For many years we relished criticizing the US car buyers' absurd love affair with gas-guzzling sports utilities. But now, we Indians do seem to be going through a similar, delayed, pubescent crush with the four-wheeled giants. There is one redeeming feature though, that our inherent urge to seek more value has led to a preference for utilities that are a bit smaller and that run on diesel - the cheaper and actually more efficient fuel.

Not surprising then that Mahindra & Mahindra is now India's third largest car manufacturer. Not surprising too that a whole bunch of car makers are in the process of launching their compact sports utilities with diesel engines (yes, petrol too in some cases, but that will hardly be the prime mover). The Ford EcoSport, the Chevy Trax, and the Maruti Suzuki XA Alpha are all waiting in the wings. Even as we await the flood of new CSUVs, the first off the block with a fairly modern compact SUV was the Mahindra XUV 5oo and now the next one to wrestle itself in for a spot is the Renault Duster.

There has been considerable hype surrounding the Duster. That it was going to be launched with a killer price tag, that it will be a make or break vehicle for Renault in India and that it will be well-built, reliable and easy to maintain. Does it live up to all that hype and more importantly, will it satiate this fast emerging hunger amongst car buyers for a vehicle that is like a sports utility and is yet as practical as a car?

Just like the scenario in the late nineties when there was a latent demand for small cars, we are now at the cusp of an explosion in demand for SUVs and vans. What is driving the surge in demand - the need for a second car, the pent up desire to own a vehicle with a butch road presence and possibly to a much lesser extent the need for a people's mover.

Exterior design

The Duster which sports a Dacia badge in many other markets shares more than just the name with the previous car from the stable. The Logan platform forms the base on which the Duster was built. In terms of design though, the Duster is a step up over the Logan, but just about. The Duster's design is not very adventurous or quirkily French, but at least it is got all the right attributes that we Indians appreciate in a stocky-looking SUV.

At about 4,315mm, the Duster is just over the 4-metre length limit for small cars. But, the Duster looks much bigger thanks to its raised stance (ground clearance is 205mm), the large, flared wheel arches rising all the way upto the shoulder line and the off-road worthy approach and departure angles. More SUV-ish features that add to its muscular stance and road presence are the roof rails, the running boards on either side and the big bonnet slab, which is laid almost horizontal to the road. The India-spec Duster has had a few changes to its design, the most prominent of which is the fresh and chunky bonnet grille. The fat three-slat grille design adds a dash of aggressiveness to the design of the Duster.

Almost hatchback style, the wheels of the Duster have been pushed out to the extremities. Leveraging a lot of interior space and simultaneously giving the Duster stocky looks, the 2,673mm wheelbase also enables it to manage a 475-litre boot. There is enough height too at the rear, since the roofline only gradually tapers down to meet the C-pillar.

But with the spare wheel below, the floor in the boot area is raised and so, even though Renault dealers will be able to offer you the addition of two jump seats at the rear, they can't be used by adults. But, two kids should be able to sit fairly comfortably. If you have a lot of luggage, folding the second row of seats can expand storage space in the trunk to 1,064 litres. When you view the Duster from the side, the two doors and the quarter glass just before the thickset C-pillar makes it look more like a 7-seater. But, it is inherently capable of only accommodating five people and their luggage in comfort. The rear tailgate is not too big or heavy, but is still big enough to cut deep into the rear bumper, which enables it to offer a fairly low loading height. The Duster's tail-lamp design is unique and makes it look bigger than it actually is.

Interior

The Duster's cabin is very much sedan-like, though the slightly over-vertical centre stack is the give-away SUV trait. When I sit behind the wheel the raised SUV seating position is very obvious, but still, my shoulder is above the window line. The interior of the Duster sports a biege-black or cream and black twin colour theme. The dashboard design has been reworked in parts for the Indian version. The design is simple and functional overall, with all the knobs and controls within easy reach for the driver, except the rotary electrical adjustment knob for the door mirrors which is strangely located below the handbrake lever.

