TEST DRIVE It’s an all rounder with a phenomenal ride quality, writes Nikhil Bhatia after driving the Renault Duster on twisty hill roads

SUVs in India are known for their big size and stance and the Duster stays true to those attributes. Its flared wheel arches, short front and rear overhangs and impressive 205mm ground clearance give it an appearance not unlike the other SUVs and actually make it look larger than it is.

Underpinning the Duster is Renault’s hardy B platform that also forms the basis for the Renault Logan (now Mahindra Verito), though the Duster’s wheelbase is marginally longer. Its monocoque construction also allows it to sit lower than conventional body-on-ladder SUVs. For now, India only gets the front-wheel-drive Duster, which employs MacPherson struts in the front and a programme-deflection torsion beam axle at the rear. The four-wheel-drive version, which is unlikely to be available before late 2013, uses a slightly different rear suspension (independent MacPherson struts) to accommodate the 4WD hardware. All 108.5bhp diesel Duster variants get ABS, EBD and brake assist and ventilated front discs and rear drums as standard.

The Duster when compared to its rivals like say the Tata Safari doesn’t feel as roomy. But the headroom and legroom are enough for most people to not complain about and getting in and out of the SUV is easy. The cabin is wide enough to seat three average-sized adults in comfort on the rear seat.

But what disappoints is the quality of the plastics used in the Duster. Though there are some good bits like the door handles and the curvy instrument binnacle, the overall quality is quite poor and looks cheap. Then there’s the unusual positioning of the electric mirror adjuster under the handbrake lever, and audio controls on the steering column (and hence out of sight) that take time getting used to. Thankfully, Renault has repositioned the power window switches from the dashboard to dedicated pods on the doors before launching the Duster here, but it’s still not perfect. Hard driving will have the switches foul with the driver’s right leg. There are some good bits though, the panels have been fit properly and there are no loose parts and the dashboard is quite functional too.

Storage space for odds and ends is decent with a useable recess just above the centre console and a larger bay above the deep glovebox. You also get a total of four cupholders, though the average-sized front door pockets can’t hold more than a half-litre water bottle. The boot is cleverly shaped and can gobble up a lot more luggage than its 475-litre capacity suggests. Folding down the single-piece rear bench further increases the carrying capacity to 1,064 litres.

In keeping with its small SUV tag, the Duster also uses relatively small engines. Apart from a 1.6-litre petrol motor, the Duster comes with Renault’s popular 1.5-litre K9K diesel engine. On the Duster it is available in two states of tune – 84bhp and 108.5bhp.

Power build-up

The diesel Duster felt more responsive than the petrol and it is down to the engine. Power builds smoothly from as low as 1500rpm with a stronger shove around the 2000rpm mark. That’s not to say the engine is free from turbo lag. Driving up the twisty hill roads near Munnar, we had to keep shifting down from third gear to second to maintain momentum. For the record, this motor churns out its 25.3kgm of peak torque at 2250rpm. Thanks to the engine’s broad spread of power, even part-throttle responses are good and you can actually pull cleanly from 30kph in fifth gear. But to get the most out of this engine, you need to stay within the 2000-4000rpm band.

In fact, in terms of overall refinement, the engine is just about average. There are no vibrations but there is a clatter at idle, you can always hear the whistle from the turbo, and there is plenty of mechanical noise that creeps into the cabin. Renault’s skimping on sound deadening material, like the rubber beading on the doors, is sure to have played a part here.

The Duster does quite well for itself when it comes to performance. The engine may not have the outright power of a Mahindra XUV500, the current performance benchmark, but then it also has far less mass to move. Its 0-100kph time of 11.88 seconds beats the Mahindra, and it is also faster in the 20-80kph third-gear and 40-100kph fourth-gear slogs.

An area where the Duster really stands out is ride quality; it is simply phenomenal. And we’re not talking by typical SUV standards. The manner in which the Duster casually dismisses the worst patches of road makes it a more comfortable drive than all comparably priced saloons too. Even at highway speeds the Duster remains very composed and free from any undue up-and-down movement. Its wide footprint and relatively low centre of gravity also come together to give it good stability at all speeds and also under braking. Body control is also good and roll is fairly well contained. But, driving up a twisty section, we found the Duster lacked the agility you’d expect from a monocoque SUV.

While it may lack four-wheel-drive hardware, even this front-wheel-drive Duster is quite adept off-road, so long as you are realistic about its abilities. The short gearing and the 30-degree approach and 35-degree departure angles allow the small SUV to clamber up hillocks, and it can also wade through knee-deep water if the need arises.

At 1308kg, the Duster is light by SUV standards, and this more than anything else was bound to reflect in its fuel consumption. Driving in congested city streets, the Duster delivered a fuel economy figure of 11.8kpl. Out on the highway, the tall sixth gear makes the Duster a relaxed cruiser and allows it to stretch each litre of diesel for a remarkable 17 kilometres.

Renault has done a great job with the Duster and sales are slowly picking up. It may not seat seven people comfortably like other SUVs and is slightly on the expensive side, but as an all-rounder there are a lot of things going for the Duster. If only Renault upgrade their service centres and after-sales support, the Duster will an ideal urban SUV for India.