Review: Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Intens

A decade of Duster. By far the most iconic of all Renault vehicles, this compact crossover (or mini-SUV) revolutionised South Africa’s perception of Renault.

In a decade, Renault has sold more than 2m Dusters, globally. It has been a terrifically successful product for the French, and strangely, one which Korean or Japanese brands have not successfully countered.

What makes Duster so clever? It’s the simplicity of it. Instead of creased body panels and ornate light clusters, Duster features simple panel stampings and a classic two-box ‘Jeep’ silhouette. It looks good, and if you are in a collision, those simpler body panels, which haven’t changed much in a decade, are much easier to repair.

Beyond its charmingly simple design, Duster is rugged. Not Land Cruiser rugged, but it’s a lot more rugged than most hatchback-derived crossovers. And that was the Renault design brief, with Duster: creating a vehicle for markets where customers travelled on rough roads and dirt surface routes.

Made for adventure – not staying at home

There’s an honesty and authenticity of purpose with Duster, which is absent in many of its price rivals. Renault has not done the pretence-thing with this compact all-terrain vehicle.

Unlike so many crossovers and SUVs in the sub-R450 000 price segment, Renault’s offering has valid all-terrain ability. Some of the best South African weekends away happen by navigating punishing dirt roads, with severe potholes and surface corrugations. And a standard crossover, despite its pseudo all-terrain styling, goes to ruin when regularly driven on harsh gravel roads.

But not Renault’s. Instead of pandering to design fashion and equipping Duster with oversized alloy wheels, and low-profile tyres, the Duster rolls a very sensible 17-inch wheel specification. With a large volume tyre. And that means it has a lot more air-volume and tyre sidewall structure to dampen all those dirt road corrugations, instead of transferring every bump to the cabin.

A generous 210mm of ground clearance and reasonably robust suspension components support the sensible wheel specification. No. It’s not a Land Cruiser. It doesn’t have low-range. Or even a differential lock. But as an all-road touring vehicle, it’s unquestionably one of the best – especially in its price range.

Not 4×4 – not that it matters

Steering Duster on a dirt road into the Karoo of Limpopo, is one of the more confident driving experiences you can have with a front-wheel drive vehicle.

And then there’s the amazingly frugal turbodiesel powertrain. For decades, French government fuel taxation benefitted diesel. And the French car industry responded by investing most of its R&D into turbodiesel engines. The result is that Duster is powered by one of the best engines you’ll find in the South African market.

An amazing diesel engine

The 1.5-litre turbodiesel isn’t outrageously powerful., because it doesn’t need to be. Duster is reasonably light, and Renault knows that its crossover and SUV customers aren’t interested in high-speed cruising. They value overtaking acceleration to pass slower traffic at highway speeds. And the 1.5-litre turbodiesel engine excels at that, with 250Nm of torque and a rapidly shifting 7-speed dual-clutch transmission.

But the most impressive feature of Duster’s powertrain is the economy. Claimed fuel economy is an issue of contention in the car industry. Manufacturers spend a lot of money to create ideal testing scenarios which validate ‘official’ fuel consumption figures that are unachievable in the real world. Not Renault.

Even when driven briskly, using that 250Nm torque peak often, the Duster remained remarkably efficient during our one-week test period. Average consumption dipped below 6l/100km, which is remarkable for a vehicle not optimised for aerodynamics.

Good UX and infotainment

The cabin is rugged, and although a bit more sound deadening would not go amiss, the Duster 1.5 dCi Intens offers a decent infotainment package. The 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system features slick UX, legible graphics and strong contrast, even in direct sunlight.

There’s a handy smartphone tray below the centre stack and dual USB ports, one of which is dedicated to higher voltage changing.

Manipulating the rear seats to accommodate surfboards, luggage, or outdoor gear is seamless. With 478-litres of luggage space, packing anxiety is absent when preparing for a long weekend away with Renault’s compact adventure touring vehicle.

What’s not great about the cabin? Well, the seat padding could be better. I’m 75kg, and on a three-hour drive, I did start to shift around a bit, to find a comfier position, as there was a touch of padding sag.

Duster likes getting dirty

Compact crossovers and SUVs are contentious vehicles. They’re terribly compromised when driving on dirt roads, hardly inspiring confidence.

If you do thousands of adventure destination kilometres with most compact crossovers and SUVs, they’ll start to rattle and prematurely wear components. These are vehicles designed to project a paradoxical adventure image, while remaining very much in the driving realm of suburbia.

But for the last decade, since 2013, Duster has been different. There is a purity of concept with Renault’s approach to a crossover or compact-SUV.

A French 21st century car icon

Ironically, the Duster probably has the least purpose in its country of origin, France. Where the roads are excellent, and even dirt roads are smooth enough to skateboard on. And that proves Renault’s product development vision and execution with Duster. It was designed by the French, for a global market, way beyond France.

Duster might not be dramatically styled. It might not have the most comfortable seats. Or lowest noise levels, when cruising. But it can go to many places that conventional compact crossovers can’t. And that’s what has made it Renault’s halo model in South Africa.

*Renault’s Duster 1.5 dCi Intens 4×2 retails for R422 999.

Lance Branquinho


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