First drive: 2013 Renault Duster 4×4 manual in the UAE (video)
The first time I heard about the Duster was when a Romanian colleague of mine proudly showed me pictures of a new Dacia on the internet, sometime back in 2009. A couple of years later, the Duster was introduced in the UAE with a Renault badge for an incredibly cheap price tag. Fast-forward to the present, and Renault claims that the Duster is a success story. We wouldn’t entirely refute that statement, considering the increasing number of Dusters we have been seeing on the roads. Even a buddy of ours bought a 2013 Renault Duster just a few weeks ago, and we decided to test-drive it once again, because this Duster is a little different. According to the showroom, only three of its kind exist in the UAE.
The car our friend bought is a brand-spanking-new Duster, but this one is a four-wheel-drive version offered that’s only with a manual gearbox, that latter bit making it rarer than a Bugatti here. Almost all of those you see on the roads are the two-wheel-drive automatic models.
Nothing has changed in the Duster since our last road test report. The 4×4 Duster has a few minor differences from its two-wheel-drive sibling though. There is a knob-operated transfer-case selector just above the gearbox, offering three drive modes –- two-wheel-drive, automatic all-wheel-drive, and four-wheel-drive with locked centre-differential, complete with dashboard indicators. The spare tyre in the 4×4 model is mounted inside the vehicle, resulting in a shallower boot floor, unlike in the front-wheel-drive models where the spare-tyre is mounted underneath the vehicle. There is also a cheap-looking sticker that reads “4WD” on the tailgate.
We did notice that the a/c has become significantly better, fairly keeping up with the summer heat even while idling. There is also an optional central armrest at extra cost, cloth door inserts and rear door handles, things that weren’t there on the base model we drove earlier. On the outside, the headlamps and alloy wheels are now smoked, thus becoming the only good-looking bits in the otherwise bland design.
The Duster 4×4 comes with all-wheel-drive and is available only with a 6-speed manual gearbox. The engine is the same measly 2.0-litre motor powering the automatics. The first, second and third gears in the manual version are close-ratio, aiding in quicker acceleration, with the first gear being short to the point where it is mostly unusable in daily driving. Almost every time, we found ourselves accelerating off from standstill in second gear, and the Duster still picks off decently. Driving the manual Duster is not a hassle, as the clutch is light and the gear shifter, though a tad bit notchy, slides into place without drama. Expectedly, the manual version is faster from 0-100 kph than the automatic one, with our example consistently clocking 11.5 seconds in August weather.
Our usual off-road tests for such crossover SUVs do not stretch beyond the mild roadside dunes, for fear of breaking things. But this time around, we decided to do the unthinkable with our vehicle -– to go for a proper desert drive with a group of off-road enthusiasts. This also marked my first ever desert drive with a manual vehicle.
Before the drive commenced, some people in the convoy had joked about the Duster breaking into pieces. Thankfully, the little Duster never disappointed us.
The miniscule crossover actually amazed everyone in the convoy, every time we climbed up and hopped over the sand ridges. We were mostly using the second and third gears as we negotiated most tricky spots without drama. At one point, we even managed to cross a very tall dune with a 45-degree incline, although only in the fourth or fifth try. We did get stuck a couple of times during the entire run, but so did the other proper off-roaders in the convoy, although lack of low-range gear meant we had to be pulled out whenever we got stuck. Nevertheless, by the end of the drive, our Duster emerged unscathed.
At the end of the desert run, we were convinced that Renault’s billboard advert of the dirt-covered Duster on a dirt track is not false advertising. The fact that anything with all four wheels powered can go off-road, is a given. But, aided by very good suspension tuning and wheel articulation, commendable approach and departure angles, the manual gearbox with close-ratio initial gears, and a lockable centre-differential, the Duster can do it better than any random crossover, and more importantly, without breaking anything. The low-range gear may not be there, but whether anyone will get so enthusiastic with the Duster, even to the point where we did, is highly questionable. And, aren’t we talking about something that costs about as much as a crappy little Chevrolet Sonic?
If you know how to drive a manual, like to drive a manual, and suffer from a strained budget, the manual Renault Duster 4×4 is well worth a look, as it drives and handles good, offers a spacious cabin, and can even fulfil your urge for off-road thrills to a good extent if you like to live on the edge.
For full prices and specs, visit the Renault Duster buyer guide.
Photos by Vivek Menon and Mashfique H. Chowdhury.