It was our 2012 Car of the Year, and it’s immensely capable and still remains one of our all-time favourites. Duster customers too are by and large a happy lot. So then why aren’t there more of them? Why does the Creta sell as much as 10 times more, even though it’s more expensive? The answer to those vexing questions can be found in the Duster’s first touchpoint – the door handles.
Cheap, flap-type door handles, the kind you get on budget cars isn’t a great way to be introduced to a very capable vehicle, but it sets the tone for what is essentially, a solid, mechanically robust and practical car wrapped in a rudimentary set of clothes. Let’s not forget the Duster is fundamentally a Dacia – Renault’s no-frills Romanian brand aimed at serving working-class consumers in Eastern Europe – and wasn’t conceived to cater to the more aspirational and status-conscious Indian buyer.
SHORT AND SWEET: Duster responsive in stop-go traffic, thanks to short gearing.
It’s because of the Dacia DNA that the Duster lacks the sophistication and finesse of the Creta, and this recently facelifted model too (new to our long-term fleet) is a bit too ‘mechanical’ for today’s touchscreen generation. Speaking of touchscreens, the one in the Duster got an upgrade early this year. The infotainment system, however, is pretty ordinary compared to what the ‘connected’ cars like the Seltos, Hector and Venue have to offer.
The interior plastics and trim have been upgraded too, but again, the cabin doesn’t feel premium enough and it’s a shame that the top RxZ trim is now only available on the two-wheel-drive variants and has been dropped from the AWD version.
WILL TRAVEL: Long-travel rear suspension and high-profile tyres ideal for bad roads.
Our long-termer is specced in the RxS trim, the highest one for the AWD variant. The blank spaces on the steering wheel highlight the absence of steering-mounted controls and is a constant reminder that this is not the top-spec model. Audio controls are within finger reach, but they are at an odd position – mounted on the steering column, behind the wheel, one that I’m still not used to even after a month of living with the Duster. The October heat emphasised another ergonomic foible – the air-con controls. Not only are they situated low down on the centre console, they are also mechanically (and not electrically) controlled, feel low rent and are heavy to operate. Yes, the Duster didn’t really do well in terms of first impressions but all it took was the first round trip from home to have me completely sold.
You would think that the all-wheel-drive Duster offers no benefit in city use, but it’s in the scrum of Mumbai and not some off-road track that it drives distinctly better than the two-wheel-drive variant. There are two reasons for this.
IN A FLAP: Flap-type door handles feel flimsy and downmarket.
The first is the gearing: it is much shorter than in the two-wheel-drive and this makes the Duster so much more driveable at low speeds. The turbo lag the 1.5 K9K Renault diesel is known for is barely noticeable and a short first gear is great for pulling away from a standstill. A heavy clutch pedal was a big issue on the earlier Dusters but with successive facelifts (this is the second one since it was launched in 2012), Renault has worked hard at reducing pedal effort. The 6-speed gearbox still needs a good shove to slot through the gears and the hydraulic steering is a touch heavy too, especially at low speeds. Yes, the Duster isn’t a particularly light car to drive around town but the way it thumps through potholes is a huge part of its appeal.
And this leads me to the second big reason why the AWD Duster works better on bad roads – its fabulous independent rear suspension with extra travel and wheel articulation that’s genuinely handy on our bombed-out city roads. An extra layer of cushioning comes from the high-profile 215/65 R16 Apollo tyres, which smoothen out jagged edges, badly levelled manhole covers and broken bits of tarmac that are part of my daily 14km round trip.
COOL IS UNCOOL: Air-con controls badly based and are heavy to operate.
The high seating position and low window line, which afford excellent visibility, are a big help when you’re inches away from bicycles, handcarts, buses and delivery boys. In fact, the Duster gives you the confidence to go into battle, with everyone else also fighting for the same piece of tarmac. And that’s what I love about the Duster – it’s a car that you don’t need to drive gently. Yes, it’s not as premium as the competition but this is an honest, no-nonsense SUV that doesn’t expect to be treated with kid gloves. It’s this carefree character that takes a lot of the stress out of driving in Mumbai.