Remember the Hummer, General Motors’s big-daddy SUV? It was the height of sports-utility excess. With its big, inefficient engine, heavy, permanent all-wheel drive and lethargic transmission, the Hummer was a proper middle-finger salute to fuel efficiency and, if you ask us, good taste.
Severe pressure to “go green” is felt on a daily basis and the automobile industry responded appropriately in this regard. Engine sizes shrink daily, as do fuel consumption claims and carbon footprints. No segment of an automaker’s portfolio has felt this more than that of the SUV.
SUVs are still seen as alternatives to saloons and hatchbacks as the desired mode of transportation, but the shape and size in which they are currently presented are far removed from what was once considered the norm.
As with many things in modern society, SUVs have been downsized. And the protagonists here are two prime examples of the new era.
Newcomers to the fold
Ford’s EcoSport was launched a few months ago and is the smallest of the Ford SUV family that spans the planet. It is a further expansion of the company’s One Ford plan that provides similar products to different markets around the world. It was designed in South America and is built at a plant in Chennai, India.
Renault’s just-launched Duster is also a global car for Renault; in fact, it’s the very first of the type for the French firm. It was created to meet the demanding needs of European buyers, but also with appeal and suitability for emerging markets. Interestingly it is built just down the road from the EcoSport at a Renault-Nissan alliance factory.
Looks to suit all tastes
Ford continues to use its Kinetic design language as seen on the current-generation Fiesta and Kuga models. It works well on the EcoSport, too, as the familial resemblance is immediately evident. Suitably chunky with dark mouldings on the lower half of the body and roof rails atop, the EcoSport plays the part of urban SUV well. To some members of our team, however, the Ford appeared ungainly. Arguably, the rear three-quarter angle presents its best view. This aspect also highlights the rear-door-mounted spare wheel, which makes it seem as if the Ford is trying a little too hard to look butch.
If there was one term that was most often used when describing the Duster, “butch” is it.
Looking unlike any other model in the Renault family, the little SUV has chunky styling bolstered with oversized headlamps, square lines and a high ride height. Interestingly, the Renault may seem to have greater ground clearance, but it is beaten by a whisker (5 mm) by the Ford’s 210 mm.
Overall, we loved the Ford’s look and, although the Duster won aesthetic compliments, there is no denying that the EcoSport has wider appeal.
As these two models are among the lowest-priced SUVs in the market, you can’t really expect the interiors to be lavish. Neither car has leather upholstery; both make do with cloth treatment that, it must be said, works very well. The Duster’s trim in particular has a rugged look and feel.
Both cars use hard grades of plastic on their facias and there are some quality issues in terms of rough edges and ill-fitting panels. The Ford’s polyurethane steering wheel doesn’t feel great in your palms, either.
There are myriad buttons on the EcoSport’s facia, borrowing as it does elements from the Fiesta’s busy cabin. Renault, conversely, has avoided an excessive button count by adopting a touchscreen interface from the Clio. Incidentally the system also includes, as standard, sat-nav. The one point of criticism of this system is that it is mounted too low on the facia.
Both cars feature air-conditioning and electric windows on the front doors. The Duster ups the EcoSport in a few areas; it has a height-adjustable driver’s seat (a feature of the slightly more expensive EcoSport Titanium) and electric operation of the rear windows. Apart from those and the aforementioned sat-nav, there isn’t much to choose between them in the specification stakes.
The airbag count is an even six for each car, but it is only the Duster that offers an electronic safety net should matters get away from the driver.
Both cars will suit a young family thanks to space aplenty for occupants and luggage. Owing to the height-adjustable driver’s seat, the Renault can be tailored, for the driver anyway, to feel as though there is lots of headroom. Passengers front and rear have enough shoulder- and legroom in the Duster.
The Ford’s passenger compart-ment does not feel as wide as the Renault’s, but it does have more kneeroom (which admittedly comes at the expense of luggage room).
Speaking of which, the 280 dm3 of the EcoSport – which is markedly larger than that of a Golf – is beaten by the 296 dm3 of the Duster, an advantage which the French car maintains when it comes to utility space (1 128 versus 928 dm3).
Ford has chosen to utilise a side-opening rear door rather than a traditional top-hinged hatch. This means that you have to be mindful when parking. Reverse too close to a wall and you may not be able to swing the door open far enough to access the boot due to the rear-slung spare.
Under the Bonnet
With an eco-slant in mind, we opted to test two diesel derivatives in the respective ranges. Both are small-capacity, four-cylinder, turbocharged units. The comparatively more refined motor in the Ford produces 66 kW and 205 N.m. The Renault’s slightly more vocal engine develops 80 kW and 240 N.m of maximum torque.
Despite the Duster’s six-speed transmission versus the five ratios of the EcoSport, it is the Ford that feels sprightlier. You do need to use all six ratios to keep the Renault on the boil.
However, when facing up against our VBOX timing equipment, there was very little to separate the two. The Duster’s extra power and torque were offset by a mass penalty of 132 kg. Even under braking, the results were near identical. Both cars stopped in a fraction over three seconds. During the arduous 10-stop routine, performances were consistent, with little sign of fade. With ever-increasing prices, fuel consumption is a major factor with new-car purchases. Ford claims a scarcely believable 4,5 litres/100 km for the combined cycle, while Renault advertises 5,6 litres/100 km. Our own standardised fuel-route test returned 6,1 litres/100 km for the EcoSport and a near-identical 6,3 litres/100 km for the Duster.
Under the skin
The EcoSport is based on the excellent Fiesta platform and as such shares that car’s layout: MacPherson struts upfront and a torsion beam at the rear. Coupled with the high-ish profile tyres the Ford has good ride quality. The electrically assisted steering can feel a tad light and artificial, but that won’t bother too many potential buyers. The EcoSport is not available in an all-wheel-drive configuration; power is delivered solely to the front wheels.
All Duster models have a similar front suspension setup as the Ford’s, but in the case of this four-wheel-drive version, a multi-link arrangement is employed. Two-wheel-drive versions have a torsion-beam rear axle.
Thanks to the tall sidewalls and its more sophisticated rear suspension, the Duster rides really well and trumps the Ford in this aspect.
We put that part-time four-wheel-drive system – the default setting is FWD –through a really good test. At an off-road test venue, we mistakenly took the toughest route (the one the instructors specifically warned us not to take). We needn’t have feared; rather than getting stuck, the Duster was given an opportunity to show how capable it really is. The low-geared first and second ensured enough torque to ascend slopes that most soft-roaders would wince at and the 205 mm ground clearance meant we bumped the body only once. The Duster proved that it isn’t averse to getting more than a little, er … dusty.
On paper, it’s a close-run affair, with the Duster just edging the Ford in terms of an overall package.
The reality, however, is slightly different. What we have here are two cars that, on face value, seem to be competitors but in reality will appeal to very different buyers.
With the EcoSport, Ford has nailed the recipe of an urban SUV. It has a commanding driving position, the right level of specification and is well priced. It also has the right ground clearance to deal with that most severe of urban obstacles, climbing kerbs.
If you require just that little more “U” from your SUV, the Duster is the one. It offers a more basic charm that is devoid of pretence. The butch looks and overt nature appealed to the vast majority of the team. Add into the equation the selectable all-wheel-drive system and the Duster has a wider breath of talents than the Ford for very little additional expense.
It’ll ultimately come down to intended usage. If you never leave the concrete jungle, the EcoSport is more car than you’ll ever need. But if you plan to venture off the beaten path,
take a Duster.
Ford EcoSport 1,5 TDCi Trend roadtest score: 73/100
Renault Duster 1,5 dCi Dynamique roadtest score: 77/100