Renault Duster AWD 2014: one-year review
By Abhijit Menon-Sen <email@example.com>
Hassath and I bought a Renault Duster AWD one year ago. This is our
We live in a remote mountain area in Uttarakhand, and regularly use the
Duster on rocks, mud, dirt tracks, and bad roads, and in heavy rain and
snow; but we've also driven thousands of kilometres on good highways and
expressways. We don't do any "hard core" off-roading, but the jeep track
down to our house can be negotiated only by 4WD vehicles. We've had the
car full of luggage, and we've had it full of people. Here's what we've
learned in the past year.
The Duster AWD suits our needs well, and we are happy that we bought it.
I say this right at the beginning because I don't want the criticism in
the rest of this review to dilute the message: this is a capable car
that serves us well in demanding conditions, and we look forward to
using it for many years.
By way of introduction, I have driven a few hundred thousand kilometres
in a variety of cars. I've spent the most time in various revisions of
the Maruti Suzuki Swift (which I love), but I've driven many other small
hatchbacks and larger vehicles (Toyota Innova, Mahindra jeeps, Chevrolet
Trailblazer, etc.) in a variety of conditions. I don't seek off-roading
challenges, but my regular driving often involves a distinct shortage of
We subjected my beloved Swift to life in the mountains for a year before
we started looking for a replacement. It performed surprisingly well on
the bad mountain roads, but the rocks were taking their toll on the body
and suspension, it got stuck in mud a few too many times, and it was too
small for the amount of stuff we needed to carry on a regular basis. We
needed something that could handle bad roads better, but was still nice
to drive on long highway trips. We knew we wanted AWD for snow and mud
and gravel, but we didn't necessarily need low-ratio gearing with it.
We considered various options: Maruti Gypsy (lots of space and ground
clearance, but not great on the highway), Mahindra Bolero (ditto) and
Scorpio (capable, but ugly, uncomfortable, and expensive; plus a third
row of useless seats), Toyota Fortuner (uglier and even more expensive),
Honda CR-V (lovely, but expensive and with only 170mm ground clearance,
like the Swift!), and the new Skoda Yeti (nearly perfect, but expensive
and with a slightly-tight 180mm of ground clearance). At the time, a 4WD
version of the Duster was only a two-year-old “any day now”
rumour, so we decided to wait a year and save up for a Yeti in the
When the Duster AWD was released in Uttarakhand a year ago, it came as a
surprise. We noticed a billboard on the highway, turned around to visit
the showroom immediately, and ended up becoming one of the first handful
of AWD owners. It wasn't cheap and didn't begin to compare to the Yeti
in terms of features and interiors, but it had lots of space and 210mm
of ground clearance, and we've always liked the way the Duster looks.
Summary of specifications
||“1.5L dCi THP”, 1461cc, common rail direct injection, 110PS@4000rpm
||Six-speed manual, 245Nm@1750rpm; AWD with 4WD lock
||4315mm*1822mm*1695mm (l*w*h), 2673mm wheelbase
||McPherson with coil spring (front), Multilink with coil spring
(rear); stabiliser bar, double-acting shock absorber, anti-roll bar
||Ventilated disc (front), Drum (rear); ABS, EBD, BA
What is it like to drive?
It took me a while to adjust, but I love driving it.
The Duster AWD is light and manoeuvrable for its weight. The engine is
refined and powerful, and the gearshifts smooth and fast. The suspension
is extraordinary, and every millimeter of ground clearance is welcome on
our roads. It feels composed and stable on highways and good hill roads
alike, and the steering is responsive and reassuringly precise. Overall
visibility is excellent (but see below).
This is the first diesel engine that I've driven for more than 10,000km.
It was quite the change from the (modestly) high-revving K-series Swift
engine. With the shorter gear ratios, it took me a few days to "feel"
the right moment to upshift (much sooner than with the Swift), and to
re-learn how to rev-match smoothly while downshifting. (There are gear
shift indicators, but they often disagree with me in the mountains, and
I tend to ignore them.) Overall, I shift gears much more frequently to
stay in the power band. I don't mind this, but I understand why people
think a Duster with automatic transmission would be a good idea
(especially if it had paddle shifters…).
