Would it be a claim too high to say the new Renault Duster is one of the most eagerly anticipated launches of 2012? Perhaps not. French car maker Renault has much to say about how the Indianised Duster with a lot of ‘masala’ will be a segment breaker. We get behind the wheel to find out.
Renault India officials are at pains to point out that the Duster is a pure Renault platform, not a Dacia platform. This is a fair enough claim since the Duster has its roots in the Logan, itself based on a prior, now defunct Renault Clio. Antecedents aside, let’s focus on the positives: the Renault Duster is a compact SUV with a host of options, in a total of 8 trim levels, with three different engines spanning a wide price range between Rs 7.3-11.5 lakh. Phew! Has Renault India thrown all its eggs in the Duster basket?
Design & Engineering
The Renault Duster is a compact SUV which has evolved from a hatchback/sedan platform, and so its basic architecture is very straightforward with a monocoque chassis, McPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam rear axle. To get a sense of its compact dimensions, let’s take a peek at some numbers: the Renault Duster measures 4315 mm in length, is 1822 mm wide and stands 1695 mm tall. In way of comparison, check out the stats of the Mahindra Verito, nee Renault Logan. These measure 4247 x 1740 x 1540 mm for the same measurements. As you can see, these figures give the Renault Duster a footprint barely more than the average entry-level sedan, and that can only be a good thing given our narrow roads and congested cities.
However, the Duster does manage to surprise you with substantial road presence. Renault’s designers have resorted to all the well-known tricks to give the Duster a pure SUV look, including a bold chrome grille, bulging wheel arches, roof rails, side sills and plastic cladding under the front bumper. (An optional body kit with more side cladding and an extra pair of front fog lamps can also be ordered; however, that is not pictured here).
Big 16-inch wheels running 215/65 R16 tyres are standard, with steel wheels on the RxE and RxL and alloy wheels on the RxZ.
Let’s run you through the variants: there are three engines available, including a 1.6-litre petrol with 104 PS, and two diesel versions of the popular K9K dCi series, with 85 PS and 110 PS. Then there are three different trim levels: RxE and RxL (104 PS petrol and 85 PS diesel); and, RxL and RxZ (110 PS diesel). This makes for 6 variants, in addition to which the 85 PS diesel RxL has an ‘Option pack’ which adds some features from the higher RxZ version, while you can also opt for the ‘Leather pack’ with the 110 PS RxZ variant, taking the total number of variants to eight.
We drove the 110 PS RxZ variant without the leather option. While the 110 PS diesel has a 6-speed manual gearbox, the other two engines make do with a 5-speed manual. No automatic transmission is on offer. Abroad, Renault sells the Duster with 4-wheel drive as well, and while Renault India has chosen not to offer it from launch, we hear there is a possibility of a 4-wheel drive variant later on.
It’s perhaps pertinent to note that the Renault India facility in Oragadam near Chennai, which it shares with Alliance partner Nissan, will also manufacture the Dacia Duster for export to the UK, which has a 4-wheel drive variant.
Interiors & Comfort
The ‘masala’ Renault India’s Marc Nassif loves to mention has been used lavishly in spec-ing the interiors of the Indian version of the Duster. Renault knew that for the Duster to be popular, it would have to offer a higher level of standard equipment and features in keeping with expectations of Indian customers. All the variants offer power steering, all four power windows, tilt-adjust steering column and remote central locking as standard, even with the base RxE trim variant. The RxL adds a rear wiper and washer, rear defogger, music system with USB and Bluetooth, electrically adjustable ORVMs, rear centre armrest, front fog lamps, height-adjustable seatbelts, and steering wheel-mounted audio and phone controls. ABS with EBD and two airbags are optional on the RxL.
The top-spec RxZ variants offers ABS, EBD and airbags as standard, along with alloy wheels, rear AC, piano black interior trims, height-adjustable driver’s seat with lumbar support, satin finish door handles, reverse parking sensors and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The rear AC will be offered only in India, and the rear seat back of the Indian-market Duster is more reclined than the export model. Renault claims these were features which were included after customer clinics indicated that a substantial number of Duster customers would likely be chauffer driven.
