Cheap vehicles – no one likes to say that they love them, no one dreams of having them for the most part, yet they survive. They live on and they sell, in great numbers at that. Perhaps the most interesting “cheap vehicle” of current times is the Renault Duster, or “dump truck” as my girlfriend decided to call it after its, erm, brown colour to rival the land mines left in your back yard by Spot, the dog.
The dump truck, or super epic off-roader as I called it in my mind, is here to change the status quo. Despite its average utilitarian looks, and the seemingly flimsy door handles – this is a Romanian origin car, lest we forget – the Duster looks tough, and with the under-body plating, it seems to be purpose built to take on rough terrain. The model I was testing even had 4 wheel drive, with differential lock – definitely an off-roader then. I like to believe even the brown paint was chosen specifically, just to mask the mud you’re likely to accumulate after a day of serious mucking about in the wilderness.
But despite the utilitarian appeal, both inside and out – Utilitarian adj. boring, hard plastic, with odd storage bins, and nothing even resembling leather – it features the touch screen entertainment system from the Renault Clio 4, with navigation which works fairly accurately, USB and auxiliary inputs, as well as Bluetooth phone connectivity and media streaming. Steering mounted volume controls also make an appearance, albeit hidden out of sight, but important to note is the lack of a CD player, the bane of my life in French cars of late. All the features were rather pleasing to encounter in such a vehicle, but the Bluetooth, as in the case of the Clio, was a bit slow to connect, and for some odd reason, the screen seemed to be facing the most awkward angle, almost face down thanks to the flat façade of the dash. Other features that make an appearance in the Duster range from 4×2 and 4×4 drive selection with diff. lock, aircon, and electric windows all round,
The allure of the Duster lay not in its Spartan design or Clio-imported multimedia system though, but in the drive. Built with a gutsy 1.5-litre diesel 4-pot up front, and a 6-speed manual gearbox in the middle, with 4 all-terrain tyres, one at each corner, the Duster is able to handle all terrain with relative ease – as the tyres suggest.
On-road, the Duster has an air of urgency about it. 1st gear is typically diesel and is used for little else than getting the car rolling. Thereafter, the remaining 5 gears provide great oomph, with surges of torque from low down in the rev band. Despite the 7000 RPM redline, the Duster will never reach above 5, and never needs to stretch past 3. It ambles about with a hurried nature, direct and to the point – manly if you will, visiting the mall to get exactly what it needs, nothing more, nothing less.
The steering is direct and well weighted, with prompt turn-ins and a sharp turning circle. Enabling 4×4 drive doesn’t affect the feel of the steering at all, much to my pleasure, and the added 2 wheels of extra drive give the Duster a more anxious feel, despite its lack of pace. Pace-wise, it is nothing to write home about, with only 80kW and 240Nm, reaching 100km/h from standstill in a meagre 12.5 seconds which feel like years when you watch the speedometer.
Naturally, the suspension is firm, and the all-terrain tyres offer little in the way of ride comfort. But it plods about with relative ease, never back-breaking, and rather handy over potholes and those dark grey tar things we are supposed to call roads up here in Johannesburg. But the suspension is designed for another purpose, off-roading.
Here we encounter the meaning behind the Duster, its greatest passion, the very mission in life that makes it tick. The Duster was born to play in the mud, and does so with aplomb. It chews on dirt roads for breakfast and spits out pebbles in its wake. It sprays puddles of water from their home territories in ditches and sends them running for the hills. The tractor-like sound of the engine alone is enough to scare away the daring Range Rover Evoque from attempting to cross the same dirt path as the Duster.
Yet its capabilities extend further, beyond the dust, and into the mud, where the lightweight body and 4-wheel drive are able to strut their stuff. Steep inclines are dispatched with an uncanny ability from such a small vehicle, although a slight run-up is required in order to get into second gear before the uphill starts. Traction from the all-terrain tyres is enough to scramble up most inclines, after which the under-body shielding is welcome as it mounts the crests of many a hill. Rather disappointingly though, the Duster’s ride height is about 30mm too low, and as such it isn’t able to mount all rises, often getting jammed on the top ridge to the plateau.
Much to its benefit though, descents are made easy thanks to the short 1st gear and the high front end, which enables the departure of steep slopes without so much as a scratch to the front bumper. This characteristic also endeared itself much towards mounting large obstacles such as rocks and mounds of dirt. Transaxle situations after climbing small rises or rocks were easily dealt with too – the Duster teetering like a see-saw and rocking forward to keep 3 wheels on terra-firma at any given time. The stability and grip offered in such 3-wheeled situations is fantastic, and the utility Renault seldom even hints at the possibility of being stuck.
It may look rough and rugged, and it may have an entertainment system from one of the most popular and girly of small hatches around, but neither of these traits says much of what the Duster stands for. Perhaps the brown colour of this “dump truck” is more apt, as it plays in the mud with eagerness and ability in equal measure. It may look small, and it may bear the tiny price tag of only R239 000, but it has heart enough to take on and beat many a crossover SUV in the department they pretend to be best in. Where crossover SUV’s are fake-tanned, made-up Barbie doll types, the Duster is a genuine outdoor fanatic, a trail running, triathlon conquering machine, with all the ability and fire of much bigger, more famously known 4x4s. The Duster is not to be taken lightly; it is king of the hill, any hill, and Johannesburg pavement too.
|No. of Cylinders:||
80kW @ 3900RPM
240Nm @ 1750RPM
|Fuel Tank Capacity:||
|Fuel Consumption (Regular driving, combined cycle):||
Selectable all-wheel Drive with diff-lock
|Price (as tested):||
Author: Roger Biermann
Photography: Roger Biermann