The reward for adjusting to the transmission is plenty of power on tap.
I can overtake easily on the highway even in sixth gear. I can crawl up
steep inclines, sometimes even in second gear, and stay in third gear
for many hairpin bends. Having the Duster's power and excellent handling
at my disposal on good mountain roads is an addictive combination.
The AWD mechanism just works. We have used it to good effect in deep mud
(once even where a bus got stuck for hours), loose gravel and rocks, and
in snow (but not ice; we have snow chains for the front tyres, but have
not needed them yet). We have never once been stuck or even felt out of
control. I usually engage the 4WD lock in deep mud or on steep slopes,
but leave it at “Auto” on gravel or wet roads. We have used
the 4WD lock to negotiate many difficult areas where 2WD wasn't enough.
The ESP works. I see the light flashing often on gravel in particular,
and I've noticed it controlling wheelspin in mud as well, but I haven't
done any systematic comparison tests with it switched off. Speaking of
traction control, the transmission is supposed to be FWD-biased, but
it's possible to make it fishtail a bit around curves on low-traction
surfaces (I will avoid saying anything about the guilty enjoyment I
derive from this). I've had the ABS engage a few times, but not often
enough to say anything about it other than that it's there and works.
An engine powerful enough to let you crawl up a steep slope is already a
great advantage in the hills (the lower-than-usual ratio for the first
gear also helps here), even without the capable assistance provided by
the AWD/ESP (and the hill start assist, which I thought was a gimmick,
but which is useful nevertheless). The ground clearance is also useful.
The Duster AWD doesn't have live axles, so 210mm is the maximum
ground clearance. In vehicles with live axles and differentials (e.g.
the Mahinda Bolero and Scorpio, Tata Safari, etc.), the ground clearance
is quoted at the bottom of the differential casing, but other components
are placed considerably higher. There's a steel plate mounted under the
engine of the Duster, but one has to be careful about other components
(be mindful of rocks on the high centres of deeply rutted tracks!). In
practice, a bit of caution and the available clearance have kept us well
out of trouble.
I've read that the AWD has significant improvements compared to earlier
versions: steering responsiveness, clutch responsiveness, turbo lag and
gear ratios, multilink suspension, etc. While I can't comment on these
first-hand, the result is a pleasure to drive, even compared to the
light and zippy Swift; but the greatly improved ride quality tips the
scales towards the Duster.
There are some things that detract from the driving experience. I've
learned to live with them, but each one is distinctly and persistently
annoying to a varying degree.
The most annoying of these is the position of the clutch pedal. It's far
back and high up, and though I can reach it easily, I can't push it with
my heel comfortably planted on the floor (and I have size 13UK feet). It
is especially frustrating in stop-and-start city traffic, or when doing
multi-point turns in a confined place. Either my foot hovers in the air,
or my heel drags along the footmat (I've worn holes through the footmat,
which has never happened before). I sometimes have to switch to
neutral, take my foot off completely, and reposition it before going on.
I've never had any comparable problems before.
Two other things don't matter in the daytime, but conspire to make the
Duster the most stressful car I have ever driven in the dark.
First, the stock headlamps are entirely inadequate (with a noticeably
more limited range than the Swift). Worse still, their design is such
that they cast almost no illumination to the sides of the car. On left
hand hairpin turns, I am turning into complete darkness.
Second, the A pillar obstructs a part of the view to the right. I must
consciously move my head to the right or lean towards the centre for
visibility around a sharp right turn. Combined with the extraordinarily
poor side lighting, this is a constant source of stress on hill roads,
because you really want to be able to watch the edges of the
road around a turn at night.
