The Duster is a no-nonsense, good value for money all-rounder.
The Duster is a no-nonsense, good value for money all-rounder.
The SUV has a boxy, old school macho look about it.
The SUV has a boxy, old school macho look about it.
Duster cabin has more hard than soft surfaces.
Duster cabin has more hard than soft surfaces.

ROAD TEST: Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4

I know, it’s not pretty. But, to be honest, I like the square and industrial face of Renault’s new Duster.

The look starts to make sense when you consider that it’s really a Dacia, a Romanian brand which started providing transport to the Eastern bloc as far back as 1966. The French firm bought Dacia at the turn of the century and gave the formerly cheap-and-nasty brand a major build-quality injection.

That said, the Romanian connection represents the budget side of Renault’s business and like the Logan and Sandero – which also carry Dacia bloodlines – the Duster has a more basic and utilitarian feel, along with a more attractive pricetag, than Renault’s regular cars.

So, yes, I dig that boxy, old school macho fascade with the garish grille and chunky wheel arches – but I can fully understand why some, especially the fairer sex, wouldn’t be caught dead in the thing.

AFFORDABLE PRICE TAG

Appearance aside, it’s more about affordability and practicality. With pricing starting at just R194 900 for the 1.6-litre petrol Duster Expression 4x2 and ending with the range-topping 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4x4 at a very competitive R239 900 (the one on test here), you can understand why smaller crossover/SUV buyers are raising an eyebrow or two.

In terms of size, think Qashqai, while in terms of underpinnings think Logan, Sandero and Nissan Juke – a mish-mash of the parts bin really thanks to the Nissan-Renault alliance.

As fate would have it I got out of a Juke and into a Duster, and can tell you that the pair feel about as related as I am to the royal family. Ride quality, comfort, handling, and noise and vibration levels are all very different – let’s just say this crossover has a more earthy and basic feel going for it.

LOW-RENT CABIN

The cabin, even in the range-topping Duster version, offers more hard than soft surfaces, switchgear not too dissimilar to that found in the Logan and Sandero (the touchscreen satnav/audio in our range-topper was cool though), a steering with no reach adjustment, doors that feel tinny, and a driver’s seat that won’t lower.

There are some annoying nuances too – like the hooter which works from a stalk instead of the steering wheel; the consumption reading in kilometres per litre (not litres per km); and the high-pitched, cheap-sounding indicator buzzer.

The boot is decently sized, but the shelf lid is of the flimsy kind. The central-locking is a bit odd too, in that once locked it won’t simply unlock when you try to open the door – you have to hit the button on the centre console or you’re locked in.

DECENT DIESEL MOTOR

To its credit, though, is that the turbodiesel engine, producing 80kW and 240Nm, is rather entertaining to drive. It’s punchy and offers little of that unwelcome turbo lag.

Believe it or not, this is the same engine you’ll find in the new Mercedes-Benz A-Class range (Mercedes and Nissan-Renault have a technology partnership) and, unlike the rest of the Duster package, the powerplant’s a very modern offering.

Its technology includes a variable-geometry and low-inertia turbocharger (for those lag-free pull-offs I mentioned earlier).

DODGY GEAR RATIOS

It’s a pity then that Renault didn’t grab some gear-ratio tips from Merc as, although mechanically the six-speed gearbox is easy on your left hand, the gearing leaves a lot to be desired. First gear in this 4x4 version is strictly low-range, irrespective of you not being in any sort of offroad mode. After the first few tries you tend to take off in second whenever possible.

The ratio problem compounds itself through the rest of the gears too, meaning all the cogs are generally short and much stirring becomes mandatory for city and suburban cruising. Not to mention that the power band on its own is quite narrow.

All this activity doesn’t help consumption much either. The manufacturer claims around 5.5l/100km, our test car returned closer to 7.9 – and take note, this Duster runs on low-sulphur 50ppm only.

MUG-PLUGGER

There’s no brain surgery involved in dust-busting in the 4x4 derivative, which gets its offroad capability from the Nissan X-Trail. A simple little knob lets you dial up 2WD or 4WD depending on how seriaas you’re getting, or leave it in Auto – which is basically adult supervision mode and will tweak traction to wheels as the surface conditions require.

We put the Duster through a few dongas at our test facility, and though it’s generally very capable we did notice that ground clearance at the front can become an issue, with the front axle catching on the odd obstacle. But for the C-segment it competes in I reckon this rugged Romanian is more than a capable dirt-dueller.

VERDICT

If you can live with the looks and the cheaper finishes, the Duster offers solid rand value and reasonable offroad cred. It also feels fairly well built and it should go the distance. It’s a softroader that grows on you with time, and it stands out from the crowd, which we like.

Follow me on Twitter: @mineshbhagaloo