Renault Duster AWD 2019

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

2019-11-01

Renault India introduced the Duster AWD in late 2014, and Hassath and I bought one just days after it was released. We liked it immediately, and wrote a detailed review after one year. At the time of writing, our car is doing fine after five years of unrelenting offroad use.

Time to upgrade?

The Duster retains a dedicated following, but attracts fewer new buyers with each passing year. Its outstanding ride quality and surprising AWD competence are still unmatched in its segment (the Mahindra Thar is much less usable on-road, and the Jeep Compass AWD costs as much as a Duster and Thar put together); but the AWD market in India was always a niche, and the Duster is now increasingly described as “dated” and lagging its competition in terms of features and interior comforts.

Renault chose not to bring its second-generation 2017 Duster to India, and was content to release the occasional “facelift”, most recently in July 2019. Meanwhile, grim rumours began to circulate about the future of the Duster AWD in India after the April 2020 deadline for adoption of BS6 emission standards (or even Renault's future in India, depending on how grim you wanted to be).

In October 2019, the Duster AWD took top spot in Autocar India's list of “cars to buy before they die”.

Alas, the latest facelift did not endear itself to us. The AWD variant, formerly available only in the top-spec RxZ configuration, was relegated to the “RxS(O)” line and stripped of various features to reduce costs. Some of the differences we didn't care about (cosmetic changes), some we could live without (e.g., the touchscreen, electrically foldable outside rearview mirrors, reverse parking camera), and some we were willing to sacrifice (e.g., cruise control, speed limiter).

But that left us with the infuriating omission of the rear wiper and washer and height-adjustable driver's seat with lumbar support. We need both and were prepared to pay more for them, but neither feature could be retro-fitted onto the RxS(O) car (and we couldn't do without AWD).

Conclusion—keep the 2014 RxZ AWD, don't buy a new one.

RxZ AWD: the last of its kind

At least, that would have been the conclusion if it hadn't been for Hassath. At her urging, someone at the dealership went to consult the inventory, and found a pre-facelift 2019 Duster RxZ AWD at the factory in Chennai. Just one.

At first, I was not a fan of buying an "older car", but Hassath asked me to enumerate specific reasons to avoid it. After much thought, the only objection I could come up with was… “But it's brown”.

And that's how we came to buy the very last pre-facelift 2019 RxZ AWD available anywhere in India. And it's actually quite a lovely brown.

Headline feature comparison

Here's an armchair comparison of some major features between the 2014 RxZ AWD (our old car), the 2019 RxZ AWD (our new car), and the 2019 RxS(O) AWD (the latest available model).

This table omits features present in all three models (e.g., ABS+EBD+BA) as well as differences from the brochure that I didn't find interesting (e.g., the colour of the inside door handles).

Feature comparison
  2014 RxZ AWD 2019 RxZ AWD 2019 RxS(O) AWD
Cruise control ×
Speed limiter ×
Front fog lamps (optional)
Rear wiper and washer ×
Height adjustable front seat belts ×
Height adjustable driver's seat with lumbar support ×
Driver's seat armrest × ×
One-touch driver's window × ×
Automatic climate control × ×
Reverse parking camera × ×
New MediaNAV touchscreen ×
Projector headlamps, LED DRLs × ×
Cooled storage × ×

One minor change deserves special mention: the rear window controls have been moved to the front of the rear armrest, which fixes a long-standing annoyance for rear passengers who accidentally lowered the window with their elbow. This might be our favourite new feature.

Not all of the differences above were initially clear to us. The rear wiper and washer and the height-adjustable driver's seat by themselves were enough to tip the scales in favour of the older model. We realised later that we would get automatic climate control and a reverse parking camera, and discovered only when we received the car that it had the new-style touchscreen with Android Auto support.

Thanks to Hassath, we didn't lose any features we already had, we got a few nice surprises, and missed out on only two relatively minor features from the facelift. In short, we got lucky.

Cosmetic changes

Renault has made various design changes to the original Duster, and we don't particularly care for any of them. Since the Duster was launched in 2012, their aesthetic sense has never strayed too far from “can we make it even more shiny somehow?”

Many of these changes can be seen in the Team-BHP reviews of the 2012 Duster, 2014 AWD (which is what we had), and 2016 Duster (which was also only a “facelift”, and looks very much like the 2019 RxZ AWD).

