Johannesburg - Things aren’t always as they seem and this is very much the case when it comes to the Renault Duster 4x4.

On many off-road forums there are a number of categories for specific 4x4 vehicles and manufacturers and one that lumps so-called “soft-roaders” together.

In here you will find Volvo, Evoque, X-Trial, Forester and Freelander to name a few and then it seems that the Duster 4x4 also falls into this category.

Technically I suppose it does, but I’ve read stories and seen posts where the Duster has been spotted around the world in settings that would make even hardcore off-roaders think twice.

It’s unlikely that the average Duster owner would use their vehicle to conquer level 5 trails and uncharted territory but it’s reassuring to know that when things get a bit hectic there’s enough there to get you out of trouble with ease.

Last year the French manufacturer launched an upgraded version of the already popular Duster 4x4 and it carries on from the previous model in terms of ability and a serious value for money proposition in the SUV market. 

They didn’t do a radical make-over, particularly on the exterior where a bigger profile including a wider rear, more prominent aluminium roof-bars, front and rear skid-plates and 16-inch wheels give it a more “macho” look and appeal.

Inside the changes are a lot more noticeable over the previous model. 

It’s more user-friendly and the seats redesigned to be more comfortable which is a blessing if you’re going to be spending a lot of time on dirt roads, which is its bread and butter.

I’m not sure why but a number of Renault’s models seem to lack stowage space for odds and ends. Fortunately it’s not the case here because for some reason the moment you go off-road your loose “stuff” lying around suddenly increases tenfold. 

The boot too is a big bigger with 478 litres to pack baggage, mobile fridges, cricket coffins and hockey bags.

With on-board navigation and an infotainment system that’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible you’re pretty much connected to the 21st century.

And even though we’re in the 21st century, fossil fuel is still very much what keeps our engines on the move and it’s not getting any cheaper either. With projections of R20 per litre raising its head as our economy keeps on tanking and politicians play while Rome burns, there’s some consolation in the fact that the Duster remains as frugal as ever. Over the week that I drove it in a combined cycle that included some semi-rural roads I finished on 6L/100km.

That comes from a 1.5 dCi engine that produces 80kW and 260Nm mated to a six-speed manual gearbox which is quick and smooth, the only complaint being that first gear is incredibly short and I ended up almost always pulling away in second gear.

The 4x4 version is only available in manual which is unfortunate because considering that as a family vehicle much of its time will be spent in a cluttered urban environment where an autobox makes things so much easier and the off-road advantages are well documented too.   

With the power unit under the bonnet you’re not going to win any speed competitions but once you’re up to speed handling is tight and the steering light and responsive. 

To play in the dirt the transmission mode selector is easily moved between 2WD (front wheels) automatic that distributes the torque to all four wheels as needed and lock that distributes power to all four wheels. 

Besides hill descent control a cool feature is the multi-view camera that gives you a view of the front, rear or side terrain, it’s automatically activated in reverse but for slow crawling over difficult terrain a push of a button shows you exactly where the obstacles are. It also has a pitch and roll graphic on the 4x4 monitor but years of vicious passes and trails have taught me that your sphincter tells you long before any monitor does that things are about to get ugly. 

I did a relatively long stretch on dirt roads and with typical winter dryness the roads are extremely dry and fine dust covered everything in the convoy. When we arrived at the destination the interior was as clean as when we left, testimony to some decent build quality and an air-conditioner that kept us comfortable throughout.

The Renault Duster may not be the world’s toughest 4x4 but it certainly rates higher as just a soft-roader with 210mm of ground clearance, approach angle of 30º and departure angle of 34º. Slip on some all-terrain tyres and you have the perfect (affordable) family wagon that will take you to mountain tops over the weekend and shuffle around the traffic during the week.

Saturday Star