CAPE TOWN – "Are you sure?" The officer at the gate to Atlantis Dunes has a perplexed look on his face as I pull up in the Renault Duster. After I assure him this is indeed a proper 4x4, he lifts the boom and our day of fun begins. I don't blame him for his scepticism, though, as most vehicles passing through these gates are of the bakkie variety, sporting massive wheels and high-lift suspension kits…

The reason I'm so confident is that I drove the previous version of the Duster 4x4 as part of CAR’s long-term test fleet and completed 20 000 km in a year, with many off-road adventures thrown in (and it surprised me on many occasions; watch my take on the previous version here). Time to see if the new version (also a CAR Top 12 Best Buys winner in the small SUV/crossover category) is as good, then...

What's new?

In terms of styling, the Duster is more modern from the outside but still possess chunky looks pointing to its off-road potential. Inside, the facia design is completely new and much more functional than the old version, with the infotainment screen sited higher up and angled towards the driver. The climate control dials are easier to locate on the move and the steering wheel now boasts reach-and-rake adjustment (plus the hooter is now in the conventional location and not at the end of the indicator stalk).

A useful addition is a new "surround view" system that allows the driver to scan each side of the vehicle; convenient in the parking lot or when driving on a narrow mountain ledge. The overall feeling is that the new Duster is far more upmarket than before, with better sound insulation at speed. Saying this, there are still some cheap materials in certain areas, such as the roof liner and in the boot.

Powertrain

The Duster retains Renault's 1,5-litre turbodiesel, delivering 80 kW and 240 N.m. This is a good thing as it's a willing little mill serving up enough punch for a vehicle weighing less than 1,5 tonnes. The unit sometimes sounds slightly agricultural but the upside is excellent fuel consumption with less than 6,0L/100 km easily achievable when cruising.

The short ratios of the six-speed manual transmission means it's entirely possible to pull away in second gear in town (unfortunately, there's no automatic transmission option with the four-wheel-drive version). The purpose of that short first gear is to lend the Duster some off-road crawling ability, without the need for a dedicated low-range configuration.

The four-wheel-drive system employs a central clutch pack that sends drive to the rear wheels, featuring independent suspension. The driver can choose between a 2WD, Auto or 4WD lock setting, depending on the use.

Sand driving

 

Some light overnight rain compacted the top layer of the sand and the going was even easier than expected in 4WD lock mode, with traction control switched off. That is until a couple of runs at the same dune churned up the sand and revealed the tough surface for which Atlantis is known. But the Duster is up to the challenge, with the short gearing allowing it quickly to get up to speed, with mostly first and second gears employed.

The short overhangs made it possible to charge the dunes without the risk of taking the front bumper off. Dropping the tyre pressures to 1,6 bar allowed enough grip and the opportunity for dynamic driving without popping a tyre of the rim ... or so I thought.

Carving another turn in the now-rutted sand was too much for the Giti GitiPremium right front tyre. At least the Duster comes with a full spare wheel, although it is fitted to a steel rim rather than an alloy. Tyre changing can be difficult in soft sand but packing some wood underneath the jack to create a steady base did the trick. The Duster was back in action in no time.

Conclusion

What I've left out until now is the price. The Duster offers amazing value at R327 900, considering it can play the role of family SUV during the week and capable off-roader over the weekend. There is nothing in our market that can compare. The capable Suzuki Jimny is too impractical for family use and the Mahindra Thar too utilitarian for most. In my opinion, Renault has a winner on its hands and it fully deserves all the accolades it receives.

I am sure the officer at the gate of Atlantis dunes agreed when we left with big smiles on our faces...



FAST FACTS

Model: Renault Duster 1,5 dCi Dynamique 4WD
Price: R327 900
Engine: 1,5-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged diesel
Power: 80 kW 
Torque:  240 N.m
0-100 km/h:  12,5 seconds
Top Speed:  168 km/h
Fuel Consumption:  5,2 L/100 km
CO2: 138 g/km 
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Service Plan: 3-year/45 000 km