Driving on the left or right may be an arbitrary convention with no
inherent advantages, but this does not apply to the placement of
indicator and lamp controls. The Duster imports the standard European
placement of the indicator stalk to the left of the wheel, where I must
operate it with my gearshift hand. Given how often I have to change
gears to stay inside the power band on hill roads, it's a real chore to
coordinate lane-change indications and headlamp-dipping. Meanwhile, my
right hand remains completely unoccupied. Except when it rains. Or stops
I realise that this placement of the controls is increasingly common in
Indian cars, but I think it's irresponsible cost-cutting on the part of
The Duster's interior has been described as boring and dated and full of
quirks, but it doesn't bother me. It's spacious, uncluttered, and easy
to clean. The colours are subdued and inoffensive. There is plenty of
storage at the front (a niche above the centre console and the big glove
compartment, and pockets in the doors), but I wish the dashboard had a
flat place to keep my mug of tea, because the cup holders under the
centre console are useless.
The front seats are firm and comfortable enough on long journeys. The
driver's seat is an improvement over the Swift. I suspect the improved
suspension deserves more credit that the seat itself, but what matters
is that my back and legs feel better during and after long drives than
ever before. The rear seats are also unremarkable but competent.
Overall, seating is comfortable, but far from luxurious.
With the seats pushed back, there is decent legroom in front even for my
193cm/6'4" frame, but rear legroom is cramped unless the front seats are
pushed further forward. We've had three people in the back without much
trouble, but it's best avoided on long drives.
At the rear, the folding centre armrest has two useful cup holders, and
the deep parcel tray can accommodate a fair amount of hand baggage. The
pockets behind the front seats are quite tight (good for papers, but not
a laptop), and there are no door pockets. There are two overhead lights
with their own switches, and the 12V socket beside the parcel tray is a
welcome addition. There is good visibility from the back too.
As for the quirks, we've learned to live with them. I wish the rear
windows opened fully (they go only two-thirds of the way down). The
position of the window switches on the driver's door suits me, but the
window switches at the rear are too easy to activate accidentally. It's
strange that the audio controls are on a stalk hidden behind the
steering wheel, but my fingers are used to it now. The AWD selector is
way over to the left, but I can reach it when I need it. I don't use the
cruise control/ESP/ECO mode controls often enough to care about their
Another perspective on interior ergonomics
As a large driver, I find the Duster's layout comfortable enough, but
the situation is very different for Hassath. The position of the clutch
is the main problem. To reach it, she has to push the seat forward far
enough that other things become awkward and cramped: steering, changing
gears, and using the parking brake.
To switch to reverse gear, one must lift a collar on the gear lever and
push the lever left and forward; a beep confirms that you're in reverse
gear. I found it easy to adapt to (I use my thumb to lift the collar),
but Hassath finds it difficult. Having smaller hands also makes it
harder for her to reach the horn while turning.
The advertisements for the Duster AWD show a woman driving, but Hassath
doesn't find it comfortable or enjoyable, and doesn't think it would be
easy for other average-sized women either. She has long felt that cars
need to be built so that both large and small people can drive them
comfortably. Car designers have had a hundred years to accommodate a
30cm/1' difference in height without sacrificing comfort.
The Duster's 410 litre boot was one of the major attractions for us,
because we need to carry supplies for a month or more to our house. It's
easy to load and unload, because there is no raised lip at the rear
bumper. With the parcel tray removed, a fully-loaded 75 litre rucksack
can stand comfortably on the floor. It would have been nice to have some
points to tie/strap down things when the boot isn't fully-loaded,
Incidentally, it is possible for two people to sleep in the boot with
the rear seat-back lowered (lengthwise, head in the boot). I wouldn't
look forward to doing it, but we survived the experience unscathed.
The AWD version didn't make any stupid changes to the basic Duster
design, so we're happy. (Ours didn't have any of the silly
stickers/decals with stripes or a compass or "AWD".)
We were disappointed that it wasn't offered in the lovely Duster red
(called "Fiery red", even though it isn't really). We chose "Moonlight
Silver" instead, and we like it, but we can't help but look at red
Dusters enviously once in a while.