The front seats I found to be quite supportive and accommodating, but the under-thigh support could be better, especially given the long-travel clutch. A clutch foot rest or dead pedal would have been welcome too. At the rear, legroom isn’t very much, and with the driver’s seat adjusted for my average height, a passenger of the same height would just about fit at the back. For the middle passenger in the rear bench, things can get a bit uncomfortable, especially with the rear AC unit which further robs precious rear leg room. If you were expecting Nissan Sunny-like rear space, then you will be disappointed. The reclined back rest however is great if you like to relax without much of a care for what is happening in the outside world.
A definite positive of the Duster is ease of ingress and egress. You don’t need to step up and into the Duster like you may other SUVs, and neither do you have to crouch to get in. You literally can simply just walk into the Duster and make yourself comfortable.
Renault is also offering the Duster with a pair of jump seats at the rear. These will be a dealer fitment however, and not offered as standard. This is because the Duster would otherwise have to have an additional pair of rear seatbelts, and would have to go through a homologation process for the same. Instead, Renault India has kept things simple by offering the seats for those who want them at the dealer. If you’re a safety-conscious customer, you’re unlikely to opt for it, especially since you’d be likely to have your kids in the third row.
Performance & Handling
So what’s the new Renault Duster like to drive? In one word: competent. Yes, you do feel the torque rock at start-up, and there is some diesel clatter which is audible in the cabin when the engine is cold, but drive for a few minutes and it quietens down. The gears shift positively with no missed shifts, although the clutch action could be better. The clutch itself is light, but the bite point isn’t precise, which can be mildly irritating, especially in traffic. The steering wheel feels a touch heavy for city driving, but on the highway and in the hills it feels just right.
The most impressive facet of the Renault Duster is its body control and composure. The Duster’s dynamic attitude pays dividends in both the ride and handling departments. The tall suspension absorbs ruts, ridges, ripples and big undulations with ease. The rear torsion beam axle resists the ‘bunny hop’, a characteristic common in many hatchbacks and SUVs, and Renault deserves full marks for getting the blend of ride and handling spot on.
You do tend to feel a degree of understeer, but the Duster’s handling errs on the side of caution. You’d be stupid to try and corner the Duster hard, but even on the narrow, twisty run up the ghats to Munnar, the Renault Duster was more than up to the task of driving with two wheels on the shoulder while dealing with errant bus drivers and jeep taxis.
Our test drive was about 200 km long, and while for the most part we had to contend with narrow roads and broken tarmac, we did enjoy a brief stint of four-lane highway. On this stretch, the Duster motored comfortably, the big slug of torque making it very easy to maintain a quick pace consistently. The 110 PS is complemented with 248 Nm of torque, which means your right foot is all you need to dispatch the fast-moving lorries. High-speed stability is impressive as well.
There is quite a lot of wind roar at speed though, and you have the high ground clearance, big wheel arches and roof rails to thank for that. The quiet nature of the engine at a cruise only makes this facet of the Duster more prominent.
In the hills, the high-boost nature of the 110 PS K9K THP diesel engine has its shortfalls. Woe betide if the revs drop and the turbo goes off-boost. You will have to select first gear to build momentum again. I drove the 85 PS version, not in the hills around Munnar, but on some flat roads in traffic, and I feel that version of the engine is actually easier to live with every day. Agreed, you may not get the surge you feel when the 110’s turbo spools up, but it is far more linear in its power delivery, making performance more easily accessible.
Braking in the Renault Duster is again very competent. The inherent stability in the chassis we were talking about earlier plays a part here too, and the Duster tracks straight. The brake pedal requires you to be firm with it, like the rest of the Duster's controls, but braking is safe and confident.
Renault understands that fuel efficiency is a key consideration with Indian customers, and indeed this is one area where the Duster has the opportunity to score big time in the mind-space of Indian car buyers. Renault India acknowledges that “more than 90 %” sales will be for its two diesel offerings. The 110 PS dCi we drove has been rated by ARAI as delivering 19 kpl under standard test conditions.
