SABIE, Mpumalanga – In an era where technological one-upmanship, homogenous designs and an unrelenting quest for ultimate performance and efficiency often muddle the appeal of modern vehicles, it's refreshing to get behind the wheel of a car which eschews excess for rational thinking and robust engineering. For those very reasons, the first-generation Renault Duster found more than 15 000 buyers in the local market, or an average of more than 250 a month since its original South African launch in October 2013. And that makes it one of the market's best-selling SUVs.
Spare a though, then, for the new Duster...
There's lots of pressure on the second-generation model to repeat this feat, but it certainly appears to have the range to do so. Launched in Mpumalanga, we drove the flagship 1,5 dCi Prestige EDC 4x2. It's one of a five-strong model line-up that kicks of with the 1,6 Expression 4x2 (the sole petrol in the range) at R249 900 and peaks with the Prestige selling for R334 900. Between them, there's a single 4x4 model (which launches in January 2019) and two other Dynamique variants. For the first time, the diesels boast a dual-clutch transmission option (the EDC in the name) while the others use either five- or six-speed manuals. Find out more about the range in our news story.
Thankfully, it looks familiar
As I mentioned, a big part of the old Duster's appeal was its utilitarian appearance and, while the new model certainly looks classier thanks to such touches as 17-inch alloys on the Prestige, tasteful chrome trim and redesigned lights front and rear (the ones on the nose are surrounded by neat daytime-running signatures), it's still fetchingly rugged.
The same story applies inside. The quality of the finishes has improved – it even offers soft-touch panels on the doors – and Renault has updated the infotainment system and climate-control panel (the latter, with its brightwork-encircled bezels, is really neat and gives the otherwise plain facia a visual lift), but it's still a step behind small hatches such as the Volkswagen Polo, Ford Fiesta and Renault's own Clio in terms of perceived quality.
That hardly matters, though, because this cockpit gets the fundamentals right. The seats are comfortable (with lumbar adjustment on the Prestige and reach adjustment on the steering column across the range, making it easy to find a suitable driving position); it's a doddle to use the infotainment touchscreen with sat-nav functionality (although no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto are offered); space all round is excellent for a vehicle with a compact footprint; and the boot is big. Refinement, too, has improved and the Duster no longer makes a right old racket at 120 km/h.
It's familiar under the bonnet, too ...
The entry-level 1,6-litre petrol is shared with the Mégane range and now boasts outputs of 84 kW and 156 N.m. The claimed 0-100 km/h sprint time is 11,0 seconds and Renault says it sips 7,0 L/100 km on the combined cycle. As before, though, the real star of the range is the 1,5-litre turbodiesel. Offered with outputs of 66 kW/210 N.m on the 1,5 dCi Dynamique and 80 kW and 250 N.m for models coupled with the EDC 'box, the diesel is acceptably torquey at lower speeds and remarkably refined considering the price point of the Duster.
What's it isn't, however, is in any way sprightly at highway speeds and overtaking manoeuvres should be planned carefully (that's not helped by the transmission that's occasionally indecisive in its workings). The powertrain makes up for its sluggishness with sober drinking habits; over a full day's spirited driving with the air-con on, our 1,5 dCi Prestige consumed 6,1 L/100 km.
... and on the road
What a pleasure it is to encounter a modern family car with lenient suspension tuning that doesn't favour iron-fisted body control over passenger comfort. Whether it's on pitted tar or gravel, the new Duster rides very well. Yes, you sacrifice some control as the body leans and pitches but for everyday commuting – especially in the northern provinces where road maintenance appears to be a leisure pastime instead of a priority – the little Renault is perfectly judged.
So it's a winner, then?
Yes, but I wouldn't choose this Prestige variant. As appealing as its generous spec tally is (highlights include a surround-view camera system and blind-spot assist), the sweet spot looks to be the Dynamique EDC 4x2 at R316 900. It has all the niceties you could want but nothing that might detract from the Duster's rough-and-ready appeal.
How nice to know that, sometimes, all you need to do to create a great modern product is to execute a simple idea really well.