ROAD TEST: Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x2
Park it next to the usual 'soft-roader' suspects such as the Toyota RAV4, VW Tiguan and friends, and the Renault Duster looks like it's about to beat them up.
If it was a person, you wouldn't catch it dead in front of a mirror fussing about moisturisers and hair styles, instead it would be heard banging tools around and welding something in the shed.
If nothing else, this Renault/Dacia product brings macho style back to the compact SUV crowd.
The other interesting fact about the Duster is that it's quite affordable for its size. It's cheaper than a Nissan Juke, yet it's about the same size as a Qashqai - identical in length but slightly wider, to be precise.
This has been achieved largely through some prudent 'parts recycling' - and I'm not saying for one minute that it's built from second hand parts. The Renault Duster is a product shared with its own budget brand Dacia and in creating it, the company raided the Renault-Nissan alliance's parts bin with the aim of cutting tooling costs by using existing bits and pieces rather than designing new ones. It did at least get its own unique body panels though.
Hop into the cabin and you'll see fragments of previous-generation Kangoo panel van and Renault Sandero. The surfaces have a hard and scratchy, yet sturdy, feel to them and there are a few ergonomic annoyances, such as a steering wheel that doesn't adjust for reach, electric windows that have no one-touch function and a stalk-activated hooter.
Never mind, you'll get used to all that and let's look on the bright side - it's really spacious in here. There's loads of headroom, enough space for three in the back and the boot should have no trouble devouring your next holiday's over-packing spree, with its 475 litre capacity.
It'll also help you find your way around. Unlike many German cars, Renault won't charge you more than a tenth of the car's price just to have navigation - in fact it's standard on the 1.5 dCi Dynamique featured here, as part of a modern touch-screen infotainment system. While we're on comfort features, the Duster has all the basics, such as air conditioning, rear parking sensors and remote central locking but there's nothing indulgent or extravagant in here.
Clearly, its utilitarian nature shines through the exterior and cabin, but is it a proper SUV? In the strictest terms, not quite, but it does form something of a bridge between the soft and hard off-roaders if you buy the 4x4 version. This one inherits its capable all-wheel drive system from the Nissan X-Trail and it has a first gear ratio that feels like something of a half-hearted low-range ratio - which is a lot better than having no low range at all, I concluded after slogging it over some obstacles on the vehicle's SA launch last year. Only trouble with the 4x4 is that you have to learn to pull off in second gear when driving on ordinary roads.
There are no such issues with the 4x2 version on test here, which also has a six-speed manual but with conventional ratios that won't challenge your daily driving habits. Its 205mm ground clearance is also relatively high for a so-called soft-roader.
Perhaps I'm guilty of leaving the best for last, but the real gem in this equation is the 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine, which is a Renault creation but which Mercedes-Benz feels is good enough to fit to its latest A-Class. It's a modern little unit complete with a variable-geometry turbocharger, but bear in mind that it only has a taste for 50ppm diesel.
Its outputs of 80kW and 240Nm might sound a little on the tame side for pulling a reasonably sized SUV, but I must say that this Duster dCi has enough oomph. It pulls off the mark with virtually no lag and it'll hold its own on the open road and up hills. Economy is rather decent too, with the test unit having returned 6.5 litres per 100km on a lengthy highway journey.
The Duster is the rough 'n ready character in the compact SUV plot, the one that's not afraid to get its fingernails dirty.
Yes, it feels a bit rudimentary in places, but it's still a solid and spacious vehicle with a gem of an engine, if you opt for the diesel. It's also cheaper than other vehicles that it competes with in size.
But if you're buying this for any other reason than its 'macho' style then you'll probably want to go off the beaten track from time to time, in which case the surprisingly capable 4x4 version, which costs about R20 000 more, makes the most sense.
Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x2
Engine: 1.5-litre, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Gearbox: Six-speed manual
Power: 80kW @ 3900rpm
Torque: 240Nm @ 2250rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 11.8 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 171km/h
Consumption (claimed): 5.5 litres per 100km
Price: R229 900
Warranty: Five-year/150 000km
Service plan: Three-year/45 000km