BADGE engineering is common practice in the motor trade but the subject of this test takes it to new levels as, dependent on end market, the Renault Duster may also be spotted as a Dacia Duster or even as a Nissan Terrano.
The truth is that the Renault derivative is actually a Romanian Dacia which largely accounts for the simplicity of execution and rather utilitarian disposition of this compact SUV. Indeed, Dacia often punts a story about concentrating on the essentials and dumping the unnecessary, but fortunately for SA buyers, that philosophy hasn’t been rigidly followed in the case of this Renault Dynamique version. More about the detail in a moment.
Let me commence our journey with the Renault interpretation of the Duster by suggesting that the formula of offering a decent spec housed within a simple and dated design is perhaps getting a tad tired. Sure, cost advantages accrue but given that the Duster first saw the light of day in 2010 (it came to South Africa in 2013), the rather basic design is beginning to look a touch too basic, notwithstanding upgrades introduced in October 2016.
Looks are all-important in today’s increasingly competitive environment, even within the SUV sector, albeit that Duster sales in RSA have to some extent disproved my generalisation, primarily I surmise because of the value proposition. Take a close look at the bodywork though, and you’ll find evidence of shortcuts in finishing detail.
For example, joins in the door sills are not completely filled and spot weld points abound. Admittedly, many of the rough edges are at least partially hidden but not in the case of the rear extremities of the roof guttering. Take a look in the area immediately behind the matt silver roof rails heading towards the tailgate and you’ll be greeted by a knobbly, painted channel that does not succeed in hiding a line of spot welds. How much more would it cost to hide the joint line completely?
Virtually the entire inner reaches of the tailgate consist of exposed painted metal and low grade moulded carpeting swathes the floor. All interior plastics are hard and scratchy and the doors shut with a twang which suggests limited sound deadening is employed. In fairness though, the alignment of the doors and the accuracy of panel gaps is satisfactory. So too is the surface finish of the paintwork which is glossy and mostly devoid of orange peel. And niceties such as body-colour door handles and even a chrome exhaust tip are in place and 215/65/R16 rubber adorns smart alloy wheels.
Other niceties in the Dynamique model include an easy-to-use nav system – that’s set much too low in the dash – as well as Bluetooth and USB connectivity, air con, height adjustable wheel, plated door handles, sound system, fogs, electric windows, rear park sensors, central locking, 60/40 split rear sea, front and side airbags and powered door mirrors with switches oddly-positioned near the gear lever. Now what was that I said about the Dacia philosophy of only concentrating on essentials?
Black and grey cloth of very decent quality swathes the seats which in the front are multi-adjustable and well-bolstered. Overall space is good for a compact SUV which means four adults can be comfortably transported without the need to compromise seating positions and luggage space is competitive at 475/1636litres, albeit that care will need to be taken to avoid scratching the hard plastic side mouldings.
The test vehicle was kitted out with AWD sourced from the Nissan Qashqai. A simple rotary dial offers 2WD, Auto and Lock settings, the last telegraphing the presence of a centre diff lock. In Auto, torque is distributed as needed but for the most part, the front wheels do all of the work. Generous ground clearance of 210 mm ensures the Duster can do some real off-road bashing if required. Motive power is provided courtesy of a 1.5 turbo diesel motor that delivers up to 80kW with a torque peak of 240Nm.
When pressed, the level of get-up-and-go is surprisingly good such that the description “lively” is entirely appropriate. When under the whip, the small displacement mill makes itself heard but on the cruise, it is soothingly quiet and allows an easy 130km/h cruise to be maintained. It does take time to recover momentum though, if baulked out on the motorway.
Further, and this characteristic was only evident at low speeds, throttle response was decidedly snatchy. Really gentle use of the accelerator was necessary to avoid jerky progress and the same delicate touch was needed to mitigate the snatchy effect of the grossly over-servoed but otherwise effective ABS-equipped brakes. By contrast, the medium-weight clutch took up beautifully smoothly with a just-right bite point and finding cogs in the 6-speed manual box was pleasant enough, albeit that second gear could be obstructive if the clutch pedal was not fully depressed. Most unusually, a faint but high-pitched whine emanated from the depths of the gearbox when cruising at 120km/h.
Over a week’s varied use, which also included a fair bit of suburban traffic with all the associated stop/starts, the Duster returned an encouraging fuel consumption figure of 7.0l/100km.
As far as ride is concerned, the Duster displayed decent control and pleasant levels of pliancy at higher speeds, but felt a tad knobbly at lower speeds when negotiating broken surfaces. As with all high-riding vehicles, body roll is evident in tighter corners taken at speed, but not to a disconcerting level. It’s worth noting that traction and stability control are on board too.
Talking of taking corners reminds me that the power steering is decently weighted at low speeds which will please the ladies, but as speed rises, so resistance around the straight ahead position increases.
By the standards of the class, suppression of wind and road noises is entirely acceptable and on this score, and to the Duster’s credit, I couldn’t help but notice that the external central door gaps are fully sealed from top to bottom, an example of attention to detail that is rare at this level.
So, what to make of the Renault Duster? If I were to be wholly honest, I would suggest that there’s an element of “mutton dressed as lamb” about it. In Dynamique trim, it’s actually very well equipped which tends to contradict the Dacia philosophy of sticking to the essentials only.
What concerns me is that the flash bits can’t fully hide the cruder bits such as the aformentioned rough finishing detail and paucity of acceptably tactile trim bits.
General appearance too is beginning to telegraph its age – or should that be its geographic origins? For anyone prepared to overlook the mostly-cosmetic chinks, the Renault Duster offers decent space and generous equipment levels for the outlay asked as well as a very effective turbo diesel power plant. A proper AWD system is invaluable too for those who venture off the straight and narrow and in my book, it’s the range model that fits its clothes rather better than the 2WD models.
Clearly, buyers on a budget have been prepared to forgive the Renault Duster for its lack of design flare and indifferent cabin quality, but as time marches on and newer competitors arrive on the scene, moving stock could just become more difficult. It’s far from all bad news though as the grapevine suggests
Renault has acknowledged the need to polish up the Duster’s image and will be introducing a new model in the third quarter of 2018, just a year after Frankfurt show goers had a glimpse of the likely newcomer.