Renault may be among the world’s major car makers but its India innings has been quite lacklustre this far. To recap, the Logan built jointly with Mahindra, didn’t give Renault the start or the image it needed to establish itself in a market as large and important as India. Even the Fluence and Koleos that the manufacturer has launched on its own steam over the past year are marginal players in their respective segments. And competent as the Pulse hatchback is, it has failed to make a mark in the lucrative small car segment. What Renault needs now is a Great White Hope, a model that brings in customers by the droves to its showrooms.
The Duster could just well be that model. Just like Maruti has done with the Ertiga, the Duster could pry open a completely new segment. There is no other compact SUV in the Indian market, save for the significantly smaller Premier Rio, and this gives Renault a massive head-start, which the French company wants to take full advantage of. But to do that, the Duster has to appeal to both heart and head from day one. It has to have the right mix of appeal and value to drive straight into customers’ hearts and wallets. Can the Duster play such a balancing act? That’s what we’re here a Renault-Nissan’s expansive plant at Orgadam near Chennai to find out.
DOES SIZE MATTER
After a fairly long (and slow) taxi ride form the factory gate, we reach the test track where there are half a dozen Dusters receiving a final systems check. I instantly make a mental note to re-check the Duster’s specification sheet for its dimensions. That’s because this ‘small’ Suv looks a whole lot bigger than what its 4.3-metre length would have you believe. It may not have the towering posture of a Fortuner, but unlike the timid-looking Yeti which has similar dimensions, the Duster looks every bit an SUV. The heavily flared wheel arches and huge wheel clearance give it a very purposeful stance. The SUV-typical scuff plates are there too and even the neat metal roof rails play their part in making the Duster look quite handsome. The straightforward styling may seem old-fashioned for some, but there’s a certain road presence the Duster comes with that’s bound to appeal to many.
Badged a Dacia in many markets across the world, the Indian model proudly wears the Renault lozenge on its chrome-rich grille. Sitting flush with the grille, the Duster’s squarish headlights along with the plastic cladding on the lower portion of the bumper give the SUV a robust, no-nonsense appearance. That said, we can’t help but notice how the Duster’s doors do without any stylistic flourishes; costs are sure to have limited the design team’s imagination here. We do, however, like the manner in which the rear quarter window kinks upwards at the thick D-pillar and how the body swells toward the tail lights. The small tail lights are quite ordinary though their ‘blister’ effect on the rounded tailgate is quite distinctive. And with ‘Duster’ boldly emblazoned on the chrome bar at the back, it’s hard to confuse this for anything but, well, a Duster.
Based on the Logan platform, the Duster shares a lot with its saloon sibling, but for India that’s something Renault has worked hard to avoid. The Logan’s basic interior was one of its biggest weaknesses and we could only hope Renault hadn’t repeated the mistake on the Duster. When it’s time to get into the car, we do get an unwelcome reminder of the strict cost targets this car is built to, like the door handles which are the simpler lift Type and the absence of a rubber beading on the doors. However, once you get past the wide-opening door, a pleasant surprise awaits you. The good news is that Renault has spruced up the cabin to make it plusher and the interiors certainly feel a lot more upmarket than the Logan’s. The bad news is that it still doesn’t feel premium enough. The shiny, hard dashboard plastics look cheap and even the grain is not what you’d expect on a car of this class.
It’s form the flat but supportive driver’s seat that we get to study the cabin in more detail. The Duster’s dashboard may lack class but it’s hugely practical. There’s a very useable recess above the glovebox and one above the centre console. The glovebox itself is hugely deep and could almost swallow an umbrella lengthways. You get a total of four cup holders and the front door pockets, though not big, can hold a map book or two. Worth a mention here are the neatly moulded door pads that get faux wood on top models, which look rather nice. India is the first right-hand-drive market to get the refreshed Duster that features a curvier instrument binnacle, power window switches on the doors (remember the Logan’s haphazard arrangement?) and a revised centre console. The Aux/USB-ready music system is neatly integrated here but the AC controls are a touch too low and very mechanical in operation. The manual recirculation dial is particularly fiddly to use.
Like other Renault, the Duster isn’t free from its share of ergonomic quirks. The mirror adjust dial is positioned quite ridiculously below the handbrake, the steering controls for the audio and Bluetooth telephony functions are mounted on the column rather than the steering boss, and the light and wiper stalks are still oriented for left-hand-drive markets.
But you’ll happily excuse Renault for these glitches when you take the back seat, which is really one of the highlights on the Duster. The seat may be as flat as a runway but it offers fantastic thigh, back and shoulder support and there’s ample knee-and headroom too. Even the foldable centre armrest is positioned at just the right height while the cabin width and a low central tunnel combine to make this a seat that can host three in comfort. The trouble is in higher trim levels like the one pictured here – the rear AC vent, which looks like a tacky, aftermarket add-on, eats into middle passenger legroom. That’s because the Duster wasn’t originally designed with rear air-con vents – these had to be retro-engineered for India. With only a single vent to direct air flow, you can expect heated arguments among rear passengers. Good then, that the air-conditioning in the Duster is simply brilliant.
Also brilliant is the Duster’s luggage area, which is shaped to make fantastic use of its 475 litres capacity. The square and flat floor is unhindered by any intrusions and the load lip isn’t too high either. Cargo capacity can be expanded further by folding down the single-piece rear seat backrest.
When the Duster goes on sale, it will be available with both petrol and diesel engine options. We couldn’t drive the petrol Duster, but we do know that it will come with a 1.6-litre, in-line four-cylinder motor capable of 102.5bhp at 5850rpm and 14.8kgm of torque at 3750rpm. Feature twin-cams and 16 valves, the engine (K4M in Renault-speak) will come mated to a five-speed gearbox.
