving - figures that will make your wallet smile.
How does it drive?
Is the Duster memorable? No. Does it excite and encourage you to floor it when faced with one of the many epic mountain passes that litter the Western Cape? Not in the slightest. Across the asphalt it's a safe and predictable SUV that prioritises comfort and ease of use over any form of dynamism.
As such, the electric power steering is overly light and the suspension has been set up to be as compliant as possible. Though at times I felt the Renault engineers could have done a better job of this as the Duster often feels somewhat oversprung and underdamped, depending on the road. In English, this means you're crashing over one surface, then floating over the next, which can get disconcerting.
Unlike with most test cars I receive, I was able to take this one off the beaten path and explore some of the lonely tracks that litter the Karoo countryside in and around Montagu. Though not marketed as a serious bundu-basher, the Duster still offers fairly decent off-road performance thanks to a combination of good ground clearance (210mm) and fairly aggressive approach/departure angles (30 and 34 degrees respectively).
You can switch from two- to four-wheel drive on the fly and there's even hill descent control for those especially steep drop-offs. So for my lazy, late-afternoon crawl through the Karoo scrub littered with quartz beds and loose gravel, the Duster proved more than proficient.
So you'd recommend one?
You're damn right I would. For the money, the Renault Duster 1.5 dCI Dynamique 4x4 represents some serious value. Even more so when you factor in how much more dough you're coughing up for rivals such as the Ford EcoSport and Hyundai Creta - SUVs that may have a tad more refinement but definitely not the cross-country capability that the all-wheel-drive Duster delivers.
You're getting a tried-and-tested recipe here with the Renault: an end product that belies its fairly rudimentary ingredients to leave you with a taste that's surprisingly satisfying.
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