Here are some of the changes we've noticed, in no particular order.

Exterior

All three models have different alloy wheels. We still like the original bold five-spoke “anthracite” design best, both for its distinctive looks and because it's easiest to clean. We don't mind the generic-looking but inoffensive (no red centre) in-between design that we ended up with. The facelift introduces distinctive “diamond cut” alloys, but they're a bit too busy and shiny for our tastes. (Also, diamond cut makes me think of an addictive but crumbly South Indian fried snack, and I'd just as soon keep those away from the car.)

The plastic front and rear skid plates have both become larger and more prominent. The unobtrusive black-and-silver one in front has now become a flamboyant contrasting silver moustache with a nicer-looking mesh for the air dam. The facelift goes back to a darker silver colour for both.

The turn indicators have moved to the outside mirrors, and their place on the body is taken by a stupid shiny badge that says “RXZ” (nowhere else is this X capitalised). If you happen to drive at night with the mirrors folded in, remember to budget an extra few seconds per right turn to recover from temporary blindness after switching on the indicator. 😑

Speaking of shiny badges, the rear hatch now has only a “dCi 4WD” badge instead of the separate RxZ, dCi, and 4WD badges on the old car. The big chrome plate across the hatch says “Duster” in raised letters instead of embossed ones. Also, the wider roof rails now say “Duster” (as does the dashboard, just above the glove compartment).

Interior

All three models have different steering wheels, but the differences are minimal. The original design was plain and unremarkable. The one we got is nearly identical, but the horn pad works better (no more presses that fail to activate the horn). The latest design may be a bit nicer to the touch, but tries too hard to make the steering-mounted controls look more interesting.

Both older models have a large cubbyhole above the glove compartment, and a smaller one above the centre console. The facelift does away with these in favour of cooled storage and a closed console. Inexplicably, it does so in a way that still fails to provide a secure flat surface to place mugs of tea on. The lack of storage is a serious impediment—the front cup holders are so tiny and so close to the controls that they can be used to store at most a few coins or perhaps a phone standing on one side. We're glad to have both cubbyholes.

The facelift has two rounded-off rectangular central AC vents on the console, but retains a round vent on each side. The original had four unremarkable round vents with silver outlines and matte-finished dark vanes. The model we got has four round vents too, but the glossy vanes are of appallingly poor quality. They feel flimsy and unpleasant to use, and badly let down the otherwise pleasant interior.

The newer models are upholstered in “Deco Brown” fabric (shades of beige that go nicely with the woodland brown exterior), where the old car had shades of dark grey. The new seats look nice enough to be worth some extra effort to keep them clean.

The outside rearview mirror controls (adjustment only, not folding) have moved from their original position below the parking brake to the block of controls on the driver's door. This doesn't really matter.

That brings us to the end of the comparisons that we can do without starting the car.

What's it like to drive?

The new car has the same engine, the same chassis, the same suspension, and the same steering as the old car. Even the horn sounds the same! So I expected it to feel exactly like the old car to drive. I was wrong.

Somewhere along the line, Renault tweaked the gear ratios significantly. I don't know when, or for which models, but the result makes the new car even easier to drive in the mountains.

The old setup was upshift-happy. You could start from a standstill and be in fifth gear in under a minute at a speed slightly above 40km/hour. If your engine speed dropped to about 1500rpm or lower, you would have to drop a gear or two briefly to build up to a cruising speed again.

The new car is very different. The 3rd and 4th gears in particular are tolerant of a wider range of engine speeds. You can hold on to them for longer and rev higher before you have to shift up. More importantly, you can hold on while the engine revs much lower before you need to shift down. Climbing hairpin turns that we used to take in 2nd gear now feel comfortable in 3rd. You can slow down for traffic or a speed breaker and ease back onto the throttle from 1000rpm or so without shifting down from 3rd. You can do the same thing in 4th gear, so long as you are careful to accelerate gently and don't need to climb uphill right after the obstacle. On good roads that allow for slightly higher speeds, you can spend a lot of time even in fifth gear. It's a truly remarkable change.

