Since it first appeared on local shores back in 2013, the Renault Duster has carved a comfy niche for itself. Its butch appearance, credible off-road abilities (in all wheel drive guise) and spacious cabin has helped Renault sell more than 12 000 units, undoubtedly helped along by a very strong value proposition: it’s slightly larger than most competitors, yet it costs less than most. A recent facelift has only cemented this success, with the Duster’s popularity still showing no sign of abating. Of course, it helps that the B-segment SUV is a South African darling, being one of the market segments which show sustained demand even in the face of depressed overall sales.
This success story has now received added impetus in the form of a new derivative, which combines two highly sought-after elements: a frugal turbo diesel engine matched with an automatic transmission. You can’t have the new Duster 1.5 dCi EDC with all wheel drive, but that doesn’t really matter, as few of these vehicles will ever venture further off the beaten track than a trip to the nursery in any case. Sure, there’s still some decent ground clearance (aided by tall tyres and rugged-looking underbody protection), but it’s more for show than to proclaim any off-road ability, so the fact that only the front wheels do driving duty isn’t of any real concern.
The important bit is how this new engine/gearbox combination transforms the Duster’s driving experience. Used here in 80 kW trim (with 250 Nm), the drivetrain is lifted wholesale from the larger (and more expensive) Kadjar SUV. But while it feels a bit breathless in the Kadjar, it turns the lighter Duster into an effortless, smooth operator. Perhaps the lower weight burden also explains why the 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox appears to be far more decisive than in other applications, but whatever the reason, it works very well in the Duster. It pulls away smoothly, slips almost imperceptibly through its ratios, and does a sterling job of keeping the diesel mill operating within its rather narrow power band. As a result, performance is adequate if not startling, and overtaking opportunities are seldom wasted.
This modest performance is probably a good thing, however, as the suspension is set up to be everything except sporty. While directional stability is good, cornering prowess clearly wasn’t on the list of engineering targets. Hard cornering leads to masses of body roll before quickly giving way to safe, predictable understeer. It might be fool-proof, but it’s not really fun to drive it in this manner. Rather sit back, relax, and enjoy the wave of turbo charged torque and smooth shifts to waft you along, while luxuriating in a ride quality that resolutely emphasises comfort. Speed bumps and potholes pass underneath with barely a thump, and gravel roads are taken in its stride. If you plan on treating the family to a long road trip, this machine will certainly suit your requirements to perfection, especially given its commodious luggage volume of 475 litres with all seats in use.
It’s also not really luxuriously trimmed either, with hard plastics abounding throughout the cabin. Still, everything is screwed down properly, and even rough roads failed to draw a single squeak or rattle from either plastic or bodyshell. Like all diesel Dusters, the 1.5 dCi EDC is only available in the higher-level Dynamique trim. It’s quite generously equipped, especially at this price point, with rear parking sensors and a rear-view camera, colour touchscreen infotainment with navigation, and cruise control all featuring as standard. Leather upholstery is a R10 000 option, and metallic paint will add another R2 500.
That’s a well-padded spec sheet for a vehicle which retails for only R299 900 in basic form, and given that strong value statement, it’s easy to forgive the Duster for its less-than-stellar driving dynamics and hard plastics. Add to that an economical (4.8 litres/100 km claimed average consumption) and smooth-operating drivetrain, class-leading spaciousness, and superbly comfortable ride, and it’s clear that this Duster is on the right track.