There’s more to the Duster’s repertoire than its rugged exterior. Is it the missing element that Renault needs in order to succeed in the Indian market? Nikhil Bhatia finds out

Renault’s India story is not what you would call a success. Its models such as Fluence, Koleos and Pulse have not made a mark in the market and this is where the Duster comes in. The Duster could be the model that would attract the customers back to the Renault showroom.

Just like the Ertiga, the Duster could pry open a completely new segment. There is no other compact SUV in the Indian market, save for the significantly smaller Premier Rio, and this gives Renault a massive head-start. But to take full advantage the Duster has to appeal to both heart and head.

At first glance, the Duster looks a whole lot bigger than what its 4.3-metre length would have you believe. The heavily flared wheel arches, scuff plates, and neat metal roof-rails make the Duster look quite handsome. Sitting flush with the grille, the Duster’s squarish headlights along with the plastic cladding on the bumper give the SUV a robust, no-nonsense appearance. That said, we can’t help but notice how the Duster’s doors do without any stylistic flourishes. We do, however, like the manner in which the rear quarter window kinks upwards at the thick D-pillar and how the body swells towards the tail lights.

When it’s time to get into the car, we get an unwelcome reminder of the strict cost cutting, like the door handles which are the simpler lift-type and the absence of a rubber beading on the doors. However, once inside the good news is that Renault has spruced up the cabin to make it plusher. The bad news is that it still doesn’t feel premium enough. The Duster’s dashboard may not be very classy but it’s hugely practical. For example, there’s a very useable recess above the glovebox and one above the centre console. India is the first right-hand-drive market to get the refreshed Duster that features a curvier instrument binnacle, power window switches on the doors and a revised centre console. The Aux/USB-ready music system is neatly integrated here but the AC controls are a touch too low and very mechanical in operation. The Duster isn’t free from its share of ergonomic quirks either. The mirror adjust dial is positioned quite ridiculously below the handbrake, the steering controls for the audio and Bluetooth telephony functions are mounted on the column rather than the steering boss.

But the highlight of the Duster is its back seat. It may be as flat as a runway but it offers fantastic thigh, back and shoulder support and there’s ample knee- and headroom too. Even the foldable centre armrest is positioned at just the right height while the cabin width and a low central tunnel combine to make this a seat that can host three in comfort. Also brilliant is the Duster’s luggage area, which is shaped to make fantastic use of its 475 litres capacity.

When the Duster goes on sale, it will be available with both petrol and diesel engine options. We couldn’t drive the petrol Duster, but we do know that it will come with a 1.6-litre, capable of producing 102.5bhp. Featuring twin-cams and 16 valves, the engine (K4M in Renault-speak) will come mated to a five-speed gearbox.

But given current market dynamics, Renault doesn’t expect the petrol model to be a big seller and is banking on its diesel model to bring in the volumes. The diesel engine on the Duster is a motor we are all familiar with — the ubiquitous 1.5-litre K9K powerplant already on duty in Renault’s Pulse and Fluence, Nissan’s Micra and Sunny (and the upcoming Evalia MPV) and the Mahindra Verito. Renault is playing it smart by launching this flexible motor in two states of tune and correspondingly at different price points. The basic architecture is the same (8-valve, SOHC), but power outputs differ.

Let’s start with the more powerful version first. Known as the K9K THP, we tested this 108.5bhp engine on the Fluence a couple of months back and came away impressed by its punchy nature. There’s a fair bit of turbo lag here and you need to wait for the engine to rev to 2000rpm to get a serious move on. Thereafter, the well-chosen gear ratios cleverly mask the initial lag by keeping the engine in its 2000-4000rpm comfort zone. When VBOX’d, the Duster took 11.01 seconds from 20-80kph in third gear and 11.92 seconds from 40-100kph in fourth, which makes it quicker than the powerful XUV500! In contrast, the lower-output engine seems better-suited to crowded city confines. Sure, it only makes 84bhp, but the way it tackles typical stop-go movement is quite amazing. Both motors are fairly refined and free from undue vibrations, but are a tad noisy, possibly due to limited sound-deadening material.

The rigid chassis, meaty 215/65 R16 tyres, front MacPherson struts and a torsion bar rear suspension work in complete unison to soften the worst of blows. Even broken patches of road and cobblestone paths taken at proper highway speeds simulated on the test track do little to faze the Duster when we drive it. There are no two ways about it — the Duster is the best-riding SUV for its price.

Also, thanks to its monocoque construction, the Duster scores decently in the area of dynamics. Body roll is well contained and the grippy MRF Wanderers aid confidence around bends. However, the electro-hydraulic steering isn’t very direct. Braking is via ABS- and EBD-enabled ventilated front discs and rear drums that do a fair job of shedding speed.

A day’s driving is enough to make it clear Renault is on to something big with the Duster. The styling maybe a tad sedate but the Duster makes up for this by being a very capable all-rounder. The driving position is spot-on, overall comfort is of a high standard and ride quality is the new benchmark for cars at this price.

The pair of diesel engines impress us for their driveability (84bhp) and performance (108bhp) and fuel economy should be quite good too. The Duster, then, is on course to give Renault its first big Indian success. At an estimated price of Rs. 7.2 lakh for the base petrol model, stretching to Rs. 12 lakh for the fully loaded 108bhp diesel, the Duster will be priced aggressively.