By now you will have realised that I quite like cars that are not styled like the rest of the segment competitors. I like the odd stuff, the quirky stuff, and in many cases, the underdog. Renault's Duster falls into the quirky category for me. The styling is a little strange and the metallic brown paintwork helps accentuate this. When I first saw that the Renault Duster was coming to SA I did a bit of research on it and was rather keen to see one in the metal. When I finally did get up close to one it was better (to me anyway) than the write ups suggested. I saw one at a local dealership and had a good inspection session, but didn't take it for a test drive because it was the entry level one and I really wanted to try the diesel variant.
So while the Renault Duster has been around for about a year now, I jumped at the opportunity given to me by Renault SA to have one on test. I had to see for myself if it was as good on the road and in the veld as the many reviews I'd read. After all, there has to have been a good reason it was shortlisted to be a finalist in the 2015 SA Car Of The Year competition. While I know the judging criteria for the competition is fierce, I was still rooting for the Duster to take the win because in my head with a much more simplified set of rules, I thought the Duster ticked all the right boxes. As you know, it didn't win, but out of all the new cars that hit the market and were eligible for the competition it did great to beat them to that final selection.
Within minutes of the Duster being delivered it was packed and on the highway headed for Bloemfontein, nothing like a bit of a road trip to get the feel for a car. I was originally going to take one of the other press cars but I was so eager to get behind the wheel of the Renault Duster that a last minute decision was inevitable. The fuel range told me the Duster had already covered around 200km and the on board trip computer estimated 627km was left. That figure only started to drop after I passed the first toll gate out of Jo'burg, impressive. Keeping a constant (legal) highway speed through to the OFS with the odd overtaking manoeuvre here and there requiring a little extra throttle input (without needing to gear down I might add) saw the fuel consumption at 13.3km/litre. That's pretty damn good! I only needed to refuel at the first gas station on the return trip from Bloem...
The Renault Duster 1.5dCi Dynamique is fitted with a new generation K9K powerplant that's down on size by 400cc on it's predecessor but the improved efficiency allows for the same power output of 80kW. The motor has a typically diesel-esque torque figure of 240Nm at just 1 750rpm (specific to the 4x4 variant, it's over 2000rpm on the other models). This model is fitted with a manual 6-speed gearbox and it's pretty good. There are special ratios on the 4x4 version - the 1st gear is quite short, which when coupled to the electronic 4x4 engagement works similar to a low range gear in a conventional 4x4 setup. There's so much low down torque that you could easily stick to pulling off in 2nd most times, only really needing 1st on steep uphill starts. I still liked first gear though because the turbo kick is fun and has you swapping cogs as if you're in a hot hatch and trying to break speed records.
The Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4 is pretty capable off the beaten track, but sadly Bloemfontein is pretty flat barring Naval Hill, which is where I took the photos. I was hoping to find a 4x4 trail of sorts heading up the hill, but even the only hill in Bloemfontein is, well, flat too. Corrugated sand roads were not a problem and I did take the Duster over a few obstacles that most vehicles would have struggled with, so it's definitely capable. Also, I've watched plenty videos of a Duster doing pretty extreme 4x4 courses so I know the car should definitely be classed as more than a soft-roader. It has ground clearance of 210mm and a decent 30-degree approach angle and a 36-degree departure angle. With a wheelbase that's not too long it's quite manoeuverable. Steering is a little heavy at slower speeds but I learned to drive in a Mk1 Golf and so that didn't phase me.
On the sand road I had to swerve for a critter that ran out in front of me. I was doing around 70km/h and the road was wide so I opted for the swerve move instead of the drive over it approach. I could feel the ESP mess around with the braking of the wheels and the Duster remained perfectly composed, which was pretty cool. I think the furry little bugger appreciated it a bit more than I did though. Actually, come to think of it, I could have driven over it because it was about the size of a well-fed rat and about three times as long, but still...
The Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4 is equipped with a Nissan-derived, intuitive 4WD control system that adapts to all situations and also lets you choose between three modes: 2WD for roads with good grip conditions with the power and torque sent only to the front wheels - AUTO for slippery road surfaces whereby the system will detect wheelspin and automatically distribute the power and torque to where it's needed to help maintain traction - LOCK for when you kick down offroad, this setting puts the Duster in a permanent 4WD mode for when you feel like playing around.
I chucked myself straight in the deep end with the Renault Duster by opting to take it on a long drive straight off the bat. What if 30 minutes into the 4-hour stretch I wasn't comfortable? Well I was, the cabin is a pleasant place to be. It's not a luxury spec inside and it doesn't try to be. I'd describe things as being hardy - which is great for a car that's going to get very dirty inside after a day of bundu bashing. The seats are good and the position can be adjusted up and down too, and along with and adjustable steering height, anyone can get comfortable. The on board trip computer gives you all the info you'd need, my only gripe is that when you power down and back on again it defaults to the mileage instead of staying on the display chosen. The infotainment system is good, it's intuitive and has all the bases covered. The navigation gave me the same directions and distances as my Garmin except for one instruction where it got a little confused and the upcoming route looked like a twig and berries (I kid you not) when the Garmin indicated the next left turn. Most of the way to Bloem my kid streamed music from his phone via Bluetooth and it played great, the OEM sound system is actually rather good.
The space is great, I'm not tall of course, but when we went up Naval Hill I had a packed car and my three passengers were all over 6-foot and they also commented on the available space being better than it looked from the exterior. The boot is sizeable and if by any chance you need any more space the rear seats fold down allowing the loading of multiple bodies. Bags, multiple bags.
I didn't want to like the Renault Duster as much as I did thanks to my well-known allegiance to the Suzuki Jimny. It lacks the character of the Jimny and on a proper technical off road course it would struggle to keep up, but in every other way it's better. On road stability, speed and power, fuel consumption, specifications and features. Yeah, there is a R45k difference but a demo Duster could easily be had for the same or less money. It's also hard to convince the missus on the Jimny when I keep getting press cars priced similar that are loaded with tech and spec. So yeah, this damn Duster now has me torn. When I'm ready to buy again I'm gonna have to take a good hard look at the market. If you're in the market for an affordable, go-anywhere family car, the Renault Duster should be on your test car list. Renault SA also have special offers on many of their cars quite often, so keep an eye on www.renault.co.za. There are a couple of things that the car needed and that could have been better. Cruise control would have been a great option, but I guess there are aftermarket options available. The car locks as you pull off which is great of course, but once you stop and take the key out of the ignition, you'd expect it to unlock again like so many other cars do, but you have to reach across and unlock the car via a button in the centre console. The steering wheel does it's job, but a meatier one would be better, it's quite thin. The driver's window switch doesn't have a one-touch function, which is odd. These are just niggles that can be overlooked and come down to personal preference I guess.
The Renault Duster has a bunch of customisation options for the interior and exterior of his or her vehicle - Styling, Touring, Adventurer and Protection Packs are available. I've seen a few kitted oned with the Duster star logo on the front doors and they look great. The Duster range starts at R213 900-00 and the one tested here, the 1.5dCi Dynamique 4x4 is the daddy of the range and comes in at R269 900-00. That also gets you a 5-year/150 000km warranty, a 3-year/45 000km service plan (service intervals are at 15 000km) and a 6-year anti-corrosion warranty