It’s rare for a budget new car to also have something close to a cult following, but you could argue the Duster is one of them.
It’s new to New Zealand, but the Duster compact SUV has been around for over a decade and two million sales. On paper it fits the mould of an urban SUV, but its reputation is really built on comfort, durability and practicality in countries where road conditions are demanding: it’s a highly regarded machine in India and Morocco, for example.
Built in Romania, Duster is a “Dacia” in most markets, but for right-hand drive the brand of parent company Renault is favoured. So NZ joins South Africa in having a “Renault Duster”.
For now there’s just one model for Kiwi consumption: a 1.6-litre petrol automatic with front-drive (although an AWD model is under evaluation). There's also a cute-ute version, the Oroch, on the way.
At a launch price of $27,990 the Duster is not a whole lot cheaper than the obvious competition. The Kia Seltos, Mitsubishi ASX and Suzuki Vitara all open in the same pricing ballpark and of course they are well-established names.
Renault counters with the Duster’s generous dimensions for the class (4.3m long, 445l boot), some nice technology touches (more about that in a minute) and low total cost of ownership. Fuel consumption is 6.9l/100km and service intervals are stretched right out to 30,000km/12 months, with the first service capped at $340.
It’s not a vehicle that will necessarily sell on showroom appeal. It’s cute on the outside and spacious on the inside, but the cabin is finished in dour black plastic with very few soft-touch surfaces, there’s the odd bit of ill-fitting trim and the infotainment system is a lower-end Renault unit with a modest 7in touch screen. The USB port for phone projection is above the screen, which means the cord hangs down over it to the tray where you have to put your phone. It’s not exactly strong on detail.
The appeal is in the driving. The 1.6-litre Renault engine is no powerhouse, but it’s eager and even has an engagingly thrummy sound. The Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is often a red flag in a budget car, but the Duster’s is sprightly and in hard driving steps up and down even in normal mode (well, there isn’t actually a sport mode). It feels really similar to a conventional automatic, while retaining the smoothness/economy advantages of CVT in gentle urban driving.
Duster differs most from the urban SUV crowd in its chassis. It’s designed for rough-road driving, hence the generous 210mm ground clearance and squishy suspension. That also makes it a really comfort-oriented machine for Kiwi road driving, but the French influence shows through in the way it handles. There’s lots of body roll, but it’s also tenacious and well-controlled. Not the least bit sporty, but nicely balanced and quite a lot of fun. It helps that it's a featherweight: just 1262kg.
The Duster-aware probably won’t need the sales pitch. For those that have never heard of one, Renault NZ hopes value for money will be the key. While quality may be merely average compared with the Japanese and Korean competition, durability is well-proven and it should also be very cheap to run - especially for business users, who can even have the Duster as a two-seat van thanks to a few interior tweaks from Renault NZ.
A few surprise-and-delight specification items also sweeten the deal: Duster comes as standard with integrated sat-nav (handy for rural areas where Apple CarPlay and Android Auto lose their connection), multi-view parking camera, rear parking sensors and Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM).
And you can accessorise away if you choose: Renault offers factory nudge bars, side steps, interior liners, roof boxes and bike racks.
The dealer network has also been extensively refreshed. Eighteen months ago, Renault only had five dealers; now there are 16 and four service agents. All but two are new to the brand – five former Holden dealers.
To view all Renault models currently listed on DRIVEN, click here
2020 RENAULT DUSTER
ENGINE: 1.6-litre petrol four
GEARBOX: Continuously variable transmission, FWD