2012 Renault Duster
– As cheap as a small dog
– Decent cabin space
– Fairly comfortable ride
– Cheapness obvious in base trim
– Hard cabin plastics
– Gets noisy at highway speeds
We never look too favourably at “cheap” new cars. The problem with such low-level cars nowadays is that they truly feel cheap, but the price doesn’t reflect it. Consider that fact that, a decade ago, you could buy a Honda Accord for the price of a Toyota Yaris. But Renault has done something different. They’re actually offering a basic Romanian-built crossover SUV called the Duster that looks and feels cheap. But it also costs less than a Toyota Yaris, which isn’t any better.
We drove the cheapest version, with unpainted bumpers, steel wheels and wind-up rear windows. It gives off a “low-budget” vibe, so we’d actually recommend buyers to check out the higher-spec “SE” version that comes with painted bumpers, alloys, chrome and a whole host of other features that make it a more “complete” car while still competing with sub-compact cars in price.
The SUV ride-height is obvious once you step into the cabin. Inside, every inch is covered in hard plastic, right down to the door armrests. Painted metal is left naked where you’d generally expect plastic to cover it, such as the windshield-wiper area or the inner-side of the tailgate. Thankfully, the seats are still cloth-upholstered, but there are no armrests along the centre. Even the inside rear-door handles have been deleted to cut cost. Everything feels lightweight, including the doors, but nothing should fall off in the long run, precisely because there is nothing left to fall off. We should mention that the “SE” trim has a much nicer interior though, with cloth door inserts, shiny trimmings, and proper handles where they need to be.
And yet, we still got standard front power windows, keyless entry, power steering, roof rails, a cargo-compartment cover and even a CD/MP3 player with USB/AUX ports as well as Bluetooth streaming audio and phone! You also get a single airbag, a one-piece fold-down rear bench, manual mirrors and a single light to show your indicators are on, whether left or right. If you really want the second airbag, the rear power windows, the split-folding rear seats, foglamps, electric mirrors, trip computer and more, you’ll have to jump up to the “SE” model. Pay some more and you’ll even get leather, seatbelt pre-tensioners and side-curtain airbags. Still, the USB port only reads certain types of flash drives, while the manual a/c is good only as long as your car is moving.
The cabin space is pretty good, with good legroom front and back as well as excellent all-round headroom. The car is understandably narrow, so three in the back would be a tight fit. Boot space is also pretty good, more than any hatchback like the Nissan Tiida, but understandably less than larger SUVs like the Kia Sportage, but interestingly, Renault says the Duster has more cargo volume than the Sportage with the rear bench folded down. Storage options are limited to a glove-box, front door pockets, three cup-holders and a large shelf-pocket where the passenger-side airbag is supposed to be.
The Renault Duster is powered by a standard 2.0-litre, making 135 hp at 5500 rpm and 195 Nm of torque at 3750 rpm, pretty decent for a cost-cut car, considering the crap engine VW dumps in their GCC-spec Jetta. Generally we’d complain about small engines in SUVs, but the Duster is lighter than even a Honda Civic! Our car also had front-wheel-drive only. It is saddled with an ancient 4-speed automatic, although it does have a useless tiptronic function which doesn’t hold gears.
We managed a 0-100 kph time of 12.6 seconds during our hot May afternoon test, largely because the engine bogs down on initial take-off and short-shifts automatically in first gear for some reason. The gearing is also very tall, even in first, so it doesn’t feel as spritely as a Yaris or a Tiida. But more interestingly, the fuel economy is acceptable, as we estimated 10.9 litres/100 km. That’s about as good as the unremarkable Chevy Cruze, but better-engineered cars like the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus are easily more efficient. Hey, did we mention the Duster is an SUV?
The Duster is slow on take-off, but it never felt too short of power on the road once up to speed. Sure, overtaking still takes a while, but we’d rather be driving this than an underpowered sub-compact hatchback with a 1.5-litre engine, or worse. The motor does just under 3000 rpm at 120 kph.
At highway speeds, the engine drone can still be heard a bit over the moderate wind noise, but there is surprisingly little road noise from the 215/65 Continental tyres wrapping the 16-inch steelies. Keep the speed under 100 kph, and the car is actually somewhat quiet. Even the ride quality is smooth enough on most surfaces, with a slight firmness, no worse than the latest Honda CR-V we drove. And the ride height gives that elevated “4×4” driving position everyone craves.
What’s really impressive is the handling. On hard turns, body roll is present, but limited. The tyres offer up good grip and linear understeer at the limit. Even the steering is firm, sharply responsive and offers decent feedback, but its turning ratio is a bit too high to be truly nimble. Also, it feels a bit too firm for one-handed parking manoeuvres. The brakes are absolutely useless until the pedal is halfway in. Fitted with front discs and rear drums, it does stop well once you figure that out though, and it is easy to lock up the tyres as our base car did not have the optional ABS, so it was fun practising threshold braking after so long.
We also had some intense fun on gravel tracks, flicking this car around with the proper handbrake, not worrying about damaging the paint thanks to the good ground clearance and the bare bumpers. It didn’t even matter that it was only a front-wheel-drive setup in that context, but if you really want the lockable all-wheel-drive option, you’d have to shell out even more cash on top of the “SE” version and also settle for a 6-speed manual gearbox. For some cheap-and-chuckable rally fun, this car is awesome.
Truth be told, we weren’t prepared to like the Duster, but we do. The stretched platform is based on the Renault Logan, a sub-compact car that we like to avoid. But Renault has done so much more here. In this day and age, it is hard to come by prices like these for a sub-compact car, let alone an SUV. And that alone is enough to forgive all its cheap bits.
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