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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...



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.

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