But given current market dynamics, Renault doesn’t expect the petrol model to be a big seller and is banking on its diesel model to bring in the volumes. The diesel engine on the Duster is a motor we are all familiar with – the ubiquitous 1.5-litre K9K powerplant already on duty in Renault’s Pulse and Fluence, Nissan’s Micra and Sunny (and the upcoming Evalia MPV) and the Mahindra Verito. Renault is playing is smart by launching this flexible motor in two states of tune and correspondingly at different price points. The basic architecture is the same (8-valve, SOHC), but power outputs differ.
Let’s start with the more powerful version first. Known as the K9K THP, this 108.5bhp engine features a variable geometry turbocharger and intercooler and only recently received upgrades to improve in city drive ability. Elsewhere across the world, the engine also features a diesel particulate filter but Indian emission norms did not warrant this. We experienced this motor on the Fluence only a couple of months back and came away impressed by its punchy nature.
The Duster’s max torque figure of 25.3kgm produced at 2250rpm is marginally more than the Fluence’s but unfortunately power delivery isn’t as linear. There’s a fair bit of turbo lag here and you need to wait for the engine to rev to 2000rpm to get a serious move on. It’s not as bad as, say, on an Ertiga diesel but it does come in the way of a quick getaway. Thereafter, the well-chosen gear ratios cleverly mask the initial lag by keeping the engine in its 2000-4000rpm comfort zone. This, and the Duster’s light 1308kg kerb weight, means real-world performance is actually quite good. When VBOX’d, the Duster took 11.01 seconds from 20-80kph in third gear and 11.92 seconds from 40-100kph in fourth, which makes it quicker than the significantly more powerful XUV500! Choose to press on and the motor will rev to 5000rpm, though it is best to short shift at the 4500rpm mark. And while the TL4 gearbox doesn’t require much effort, it isn’t the most precise of units around and comes with a clutch that is on the heavier side. The inclusion of a sixth gear makes the 108.5bhp Duster a very able mile-munching device.
In contrast, the lower-output engine seem better suited to crowded city confines. Sure, it makes do with a fixed geometry turbo and has only 84bhp but the way it tackles typical stop-go movement is quite amazing. Here’s why. Unlike the more powerful engine, this motor does not feel lethargic under 2000rpm. In fact, you have access to power from the word go, which makes power delivery far more linear. There’s little lag to worry about but 2000-4000rpm is where this engine is happiest. It comes mated to Renault’s JR5 five-speed gearbox that is designed to handle torque upto 20.4kgm (this motor produces 20.4kgm at 1900rpm). Gearshifts again are not very precise but the gearbox is easy to use and the gear ratios are very smartly chosen. The in-gear timings for this lesser powered diesel are not all that bad either with the Duster’ light weight coming into play here too. Both motors are fairly refined and free from undue vibratiosn, but are a tad noisy, possibly due to limited sound-deadening material.
Underpinned by Renault’s hardy B platform, the Duster is built to take on the worst driving surfaces this side of the moon. And that trait comes shining through the moment you take a pothole. The rigid chassis, meaty 215/65 R16 tyres, front MacPherson struts and a torsion bar rear suspension work in complete unison to soften the worst of blows. Even broken patches of road and cobblestone paths take at proper highway speeds simulated on the test track do little to faze the Duster when we drive it. Ride remains flat at all times with the suspension always going about its business in a quiet manner. There are no two ways about it - the Duster is simply the best-riding SUV for its price.
Also thanks to its monocoque construction, the Duster scores decently in the area of dynamics. Its tall proportiosn don’t give it the high-speed sure-footedness or cornering zing of your average midsize saloon, but then the Duster also never feels floppy like typical SUVs. Body roll is well contained and the grippy (and quiet) MRF Wanderers aid confidence around bends. However, the electro-hydraulic steering does have a dead zone at the straight-ahead position and isn’t very direct either. At least it’s light enough at low speeds and the turning circle is not too large. Braking is via ABS-and EBD-enabled ventilated front discs and rear drums that do a fair job of shedding speed.
As the day draws to a close we venture on to a small dust trail just off Renault’s main test track. The high driving position gives a commanding view of what’s ahead (and beside) but we don’t want our front-wheel-drive test car to get stuck, and so proceed with caution. But within a few minutes the Duster shows its metle. It clears ruts, doesn’t misbehave on loose gravel and claws its way up a reasonably steep hillock too. The impressive wheel articulation, 210mm of ground clearance and Himalaya-friendly 30-degree approach and 35-degree departure angles are sure to give the India-bound 4x4 version some serious off-road ability (see box).
A day’s driving is enough to make it clear Renault is on to something big with the Duster. Sure, image-conscious SUV buyers may find its styling a tad seadate and they’re unlikely to be unthused by the average cabin quality either. But the Duster makes up for this by being a very capable all-rounder. The driving position is spot-on, overall comfort is of a high standard and ride quality is the new benchmark for cars at this price. It’s also the right size for city environs, handling is predictable and it feel far better put together than its closest competitors, the Mahindra Scorpio and Tata Safari.
The pair of diesel engines impress us for their driveability (84bhp) and performance (108bhp) and performance (108bhp) and fuel economy should be quite good too. The Duster, then, is good enough to wipe away any memories of the Logan in one clean sweep and is on course to give Renault its first big Indian success. At an estimated price of Rs 7.2 lakh for the base petrol model, stretching to Rs 12 lakh for the fully loaded 108bhp diesel, the Duster will be priced aggressively. But is that aggressive enough for customers to bite the bait?