The Duster is a bit wider than the Logan, but there is not much of the extra space in the cabin. I am guessing much of the extra width must have been lost to fatter door panels. So, when you sit at the wheel, the door armrest is right next to you. But there is no feeling of being cramped and the eight-way adjustable driver's seat is so comfy that you'll hardly notice the Duster's hatchback levels of shoulder room. But, you get fairly generous amounts of legroom and headroom (905mm at the second row) both at the front two and the rear bench seats. In fact, the rear bench seat hardly feels like a bench, with very decent amounts of lumbar and thigh support. I was told that the seats were completely reworked for the India-spec Duster. The rear parcel shelf is also different from the other country versions.

The steering wheel is sized just right and the chunky build makes it nice to hold. Fake wood and brushed aluminium finish trim are additions in the top-end variants. One nice touch is the independent second row air-conditioning. The pod sticking out of the floor not only houses a vent and fan, but also a separate HVAC unit in addition to the one on the dashboard. Overall, the finish quality of the panels and controls in the Duster's cabin is really good, but plastic quality could have been better.

Performance

The Duster is offered with two engines, one each of petrol and diesel. Knowing well that the diesel is likely to be the overwhelming choice, Renault India is offering the engine in two states of tune. Of course, the engine here is the now familiar 1.5L K9K dCi engine, which is shared by quite a few cars from the brand. The variant with the higher state of tune features this 1,461cc diesel engine with a variable geometry turbocharger and an intercooler, which together bump up the peak power to 110PS, which is available from about 3,900 rpm. Peak torque of 248Nm is delivered at a bit delayed 2,250 rpm. Just like the numbers indicate, the engine starts delivering decent levels of pulling power to the front wheels only after the needle crosses the 1,500 rpm level.

I drove this version of the Duster only and though I felt the turbo lag a bit more due to the hilly terrain that I was testing it out in, buyers who will be mostly driving it in urban conditions will probably not miss more torque in lower end of the rpm band. This 110PS variant is mated to a six-speed gearbox with a very sedan-like short throw, slick shifting gear stick. The same common rail direct injection engine is also offered with a lower tune state. Here the engine produces 85PS of power at 3,750 rpm and peak torque output is 200Nm at 1,900rpm.

Going by the stats, this engine could be the one that is more suited to urban driving conditions, with more lower end torque and possibly more fuel efficiency too. This could be the version that rakes in the most numbers, since most city buyers should be satisfied with this level of performance. Both the diesel variants offer the best performance when the engine is kept within a 2,000 to 3,500 rpm band.

The petrol engine on offer is the Renault 1.6 K4M engine. The 1,598cc engine produces 104PS of peak power at 5,850 rpm and 145Nm of peak torque at 3,750 rpm. The petrol engine version and the 85PS diesel version are both paired with a 5-speed gearbox. The Duster is not being offered with a four-wheel drive option, though it is available in other markets.

Ride quality of the Duster is also a big plus. The monocoque construction, the rigid chassis and a good match in the 215/65 R16 tyres give the Duster confident handling characteristics on the highway and winding hill roads. The suspension set up includes anti-roll bars at the front and the rear. Though very bad roads momentarily seem to leave the Duster a bit unsettled, the suspension does an excellent job of soaking up most of the challenges that regular roads throw at it. Some amount of road and wind noise seeped into the cabin in the RxL variant I was driving, but that could be a one-off. The noise was absent in the RxZ variant I drove later and I am also told by Renault engineers that considerable work has been done on insulating the cabin.

Bottomline

The Duster is compact, yet offers the right road presence, its kerb weight is just about 1,300 kgs, has a turning radius of just 5.2 metres and is said to be capable of a rated mileage of about 20 kmpl (85PS diesel variant). All of these are almost small car like and just the attributes that value conscious buyers will look for. Between the three engine versions there are a total of 8 variants and they are priced in the range of Rs 7.2 lakh to Rs 11.3 lakh (ex-showroom). That positions it squarely next to the existing SUVs like the Scorpio, XUV 5oo, Tata Safari and even sedans like the Hyundai Verna and the Honda City.

Despite the automobile scenario being a bit dull overall, the Duster has still come in at just the right time for Renault India. While it is still going to be a tough task to keep the tempo going for the Duster, it is quite clear that it is not without reason that prospective buyers are queuing up for test drives and causing traffic jams outside Renault showrooms around the country.

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on July 23, 2012)
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