Renault Duster AWD 2014: one-year review

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2015-11-01

Hassath and I bought a Renault Duster AWD one year ago. This is our detailed review.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Initial context

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 roads.

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 meanwhile.

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
Engine “1.5L dCi THP”, 1461cc, common rail direct injection, 110PS@4000rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, 245Nm@1750rpm; AWD with 4WD lock
Dimensions 4315mm*1822mm*1695mm (l*w*h), 2673mm wheelbase
Kerb weight 1275kg (approx.)
Suspension McPherson with coil spring (front), Multilink with coil spring (rear); stabiliser bar, double-acting shock absorber, anti-roll bar
Brakes Ventilated disc (front), Drum (rear); ABS, EBD, BA
Tyres 215/65R16

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.

Annoyances

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 raining.

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 manufacturers.

Interiors

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 placement.

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.

Boot space

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, though.

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.

Exterior

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.

Miscellaneous

Tyres

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.

Air conditioning

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 mirrors).

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.

Cruise control

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.

MediaNav system

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.

Accessories

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.

Other reviews

The Duster AWD received positive reviews from Top Gear, Autocar India, Overdrive, autoX, and NDTV, but the only one worth reading in detail is the review by Team BHP, which also reviewed the Duster 2WD. 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 the car.)

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 a bonus.