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CLARENS, Free State – R300 000 is your budget for a family SUV. As if this were not limiting enough in our market of sky-rocketing vehicle prices, you have several additional requirements. The vehicle needs to be able to carry the family (and luggage), have genuine off-road ability (since you enjoy the remote outdoors) and be frugal on fuel, too. Impossible? Well, let me re-introduce you to the Renault Duster.
Launched back in 2013, this Renault immediately made an impact on the sales charts. The main reason for this was its no-frills and value-for-money approach. It offered space, decent ground clearance and was suited to both the school-run duties and exploring the bundu.
To date, more than 13 000 Dusters have been sold locally (with the 4×4 version making up 24% of that figure). I was lucky enough to test an early version for a year (see the wrap-up video here) and was surprised by how well it coped with everything I threw at it. This included caravan towing, dune-driving and covering 5 000 km in a round trip from Cape Town to Tzaneen.
In comparison to the original model, which was already relatively well specced with a standard touchscreen infotainment system (including sat-nav), Renault has quietly added cruise control, a reversing camera and parking sensors to the latest version. Styling wise, the Duster still takes on a chunky, square form, but splashes of chrome, a new wheel design and an updated grille keep things fresh on the outside – even the bonnet now opens with a gas strut. However, take note that a new model is due to arrive in South Africa next year.
The interior gains a slightly new facia design and refreshed instrument cluster, while an updated steering wheel with cruise control buttons greets the driver. The air-conditioning system is still manual, with the controls mounted slightly a little too low.
The Clarens adventure
Renault invited us to experience the 4×4 version during an adventure to Clarens in the Free State. This meant driving the Duster from Johannesburg to this quaint town on roads less travelled, with stops in Lindley and Constantia cherry farm.
The proven 1,5 turbodiesel engine provided enough punch (80 kW and 240 N.m) to easily stick to motorway speeds, while consuming diesel at a rate below 7,0 L/100 km (the claimed figure is 5,2 L/100 km). The suspension set-up is forgiving, which results in a comfortable ride, but care should be taken when bends approach as this is not its forte.
The six-speed manual transmission (the dual-clutch transmission is available only on the front-wheel-drive version) is easy to use, with the first gear ratio low for off-road work. It is thus possible to pull away in second gear on flat terrain.
Quite a bit of road and wind noise enters the cabin at speed, but this isn’t really a deal-breaker as the Duster’s real talents start to show when the paved roads end. I was impressed with its dirt-road ability and the way it soaked up ruts and bumps. Since the vehicle has plump tyres and good ground clearance, there are no worries when the track becomes a little more challenging.
This was exactly what happened the next day, when we ventured into the mountains outside Clarens for a proper off-road excursion. With the all-wheel-drive system set to 4×4 mode (locking the centre multi-plate clutch) and traction control switched off, the Duster was ready. Whereas most other “soft-roaders” with all-wheel drive are intended to tackle nothing more serious than a dirt road, the Duster is actually rather handy in the rough stuff.
Because of the Duster’s light mass, low first gear ratio and impressive approach and departure angles (30 and 35 degrees, respectively), its driver can be confident when the terrain gets tougher. Crawling up rocky slopes is possible and there always seems to be enough traction, even without diff-lock. The harde baarde in their modified bakkies with low-range (and diff-lock) may sneer at this small French SUV scurrying around the place, but it has a big heart and will surprise.
Once we reached the top, we enjoyed a splendid view of Lesotho while sipping on something cold – adventure at its best.
The Duster is a honest offering: what you see is what you get. It’s not the most luxurious or modern offering, but there is no other product that can compete on the combination of size, capability and price. And that gives cash-strapped South Africans the option of driving a cheaper alternative, making more money available to treat the family once you arrive at the destination.
In short, the Duster has a certain charm that is hard to ignore and it deserves to continue selling well. Now we just need the double-cab bakkie version (dubbed Oroch) to come to South Africa!
Fast factsModel: Renault Duster 1,5dCi Dynamique 4WD
Price: R304 900
Engine: 1,5-litre, inline four, turbodiesel
Power: 80 kW at 4 000 r/min
Torque: 240 N.m at 1 750 r/min
0-100 km/h: 12,8 seconds
Top Speed: 168 km/h
Fuel Consumption: 5,2 L/100 km
CO2: 135 g/km
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Maintenance Plan: S3/45 000 km