Review: what does the cult of Duster mean to you?
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- Sprightly CVT at speed
- Comes with cult appeal
- Generous cabin and cargo space
- Lethargic CVT in town
- Unbelievably cheap-feeling interior
- Short on active safety features
The Renault Duster is a completely new model for New Zealand, but one that’s been around for a decade in other parts of the world.
Quite a cult has built up around the Romanian-built Dacia Duster (it’s definitely a Dacia, although it wears a Renault grille in some markets – including ours) in countries where durability, rough-road comfort and a generally no-frills approach to motoring are appreciated.
Duster is huge in rural Europe, Morocco, Turkey, Russia… you get the idea. It’s known for being cheap, cheerful and impressively rugged. Did I mention cheap?
It’s fair to say that if there’s going to be an initial flush of enthusiasm for the car in NZ, it’s going to be from slightly nerdy people who completely buy into the existing Duster mythology.
People like myself.
So what we’d like is a bare-bones Duster on steel wheels with a tiny engine and preferably AWD, for credibility if nothing else. At a very low price.
We don’t get that in NZ, I suspect because even with everything stripped out it’d probably be still be comparatively expensive in a market that’s flooded with great budget-priced compact-SUVs.
Instead, Renault NZ has brought in a single-specification Duster with a 1.6-litre petrol engine and FWD, and as much standard equipment as it could muster while still keeping a lid on the price. It even has shiny alloy wheels and comes in fashion colours, like orange and bright blue. No beige.
Waikato | Hamilton
$402.94 p/w $1,611.75 p/m
Waikato | Hamilton
$322.27 p/w $1,289.07 p/m
Basically, Renault is going for a value-for-money argument rather than a super-cheap-and-cheerful one.
So at $27,990 the Duster is head-to-head with the likes of the very modern Kia Seltos and Toyota Yaris Cross. And so many others. As a relative unknown, it has a lot of work to do.
It does represent a of lot of metal for the money. It has proper SUV proportions and a big 445-litre boot (and a lot of “Duster” badges).
Standard equipment looks good on paper: full phone projection as well as integrated navigation, 360-degree camera system, front and rear curtain airbags.
But the humble nature of the base material shows in other areas. It has stability control of course, and blind-spot monitoring. But no Duster has windscreen-mounted camera/sensor technology, so there’s no autonomous emergency braking, no adaptive cruise control, no lane-keeping assist. These are things that are pretty standard on modern cars. Even cheap ones.
The basic nature of Duster also shows in the cabin, which lacks flair and is made from very hard plastic. Some bits are wobbly and there’s a lack of attention to detail in places – like the USB port for Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, which is at the top of the infotainment screen so that the cord dangles down over the display. There’s not a lot of what you’d call “design” - at least not like there is on the outside, which sports some genuinely interesting detail touches.
The driving position is good though (yes, the steering wheel does adjust for reach) and there are plenty of storage cubbies around the place. The speedometer readout is digital, although the air conditioning is very much an analogue affair; none of your fancy climate control here.
A characterful driving experience is what the Duster is really known for and that translates pretty well into a Kiwi context. The petrol engine is modestly powered, but that’s part of the charm, right?
The Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) is a letdown in slow urban driving because while it avoids the flaring that’s typical of this technology, it also fails to muster the revs required to really get the Duster moving off the line or on hills.
However, get out into the wide open spaces (which is where this Dacia, I mean Renault belongs) and the CVT is a real surprise-and-delight affair. At times you’d be hard-pressed to pick it as CVT at all: it steps enthusiastically up and down the rev range and the petrol engine is full of verve once it gets wound up.
The handling is a mixture of unexpectedly quick steering and the Duster’s legendary chassis compliance. So yes, it can catch you out at times; rock up to a tight corner and you turn in way too aggressively, while the car feels like it’s pivoting around you.
But it can also be a hoot once you get the hang of it, and there’s no doubt it can keep up a lot of momentum on the silliest (and bumpiest) backroads with a properly delicate touch from the driver. And it’s nimble because it’s light: just 1262kg.
For a certain type of person (oh, that’s me again) the Duster is a loveable little SUV, an entertaining drive and a great conversation piece. It has many foibles, almost all of which can be traced back to its core value of being cheap first and foremost. That’s why Renault keeps the Dacia brand quite separate in Europe: it’s definitely the budget division.
I understand why the Duster is a Renault in NZ. Because Renault is not a big brand like it is in Europe and introducing another new badge from Romania would be just another marketing brick wall to climb.
But it is a real shame the Duster isn’t a whole lot cheaper. At $28k it lacks the quality and safety specification of mainstream rivals, and has to sell as much on cult appeal as size and specification. It is at least cheap to run: service intervals are right out to 30,000km and your first visit will only cost $340.
But at, say, $23k (like the tiny Kia Stonic or MG ZS) it could be a real winner: not only one of NZ’s cheapest SUVs, but also one of the coolest.
ENGINE: 1.6-litre petrol four
GEARBOX: Continuously variable, FWD