Of course, real world figures will be lower, given the Duster’s weight, and its boxy dimensions which surely don’t it do it any favours while cruising on the highway. Still, expect it to be almost at par with mid-sized sedans of a similar engine capacity, or slightly less. But it still translates to exceedingly frugal running costs.
Renault would have done well to take a leaf out of Alliance partner Nissan’s book and offered ABS + EBD and airbags as standard on all variants. Instead, these safety features are only available on the top of the line RxZ variant, or as a cost option with the 85 PS RxL diesel variant. You can’t opt for these safety features in the petrol version even if you want to, which is silly. Are drivers of petrol Renault Dusters less likely to get injured in a crash? It seems hard to explain the logic on this score. Granted, even by Renault’s own estimates, petrol sales will be slow, but this kind of second-hand treatment will only result in further putting off potential customers.
Further, the company has chosen to offer jump seats as a dealer option, which don’t have seatbelts, further compromising on safety. It’s true that the average Indian road user doesn’t give a naya paisa for safety, but it’s especially important in such a context for manufacturers to take the lead. This is definitely an opportunity missed by Renault here.
So how do you go about choosing the best Duster for you? While Renault has done extremely well at bringing in the Duster at the price point it has, and by offering a wide spread of variants, picking the right variant may not be as easy as it seems.
What will draw customers to Renault showrooms of course is the promise of a compact SUV, with diesel economy, low running costs and a European badge. True, Renault may not have the cache of Volkswagen, or even Skoda for that matter, but it is a European badge and that is something that Indian customers recognise and respect. The top-down approach the company took by launching the Koleos SUV and Fluence executive sedan before the Pulse and Duster has also held the company in good stead.
To see just how good value the Renault Duster portends to be, all you need to do is cast a glance askance at the Skoda Yeti. The Yeti is a crossover vehicle, again built on a sedan platform. Agreed it has a few features more, it has a flexible interior, four-wheel drive variants and a degree of snob value associated with it. By comparison, the Duster offers bigger dimensions, more road presence, better fuel economy, and a much cheaper buying price.
Still not convinced? Check out the Mahindra Scorpio. It may be a little bigger, but it can’t hold a candle to the Duster in the handling department. It may be tough as nails and offer a more widespread service network, but the Renault Duster will still be much nicer to live with every day. The Duster also plugs in nicely on price with the mid-size sedan category, further muddling things. Now, the average Joe or Jackie looking at a Nissan Sunny or Hyundai Verna or Volkswagen Vento will be tempted to take a look at the Duster as well.
The Renault Duster 110 PS RxZ we drove retails for Rs 11.2 lakh, ex-showroom. It has all the features and equipment you could hope for, and promises to be economical to own and maintain as well. At the price, it nudges close to the lower variants of the Mahindra XUV 500, and could tempt buyers from there too (and lose some into the bargain).
It’s still early days yet, but market response to the Duster has been good. Renault has reported more than 4000 bookings in the first week itself. Waiting periods are already stretching close to 8 weeks for the diesel variants. The company is gung-ho, with a sales expectation of 15,000 units in the six months to the end of the current calendar year. Of course maintaining quality while ramping up production and expanding its dealer footprint from the present 55 to 100 by year-end are other critical tasks the company will have to focus on.
There are very few cars which have been as sorted as the Renault Duster, right from the off. There are a few irritants, like the step-motherly treatment of the petrol buyers, however few in number, and recalcitrant attitude towards safety features. The factory-fitted stereo isn’t anything to write home about either, and while it offers good connectivity, the sound quality itself falls short.
As a mechanical package, the Renault Duster ticks most of the right boxes in being a comfortable, easy to drive, frugal and compact SUV. It is a product Indian car buyers have been lusting after for a long, long time, and Renault are first to market. Going forward, competition will be tough, and the traction gained by the Duster in these first six months to the launch of the Ford EcoSport could make or break the company’s fortunes in India.