The stock MRF Wanderer Sport 215/65 R16 tyres are surprisingly good. I
had intended to change them immediately (after driving down to Delhi),
but changed my mind after the first couple of hundred kilometres. They
are stable and quiet on good roads, and offer enough grip for bad ones.
I have no particular opinion about the "anthracite" alloy wheels: they
have held up well, and they look all right. I find it annoying that the
spare tyre has a plain steel wheel (even though it seems to be standard
practice these days).
Mirrors and reversing
The mirrors are fine: all three are large enough, and the side mirrors
are easily adjustable using the control under the parking brake.
The reversing sensors work fine too, once you get a sense of where they
are, and how close to an obstruction they start beeping (first slowly,
then faster, then continuously). I would have preferred a camera, but
there is reasonable visibility to the rear, and I do take advantage of
the sensors all the time. If you're manoeuvring in close quarters, be
prepared to ignore the continuous beeping in the background.
The air conditioner is powerful enough for me, but it's absurd that the
Duster AWD doesn't come with climate control (which is available on the
Dacia Duster in Europe, and many cars here at half the price). One must
fiddle frequently with the controls, and the clunky dials remind me of
the Maruti 800 (the AWD selector dial is much easier to operate!).
There are two other annoyances: the secondary air vents on the dashboard
are biased towards the centre, so the sides remain stubbornly foggy; and
the rear window defogger appears to be completely useless in winter (to
the extent that I've given up on it and switched to using the side
Apart from this, we suffered from a serious problem where the AC unit
leaked and flooded our floor (and eventually quit working altogether, a
few months in). This turned out to be a known problem, and was fixed by
the dealer at no cost to us (apart from the three days it took). It has
been working fine ever since.
I had originally looked forward to trying cruise control, but I quickly
concluded that it was just a gimmick, at least on Indian highways. The
speed limiter is… well, slightly more useful. But I would give up both
of them for climate control any day.
In retrospect, it is particularly annoying that the controls on my
steering wheel are all for cruise control (± to set the limit on one
side; off/restart on the other). I would have been much happier with a
mute button and/or other audio controls.
The “future of in-car technology” is slow and clumsy, but it can play
music from phones via Bluetooth, which is all we care about. Sound
quality is fairly good.
The radio works (but it's annoying that it comes on automatically when
the console is switched on). The pre-loaded maps have
sketchy-to-nonexistent coverage of our area, so we haven't tried any of
the navigation features.
It's baffling that there's no dedicated mute button anywhere. The driver
can pull both volume controls together on the stalk behind the steering
wheel to mute the sound, but the passenger can only press repeatedly at
the minus button.
The scissor jack that comes with the car is infuriating, even by the
generally poor standard of stock accessories. The non-detachable handle
is meant to be turned using the L-shaped wrench, but the entire setup is
awkward and tiring. Worse still, the jack is too small, and must be
extended to an unsafe degree to raise the car enough to change a flat
tyre. It's scary even on a flat surface, let alone the sloping or uneven
surfaces that we must regularly contend with. If you're “seeking
adventure” in the wilderness, look no further.
Unfortunately, the Duster is a little too high for the hydraulic jack
that served us so well with the Swift, and we haven't been able to find
a suitable replacement yet. We have taken to carrying a couple of planks
to give the scissor jack a larger, slightly higher base to operate from.
It takes me fifteen minutes to change a tyre alone—long enough that I
prefer to try to fix punctures in-situ.
The car also came with a silver dust/rain cover. It works as intended.
The Duster AWD received positive reviews from
the only one worth reading in detail is the
review by Team BHP,
which also reviewed the
There are also numerous reviews of the Dacia Duster from Europe and
South America. (These reviews are nearly all based on short-term use of
One last reminder
Just in case the many annoying things enumerated above have turned you
off the Duster AWD, here's a reminder that the Duster is sold in Europe
as a cheap, bare-bones, no-frills utility vehicle. It has acquired some
mid-range luxury segment pretensions in India, but it remains a capable
car built on a solid platform with a proven engine and a suspension that
shines on bad roads. That it handles beautifully and is fun to drive is