The small SUV segment is getting more crowded than ever, especially with the speed with which brands are moving existing car platforms into crossover territory. It is a given that the customer wants the boxier profile of a crossover over the traditional hatchback or even small sedan. There is the automatic association of utility, increased usable volume, some extra ground clearance and the fleeting feel of actually converting your lifestyle to an outdoorsy type.
This deal is especially pertinent at the entry level of the SUV, because very often the vehicle is the only car in the family. It may even be a first car or if not, it is definitely a follow up from a small hatchback or a used car.
That’s the territory in which the Renault Duster was introduced. It helped that it was imagined in a side operation like Dacia for the Renault combine. Eastern European origins and manufacturing spawned a product that could be kept reasonably cheap, while offering the semblance of the SUV lifestyle that the hordes wanted. There wasn’t really any direct competition in the terms of size and value, with most other small SUVs being of either Japanese or Western European origin – read that as feature heavy and very safety focussed.
However the outgoing Renault Duster had flaws – poor build quality, fit and finish issues and perceptibly cheap interior fittings with a complete lack of features. The pros were that you could buy one for less than a contemporary hatchback.
The 2018 Renault Duster needs to be seen in that context. You can see that the company hasn’t spent a Euro more than it needed to in the upgrade. The pattern has been to address the issues that held back adoption of the Duster by the slightly better of – the sort who would put in some more money and upgrade to a Tiguan for instance.
The most marked changes are on the exterior panels. The basic body hasn’t been touched as you can see from the profile with its characteristic shape. The lighter exterior panels have however been beefed up, with a remarkable job done on the headlights and grille too – keeping a connect with the old Duster but looking very modern day Renault.
The side panels and doors have been given more of a shape, while the rear is completely new again. Here the square taillight assembly mimics the treatment on the Jeep Renegade but manages to strengthen the visual appeal of the rear end.
Other small touches – especially in the 2.0-litre 4WD include badging elements that add to the story by busying up the fenders and roofline. Don’t expect a sunroof considering the price point.
We also like the way in which the engine guard and rear rub strip have been integrated.
The other set of major changes are on the interior of the car. In both the 1.6-litre and 2.0-litre versions you can get the new central monitor with colour and touch function. The set of features connected with this may be a bit different depending on actual market, but expect a decent media centre and rear view camera at the very least. On a fully featured unit you can get Multiview which links the console to four external cameras – although there is no attempt to build a composite or inferred image like in the higher grades of around-view monitors. You get one feed at a time, which is rather useful in off-road conditions as you can see the terrain immediately outside and below you. That includes a low view ahead. The USB port sits on the top of the monitor – handy, but so yesteryear. There’s also an audio port.
The other off-road linked option is an off-road gauge that shows angles of pitch and yaw along with direction on the compass. Other than that the driver gets three aids that weren’t available till now – a Blind spot Monitor, a hill descent assist button and a nicely weighted electric steering assist.
The cabin has otherwise matured very nicely. It has been completely redesigned to look much more upmarket, the quality of plastics used on the dashboard and feel surfaces has gone up by two grades at least while the seats are good enough to put in a Koleos. There are certain cost based oddities of course – you only get a fixed seatbelt anchor and only the driver’s seat gets an inside handrest. The rear seats fold down full flat to give access to a large cargo volume.
Staying with the known
It’s when it comes to the basic underbody workings that Renault has chosen not to disturb a successful formula – other than the electric steering assist there is no change except for some new wheel sizes and designs. The 2.0-litre unit gets an aging 4-speed auto transmission, with a nice selector knob on the centre console. The 2WD version gets a smaller 1.6-litre unit linked to a CVT. You’ll find a paucity of torque and consequent CVT slippage under hard climb conditions. The 2.0-litre unit gets 135hp and 195Nm of torque while the smaller unit is rated at 115hp and 156Nm of torque.
Nothing has been touched with the suspension and brakes too – even at the top-end the Renault Duster gets drum brakes at the rear.
You’ve got to give the company its due for the level of improvement in NVH characteristics of the SUV. They claim it has reduced by 50% and by all means we are ready to believe that. This has been achieved by added acoustic panelling and damping, including in the dash. It also helps that the electric power assist for the steering mutes some road feel. It isn’t the most precise of steerings, but it is nicely weighted and you can feel your way on sandy surfaces and on the rocks. In short, the balance is good between on-road and off-road.
Neither of the engines is a class beater. They are solid performers with a clear understanding of their performance envelopes. In some ways they deliver more than you expect. Indian buyers of the Renault Duster (the replacement is some time away there) use smaller, less torquey engines. And the provision of a CVt and 4-speed auto box is a clear indication of cost control. However, when it comes to the crunch both engines perform. You can definitely push the 2.0-litre into the 5,000 revs band when needed and it doesn’t matter then that you are pushing the first gear very hard.
Suspension response is well tuned. The SUV doesn’t buck on the road, yet takes rocky and sandy trails well. We hit a large rock with one front wheel in fading twilight and following a dust trail off-road and the lift was snappy, well damped on the steering and there was no damage to the tyre. Hill descent control works rather well although placing the toggle switch on the centre panel is not the best idea – you have to take your eyes off the road to toggle it again.
Using Multiview is an advantage that you will soon learn to appreciate, although the screen itself is rather muted in sunlight. It would be good if the company offers a dealer installable upgrade or option – considering that aftermarket Android units are currently offering LED HD output.
We like the 2018 Renault Duster. It is the Duster as it should always have been in the Renault stable and is now an admission that the company has set a bunch of things right. It even gets the Renault key treatment. Beefed up exteriors, a rather neat and elegant interior and a rehash of some must have features have added an appeal to the 2018 Renault Duster that it lacked previously. We see more people looking at the top end fully featured Duster this time around and that should work in the company’s favour as it seeks to keep its price advantage against competition like the Hyundai Creta and Ford EcoSport. Neither of these offer the 4WD version so the Duster will still have a USP.