Words and pictures by Grant Spolander.
When it comes to engines I favour the redneck philosophy – the bigger, the better. As a 4.0-litre Jeep owner, I cling to that doctrine like a fine-toothed comb in a hillbilly’s mullet.
However, I had to question my beliefs after driving the Amarok with its 2.0-litre BiTDI engine – a powerful oil burner that scarcely notices the bakkie’s weight.
And now, with the recent launch of the Renault Duster 1.5-litre Dci, I’m again forced to reconsider my beliefs – and come to grips with the notion that small-capacity engines may have a place in the future of 4x4s.
I know a guy who loves visiting Chinese markets. He can’t resist these cheap products, even when he knows that they’re inferior quality. His rationalisation is simple, “If it breaks, who cares? It’s cheap as chips!” And at R239 900 for the 4WD Duster, you could say the same about this Renault.
But, you’d need to be the bargainhunter type to overlook the Duster’s interior build quality. On the face of it, the Duster’s cabin appears swish and contemporary, but once you start prodding on the trim and knocking on the panels, you get a sense of the vehicle’s inferior material choice and panel flimsiness.
On a more positive note, the Duster’s cabin is reasonably spacious. This applies to head- and shoulder room throughout the Duster’s interior. However, those of you with big feet may find your feet a little cramped around the pedals when you get behind the wheel.
Then there’s the Duster’s infotainment system; some folk have criticised the screen’s awkward angle, but I was drawn to the Duster’s Satnav system: it’s incredibly user-friendly. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the Duster’s satellite navigation system is easier to use than quite a few of the units found in SUVs that cost a million-plus.
In terms of packing space, you get roughly 300-litres behind the second row. If you fold the seats forward, you’ll bump that volume up to 1 100-litres. That’s roughly on par with vehicles like the Subaru Forester, Land Rover Freelander and Hyundai iX35.
Although the Duster is new to SA, it’s a well-established brand in Russia, Brazil, India, and parts of northern Africa. In some regions, the Duster’s marketed under the Dacia name – a Romanian automotive company that’s a subsidiary of Renault.
According to reports, the Duster’s based on the Renault Sandero’s platform, which equates to a total length of 4 315 mm, a width of 2 000 mm, and a 2 673 mm wheelbase-measurement.
In terms of looks, the Duster offers macho features, with flared wheel arches, a swept-back windscreen, and off-road-biased bumpers that indicate good clearance angles. But I’m disappointed by the rear: it’s dung-beetle ugly.
Most compact soft-roaders are destined for city use, which means that you want something with great low-down torque and long gear ratios. These two qualities ensure a relaxed drive with limited gear changes.
Unfortunately, this isn’t what you get with the Duster and its 6-speed manual transmission; here you’ll find short ratios through first and second gear, which makes city driving quite tiring. Couple this aspect to the Duster’s minor (but noticeable) turbo lag, and it doesn’t take long before you’re exhausted by the Duster’s city-bound performance.
The open road is another story. Capable of 80 kW @ 3 900 rpm and 240 Nm @ 1 750, Duster’s 1.5-litre engine offers great pulling power and good lowdown torque in the upper ratios. What’s more, because the Duster weighs a mere 1 288 kg, it practically sails up steep ascents – even in sixth gear.
Meagre fuel use is another drawcard for the Duster. Renault quotes 5.9 l/100 km around town, but realistically you’re more likely to get 6.5 l/100 km – which is still pretty darn spectacular! Most of us count ourselves pretty lucky to get double that.
We averaged 6.7 l/100 km on the open road at 120 km/h. If you combine that figure with the Duster’s 50-litre fuel tank, you should get a total driving range of 740 km, a highly respectable figure for a soft-roader with a small 50-litre tank.
It should be said that the Duster is equipped with a Diesel Particulate Filter, meaning that you can use only lowsulphur diesel. Naturally, this will restrict the Duster’s exploration potential, ruling out parts of Mozambique, Namibia and Botswana.
As far as ride quality goes, the Duster’s suspension system is very plush – but the flipside to this ‘cruisability’ is wishy-washy handling and noticeable body-roll – particularly through sharp turns and emergency lane-changes.