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The Renault Duster – old-school charm and sound value

The Renault Duster – old-school charm and sound value
The Renault Duster 4x4 in off-road action. (Photo: Renault South Africa)

Practical, capable and oozing with no-nonsense appeal, the Renault Duster 4x4 is a great option in the over-populated and over-specced SUV market.

Having been involved in the motoring media industry for more than a decade, and driving on average six new cars a month, I tend to remember events in my life with the wheels I was in at the time. 

For example, when we went into hard lockdown last year on March 27, I was in a Honda Ballade. When Leonard Cohen died on 7 November 2016, I was in a Ford Ranger and when Trump got his ass whipped in the US election, I was driving a VW T-Roc. But perhaps one of my most memorable recollections of “What was I driving when…?” was a Renault Duster, back in September 2014, three weeks after I had totalled another test drive, a R3.2-million Ferrari California on 2 September. (I’m pretty good with dates if you haven’t noticed.)

I recall the Duster event like it was yesterday. It was the first time, after my highly publicised and scandalous, potentially career-crushing crash that I was to come face to face with my fellow motoring scribes. (And I don’t use the word “fellow” loosely.) The launch was packed with testosterone, which is par for the course in the adrenaline-fuelled world of motoring. In the weeks leading up to the event, I had been swamped with a barrage of scathing attacks on social media from some of the very men who were now standing beside me. I felt like a leper. After my near-death disaster where the Ferrari was left in crushed metal pieces on the tar, I was terrified to look these guys in the eye, never mind get behind the wheel again. 

I am not usually a panicky person but with PTSD coursing through my veins, crippled by imposter syndrome, I remember climbing into a Duster, my detractors eyeing me from the sidelines. As I turned on the ignition, somehow I got the strength to put my ride into gear and move forward. It felt like the Duster in all its simplicity understood my frazzled mind as I spent the next hour navigating the off-road track. I was back on the horse. 

Many good things have happened in my life since those dark post-crash days. Perhaps the same can be said for Renault South Africa, which back in 2013/14, was also facing a mammoth task of undoing years of local negative “French car” perceptions. Its road to recovery has been inspiring to watch as it faced its problems head-on, made the necessary changes and steadily increased market share in the South African new car market. Over the last few years it has had huge success via its volume-selling Kwid and Sandero. The trusty Duster has added to its domination with more than 20,000 units selling since launch. 

(Photo: Renault South Africa)

Old-school charm

The charm of this SUV lies in its no-nonsense appeal and off-road capability. And while its original boxy shape was criticised when it debuted, there have been impressive developments in both exterior and interior design since 2013.

The all-new Renault Duster comes with a choice between petrol and diesel and three engine options – the 1.6L 16V and two versions of the 1.5 dCi turbo engine – available in 4×2 and 4×4.

I recently got to test drive the latest 4×4 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel manual (there’s no auto in the 4×4), producing 80kW of power and 260Nm of torque. (The 4×2 derivative sits at 66kW and 210 Nm.)

There’s nothing overly fancy or confusing when it comes to the Duster’s drive and tech. In many ways it reminds me of an old Landie or Pajero, which do what they do without any pretensions. There aren’t 150 gazillion options to confuse you when it comes to setting up your drive. The seats aren’t heated and there are no shiatsu lumbar massage options. There’s no gesture control or call-on-demand courier services. It doesn’t take you 25 minutes to set up a phone from layers of different touch screens. However, that’s not to say this SUV doesn’t have what you need. There’s satnav, phone mirroring and it’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible.

The cabin is unfussy and ergonomic. (Photo: Renault South Africa)

Driving the Duster is a straightforward affair. You get in. You adjust your seat, check your mirrors, pair your phone, pull on your safety belt and drive. And with price tags ranging between R289,900 and R374,900, it’s one of the best value propositions around.

The drive

The engine is responsive and torquey and on highways and open roads pretty good on the overtake once you get into the swing of gear changes. I did a few hours of not too hectic off-roading and got to play with the hill descent control function, which kicks in when you take your foot off the brake so that the vehicle can descend a steep decline in a slow and controlled fashion. Along with the usual safety and driver tech like EBD, ABS and blind-spot monitoring, there are a few handy new off-road features, like a 4×4 monitor and a multi-view camera that allows you to keep track of challenging terrain. 

Hill Descent Control in action. (Photo: Renault South Africa)

Via a drive-mode selector, one can choose between front-wheel drive, four-wheel drive and off-road drive modes. Its 210mm of ground clearance is class leading and useful when scaling city kerbs. The approach angle of 30 degrees and departure angle of 34 degrees gear the Duster up for some tough all-terrain driving. Boot space is plentiful and with rear seats folded down there’s a whopping 1,623 litres available. Fuel efficiency is seriously good at a claimed 4.8 l/100km – I got about 5.8. 

The boot capacity is 1,623 litres with the rear seats flat. (Photo: Renault South Africa)

The Duster, with its practical hard plastics and not overly premium surfaces and finishes, is not trying to be some plush diva. Rather, it’s an SUV that can be driven and used: dogs, kids, gardening equipment… and no one’s going to have a cadenza if there are a few scratches and scuffs left behind.

So, you’re probably not going to turn heads when you park, you aren’t going to get massaged in your heated seats or be the first out of the stalls when traffic lights change, but if reliability, capability and good value for money are what you’re after, the Duster is a seriously impressive proposition.

Pricing:

New Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4×4  R350,900

Standard five-year/150,000km mechanical warranty and six-year anti-corrosion warranty. Services at 15,000km intervals, with a standard three-year/45,000km service plan.

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