Johannesburg - The thing that makes the Duster stand out for us, among today’s sea of trying-to-be-flashy compact crossovers and SUVs, is its rugged and unpretentious approach to life, with an affordable-for-its-size price tag to match.

But further to that it also bucks today’s trends by offering a four-wheel drive option at the top of the range that’s genuinely geared for offroad driving.

Granted, it’s not a hardcore offroader like the Suzuki Jimny, Jeep Wrangler or any of the 4x4 bakkies and their SUV cousins. It’s built around a car-like monocoque rather than a ladder frame and there are no fancy transfer cases and rear differential locks.

And yet Renault has put some effort into creating a decent offroader on a budget - right down to a six-speed manual gearbox with an extremely low-ratio first gear, essentially designed to mimic low-range as closely as possible.

Being a hodgepodge of mostly amortised bits and pieces from the Renault-Nissan Alliance parts bin, the Duster 4WD also inherited an all-wheel drive system from the Nissan X-Trail.

Our extended test over the December holiday period saw us take the Duster 1.5 dCi 4WD from Gauteng to the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast and back, but after returning we felt more than a little guilty for not having taken it off the beaten track.

Without further ado the Duster found itself tackling some rugged terrain at The Wedge Outdoor Park in Muldersdrift.

The owner Warrick told us his course would be suited to the Duster, which has a ground clearance of 210mm, as long as we avoided ‘The Swamp’ and not wanting to make that embarrassing mayday call, we had little trouble avoiding that temptation.

Other than that, and with the 4WD Lock mode engaged (which splits the torque equally between the front and back axles) the Duster took the course in its stride, although it did scrape its belly on a few occasions.

The low first gear and abundant low-down torque made the inclines a cinch, although they weren’t the steepest we’d encountered, and it glided through some really wavy sections without causing us pray to for a differential lock.

Back in the ‘real world’ of urban driving, the low gear ratios do compromise the driving experience a bit but you soon learn to work around it.

Unless you’re on an incline, for instance, you can quite easily pull off in second gear, and third feels more like second, but on the upside it is quite suitable for those sharp corners where second usually feels too low.

The 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine, with outputs of 80kW and 240Nm, offers performance that is certainly adequate but falls short of effortless in some instances. It feels willing enough in town and cruises comfortably on the open road, but you will need to drop a cog for steeper hills and some overtaking manoeuvres. 

Consumption on our coastal road trip averaged 6.4 litres per 100km/h.

Space was never a problem as the Duster offers ample room front and back, and there’s a 475 litre boot that swallowed our holiday luggage with ease, although the full-sized spare does make it a little shallower than you might expect. 

The Duster is as well equipped as you could expect at the price, with modern features such as a touch-screen audio system with satnav and reverse camera, cruise control and a multi-function steering wheel. 

While the Duster offers great value for money, there are a few rough edges.The interior looks dated, and with ergonomics to match as most controls are quite low on the dash. And the Bluetooth connection can be iffy at times. 

The Duster also emits a big plume of diesel smoke when cold starting. 

None of this would be a deal breaker for me however. Sure, the interior plastics are mostly of the hard and scratchy variety, but it feels durable, as does the black cloth upholstery. 

Unlike many of today’s fancy 4x4s, you can throw kids and dogs in without worrying about Nappa leathers and plush touchy-feely surfaces getting damaged. It’s made for life and we like that about it.

VERDICT

At R310 000, the Duster 4WD offers a lot of SUV for the money and though it’s not a hardcore off-roader, it’ll handle a medium-grade trail if you’re awake and otherwise go places where most of today’s pavement hoppers would fear to tread. It’s also practical enough to be a family car.

There are a few little compromises here and there, but none that we could not live with, especially at the price.

FACTS

Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4WD

Engine: 1.5-litre, 4-cyl turbodiesel
Gearbox: 6-speed manual
Power: 80kW @ 4000rpm
Torque: 240Nm @ 1750rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 12.8 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 168km/h
Price: R309 900
Warranty: 5-year/150 000km
Service plan: 3-year/45 000km

Drive 360

Follow Jason Woosey on Twitter @JasonWoosey