Of course, nothing prevents you from dropping gears and getting onto the power early—as the gear shift indicator suggests—but with the long and awkward clutch travel, it's nice to have the option of a more relaxed driving style and also benefit from increased fuel efficiency. Dropping to such low engine speeds and trying to recover without downshifting would result in a lot of juddering in the old car. The new one remains composed. The difference is particularly noticeable on mountain roads, but the new gear ratios should also help in traffic and other situations that call for frequent speed changes.

The inevitable flip side of this change is that the car takes longer to reach highway cruising speeds. Where the old car was sprightly and felt eager to accelerate into the triple digits, the new one is more sedate and likes to take some time to think about it. Once at that speed, it feels as relaxed and composed as ever, but you might need to change gears a bit more often if you intend to dart aggressively through openings in traffic instead of just cruising along.

We spend a lot more time driving in the mountains than on highways, so this arrangement suits us perfectly. A gradual increase in the number of roads in India where one can use cruise control as something more than a gimmick also helps to accept more relaxed highway manners.

Apart from this, the car feels utterly familiar. The driving dynamics are still the same: negligible body roll through corners, stable and responsive handling, and excellent ride quality.

Our review of the 2014 Duster is still relevant for background information.

Tyres

Apollo claims that the stock Apterra HL 215/65R16 tyres are all-terrain tyres, but they just don't look like it. They're obviously strongly road-biased, and the manufacturer is probably counting on most drivers to do no more off-road driving than an occasional foray through mud or wet grass. Unfortunately, this assumption does not apply to our driving conditions at all.

Still, these tyres seem comfortable enough and behave well on road, at least while they're new. We decided to keep them for however long they last before switching to something with a more aggressive tread (such as the Yokohama Geolandar A/T tyres we fitted on the old car).

Air conditioning

The old car had the worst AC unit we had ever encountered.

It bears repeating here that the redesigned AC vent flaps are so cheap and flimsy that they do not give a good first impression, but it's too soon to say much about the AC itself.

The AC controls don't look nearly as nice as the European version (which gets three knurled silver-and-black control knobs), and while they don't feel nearly as bad as the vents, they are only a few rungs lower on the ladder of nastiness. If you like LEDs, the AC controls have about two dozen between the two knobs and eight buttons. One of these buttons is marked “A/C off”, and it has a red LED that lights up when the A/C is switched off(!).

Reverse parking camera

The reverse parking camera does the minimum required to tick a checkbox on the brochure. It's an improvement over parking sensors alone, but we would have preferred a clearer and brighter image with guidelines that responded to steering changes.

At night, the image is just barely usable if you use your brake lights to illuminate the scene. The reversing lights are not nearly enough to provide any useful detail.

New MediaNAV system

The new MediaNAV is uglier than the old one, but works fine. All we want is to play music from a phone via Bluetooth, and it still does that. The system seems to respond more quickly when you touch the screen.

There is still no dedicated mute button near the screen, and the system now hesitates for a moment when you use the controls mounted behind the steering wheel to mute the audio. On the other hand, going back to play the last audio track used to take some frantic spinning of the selector wheel, but a quick touch now suffices.

We don't care about the inbuilt navigation at all (we never used it), but we can use Google Maps directly on the touchscreen now, thanks to Android Auto support. Unfortunately, the USB port is placed at the top right corner of the screen, and when you plug in a cable, a bit of the connector will block your view of the corner (where the time is displayed). Then, depending on where you put your phone, the cable might obscure some other bits. This unforgivably thoughtless bit of design can be mitigated by buying a cable with a special right-angle USB connector.

The physical AC controls have LED indicators, but the console displays a slightly-delayed and redundant notification of every change anyway. You can turn this off in the display settings.

The MediaNAV manual mentions a “Vehicle” menu with “Eco” and “4x4 info” (realtime compass and inclinometer display) options, but this unit does not have it.

Miscellaneous

The stock headlamps on the old car were an immediate disappointment. The new ones are much better (still halogen bulbs, and without the projector setup introduced by the facelift).

The one-touch control for the driver's window is handy when you want it, and annoying when you don't. I'm not sure yet which happens more often when I'm driving.

Conclusion

The 2019 RxZ AWD is a welcome improvement over the 2014 RxZ AWD: many good things remain unchanged, some things are better, and only the AC vents are unquestionably worse. The Duster remains a capable car, well suited to our needs, at a reasonable price point.

In short, we got lucky.