By: Jason Woosey
Stellenbosch, Western Cape - Renault has introduced what is by far the world's coolest duster.
Forget that mind-numbing housework, this one likes to play in the countryside and not a single feather was used in its construction. Instead the Renault Duster is a solid and macho-looking chunk of metal with bulging wheel arches, rearing to take on the C-segment crossover/SUV world.
This segment is fast becoming the new kind of 'family car' for South Africans.
In fact Renault SA's marketing man Fabien Payzan had no shame in comparing the new Duster to practical favourites like the Chevrolet Cruze and Toyota Corolla during its local launch presentation in Cape Town. When asked why he wasn't instead comparing the new Rugged Renault to the crossover vehicles in its price range - Ford EcoSport and Nissan Juke - Payzan's retort was that it would be like comparing a Megane to a Clio.
The 4.3-metre-long Renault Duster is about the same size as the Nissan Qashqai, yet it sells for the price of a Juke - ranging from a 4x2 petrol at R194 900 to a 4x4 diesel at R239 900 - and the Duster is rather decent off the beaten track too, but we'll get to that later.
So how exactly did Renault keep the costs down?
Payzan later explained to me that it was designed using as few 'new and unique' parts as possible. To save on R&D costs and maximise efficiencies of scale, they basically raided the existing Renault and (alliance partner) Nissan parts bins for whatever they could, although the Duster did get its own unique body panels.
Hop into the cabin and you'll see a strong family resemblance to other Dacia-based models like the Sandero and here's where the Duster starts to show some of its cost-cutting. The surfaces are hard and scratchy while overall tactile quality is below the segment norm. Even the ergonomic package feels out of date, as the steering wheel is not adjustable for reach and the audio and ventilation controls are placed relatively low.
The duster is well-appointed, however. The baseline Expression gives you air conditioning, CD/MP3/USB audio system, electric windows and mirrors, rear parking sensors, ABS as well as front and head/thorax (front) side airbags.
The remaining models wear the Dynamique badge, which brings 16-inch alloys, satin chrome exterior embellishments, a touch screen audio interface with navigation and some shiny black interior garnishes.
In line with the design brief, the cabin is spacious enough for five, with generous head room, decent rear legroom and a rather big 475 litre boot.
The two most affordable models are fitted with Renault's 1.6-litre 16-valve normally aspirated petrol engine, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox and rated at 75kW and 145Nm. The claimed combined consumption figure is 7.5 l/100km.
Yet Renault feels the big seller in the range will be its new 1.5 dCi turbodiesel, which makes its debut in the SA Renault range. Incidentally, Renault is very proud of the fact that its engine is also fitted to the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, through another alliance.
This technologically snazzy motor is fitted with a variable-geometry, low inertia turbocharger for lag-free pull-offs and at full blast it pushes 80kW and 240Nm - from 1750rpm in the 4x4 and 2250rpm in the 4x2. Claimed consumption is between 5.5 and 5.3 l/100km, but the downside is that it only cares to sip 50ppm low-sulphur diesel.
Both diesel models come with a six-speed manual 'box, but the 4x4’s one has a very low first gear ratio, which works wonders for slope creeping off the beaten track, but the gearing set-up also means that second is like first, third like second and so forth and it takes some time to become accustomed to it on the road.
The Western Cape launch route allowed us to put the Duster through its paces in a variety of conditions. On the open road the diesel motor proved pleasantly punchy throughout the rev range and cruised quietly enough at highway speeds, while the ride quality was decent on both tar and dirt. There was a fair amount of body roll though.
The route eventually brought us to a relatively challenging 'medium' off road course, where the Duster crept over obstacles and up and down slopes with ease. This is because, while raiding the parts bin, Renault's engineers were smart enough to poach the Nissan X-Trails four-wheel drive system, which offers three modes: 2WD for economy, Auto for slippery conditions and 4WD Lock for off-road trails where a permanent split of power between the front and rear wheels is required.
This is a truly versatile vehicle and one that's likely to achieve success on the sales charts. It might be a tad rough around the edges in places, given that it was built to a cost, yet the Duster should ultimately impress its potential buyers as a rugged wagon that offers a lot of practicality and features for the money.
1.6 Expression 4x2 - R194 900
1.6 Dynamique 4x2 - R204 900
1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x2 - R219 900
1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4 - R239 900
Prices include a three-year/45 000km service plan and five-year/150 000km warranty and Renault insists that the Duster’s parts pricing is extremely competitive.