2012 Renault Duster 4×2 PE Review
The 21st-century horse and carriage
by Imthishan Giado
Journalists are always talking up the need for cheap and cheerful, back-to-basics transport. The Renault Duster is what happens when we actually get it. But will this low cost effort make you feel like a penny-pinching prince or a pauper?
At 48,600 the Renault Duster is the cheapest small SUV you can buy in the UAE, not counting those slightly-suspect Chinese ones. Essentially, this is the 21st century version of the Lada Niva; a car built by communists to provide as much space as possible for the cheapest price while still repairable by your average hammer-equipped roadside mechanic. Simple, basic and robust, the Duster sells for just 48,600 in this most basic PE spec. In the GCC, it sells as a Renault but the clever among you will know that it is really a Dacia – pronounced dat-chya – the French-Japanese’s low-cost arm for developing countries. Which, erm, we now seem to be classified as one, despite all the Bentleys and Ferraris prowling our city streets.
What does 48,600 smackers get you? Not much in the way of looks, for starters. The body is exceedingly uncomplicated, slab sided and boxy with a slightly crossed eyed front end. In the flat white of my test car which also came with plastic unpainted bumpers and tiny 15-inch steel wheels, you could easily be forgiven for thinking this is a commercial vehicle. You certainly won’t win any kudos from the family when you triumphantly arrive home for the first time in your new ‘SUV’. There is of course a reason for this – complex body surfaces are difficult to repair or bend back into shape – but there is no denying the fact that the Duster is far from a looker. Wolf whistles from adoring crowds will be few and far between and respect hard to come by on the highway. Your wife? She’ll be wanting a that cool Micra that Nancy Ajram drives.
Low-cost cars don’t have to feel miserable inside and can have fun, fresh interiors. Sadly, the people at Dacia think otherwise, because the Duster sports an interior that can only be described as the best argument I’ve ever seen for praying every night to win the lottery. It’s like the ’90s never left, with huge chunks of old blobby Renault bits in evidence everywhere. Every single surface is covered in shiny hard plastics, some of which are blessed with cheap-looking silver paint. Sundry switchgear still bear jagged remains of the flashing process. No doubt it all feels robust, but as a consumer you can and should expect better standards of finishing.
And that’s without even mentioning the equipment levels, which would make a Spartan feel a member of the 1%. Central locking comes as standard but electric windows do not – only the front windows get them. You also do not get independent turn signals; yes, believe it or not in the year 2012 the Duster only has a single indicator to tell you that a turn light is flashing, leaving the driver to guess which one it is. That’s not the end of it. Height adjustment? Nope. Telescoping steering wheel? Nope. Tilt steering wheel? Nope. Electric mirror adjustment? Nope. Outside temperature gauge? Nope. Basic amenities and they’re all only available on the higher SE spec, AED56k car. Yet incredibly you get standard Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel controls for the discount-bin stereo, which against all odds actually sounds pretty good. But gosh, Romanians must have tiny fingers because I found it nearly impossible to press the miniscule nubs that pass for buttons.
Despite lacking much in the way of adjustments, the squishy seats prove quite comfortable both around town and on longer journeys and there’s plenty of space both front and back as well as 475 litres of luggage space – room enough for even the most dedicated traveller. An unexpected benefit of the basic design is the large and airy greenhouse, providing an excellent view of the road ahead. In our hot climate, that also means more work for the air conditioning unit. More than a few of you might be wondering if a Romanian A/C can cut the mustard out here and the answer is….just about, although it’s quite noisy at the higher fan speeds.
Speaking of speed, it’s something you won’t have to worry about too often in the Duster. With just 135bhp on tap from the 2.0-litre engine, progress is a leisurely affair, despite the Duster’s relative light weight of 1200kg. The engine lacks refinement but that’s OK because the four-speed gearbox it’s hooked up to lacks brains, changing gears with all the urgency with a and timeliness of a telegram in 2012. As drivetrains go, it’s perfectly adequate for the demands of keeping up with traffic or cruising at highway speeds and certainly is the biggest engine you can buy for this price, but apart from those morsels, its offers nothing more.
Renault have gone to great lengths to advertise this car as an inexpensive alternative to other 4x4s, something which is quite odd when you consider that the Duster is not actually a 4×4. All the Dusters you can buy here are front wheel drive only with the 4×4 being a manual special-order option. Quite a shame, considering that the Duster boasts very impressive ground clearance and approach and departure angles. In an era where more and more crossovers are becoming car-like to drive, it certainly handles like a 4×4. The steering is exactly the opposite of what you want; heavy at low speeds and disconcertingly light at high ones. Understeer presents itself nice and early, but that’s the least of its worries because when you turn into a corner, the Duster rolls like a ship in a storm. At least the squishy tyres deliver a surprisingly good ride – and I actually mean that sincerely. I have driven cars with six figure price tags that do not ride as well as this barely-50k SUV, which flattens out bumps and ridges like they aren’t there. It easily seizes the title of most comfortable small SUV, as far as I’m concerned.
But again, as soon as you find something nice to say about the Duster, it snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. In this instance, I’m talking about safety which is not a high point of this base model. Sure, all passengers get a minimum of a lap belt. But only the driver gets an airbag and astonishingly ABS is not even an option until you get to the higher spec SE car. If this was still 1985 I might argue that the omission of ABS was worthwhile to hit this pricepoint, but if the Duster is intended to be a cheap car for the family, this all but puts it out of the running.
When Renault unveiled the Duster, they said it would be everyone. They clearly weren’t talking about this PE car, unless they meant someone who wanted the most space for the least cash, everything else be damned. Where ever you try to place it, the Duster falls between stools. People looking for value can find more standard features and better interiors for nearly the same money in small cars like the Sonic or the Mazda 2. The Duster has enough space for a young family and feels tough enough to take their abuse, but young children – and their adult parents, frankly – should absolutely not be travelling in a car without ABS. And what about using it as a cheap 4×4? Well without a rear drive shaft, the only place this is going in soft sand is straight down. What the Duster feels like is the perfect company car or house runabout; good enough to thrash around town and carry goods, but certainly not what you would choose to drive on a daily basis.
Most of these complaints are remedied by the upscale SE spec car, which costs about the same as a mid-level Yaris and certainly offers more value than that car, if not the driving pleasure. If you were spending your own money, then the 56,500 SE is the ‘real’ base car – and the only one worth considering.
2012 Renault Duster PE 4×2
Price: AED48,600 ($13,230)
Engine: 1998cc four-cylinder, 135bhp @ 5500rpm, 144lb ft @ 3750rpm
Performance: 0-100kph 10.4seconds, 177kph, 7.8L/100km
Transmission: four-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Imthishan’s verdict: For your staff, not for your family