The Duster, the sports utility vehicle (SUV) launched by Renault in India on Wednesday, offers the French vehicle maker an opportunity to move from the sidelines of the country’s auto market to the mainstream. Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd’s XUV500 has proven the attraction of the SUV for Indian consumers, and Renault should be able to replicate the success.
Indian car buyers love an SUV’s macho styling, imposing road presence, the commanding view from the driver’s seat and the high ground clearance to tackle the worst roads. But this is at odds with our other big automotive needs—fuel-efficiency, ease of use and price. But Renault believes it has arrived at a good compromise with the Duster. Moreover, the Duster is the first of its kind, opening up a new segment of small, relatively premium SUVs in around the same price range as a mid-size saloon. Breaking into uncharted territory is always a gamble for a car maker but, if done right, it can be very successful—just look at the Maruti Ertiga. Similarly, the Duster does have a lot going for it.
Let’s start with its appearance. At just 4.3m long, 1.8m wide and 1.7m high, it is very compact, but the way it is styled belies those dimensions—it seems a lot bigger. There are a lot of standout SUV features, like heavily flared wheel arches, blacked-out bumper trim, roof rails, scuff plates all around and high ground clearance, that contribute to this impression.
New territory: Renault’s Duster is a good opportunity for the auto maker to move from the fringes of the Indian market into the mainstream. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Step inside and you won’t instantly realize this car is based on the Renault Logan, a fact that the company’s engineers worked hard to disguise. The Logan was built to a strict cost target and it really showed inside the cabin. The Duster’s cabin feels far better but the overall levels of quality, styling and ergonomics here are still not quite good enough for this class of car. The plastic quality is poor and the dashboard surfaces are hard and shiny. The aircondition control switches feel very basic and the steering-column-mounted audio controls are awkward to use. Still, it’s a practical interior, with lots of stowage areas and rear seats that can be folded down to add to the terrific amount of boot space.
The rear seats, too, are a highlight of this car. They are very supportive with decent legroom and the top variants get a very effective AC vent for the back seat, even if it looks like a tacky, aftermarket add-on.
As far as engines go, the Duster will be available with a 1.6-litre petrol engine that produces 102.5 bhp of power. However, given the market dynamics, it’s the two diesel options that should form a bigger part of the car’s sales. It is actually just one diesel engine—the same 1.5-litre unit we have seen in the Fluence—albeit producing two different power levels—84 bhp and 108.5 bhp. The former gets a five-speed manual gearbox that’s been tuned for city conditions and it shows in the way this version responds eagerly at low or typically urban speeds. The more powerful version gets a six-speed manual gearbox, which should make it an able highway cruiser, but it is more prone to turbocharger lag and there is a slight delay before it really makes its power. What helps the Duster is its light 1.3 tonne kerb weight, which helps make it faster than some significantly more powerful SUVs, and this should help fuel efficiency, too.
The combination of a tough chassis, well-calibrated suspension and chunky tyres gives this Renault the best ride quality of any SUV in this price range. It simply breezes through road imperfections without a fuss. And because it uses a car-like monocoque rather than an SUV-typical body-on-frame chassis, it feels less ponderous to drive than, say, a Scorpio or a Safari. Also, despite being a front-wheel-drive car (four-wheel-drive versions will likely follow later on), it holds its own very well if you want to do some basic off-roading.
But, however good the Duster maybe, it’s the price that will eventually be its make-or-break factor. On one hand, it’s a hugely competent vehicle that is creating a promising new segment but on the other hand, it doesn’t look or feel very premium or expensive enough. Driving the value perception down further is the Renault brand itself. Renault is not well known in India and the truth is that none of its Indian range is a true-blue Renault, or even French. The Duster is from Romanian car maker Dacia, the Koleos and Fluence have links to Samsung of Korea and the Pulse is a reskinned Nissan Micra.
So does the Duster hit the spot with its pricing? While the base RxE petrol model priced at Rs7.19 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi) is aggressive enough to woo punters into the showroom, the top-end RxZ diesel, with all the bells and whistles comes for an ambitiously priced Rs10.99 lakh. The mid variant RxL with the 85 bhp diesel at Rs8.99 lakh seems the best value and I suspect that after the initial honeymoon period (when everyone plumps for the top-end model), it’s the diesel RxL that will be the mainstay of the Renault range.
To clean the market and make customers immediately bite, Renault should have priced the Duster a bit more aggressively, but, even so, it’s still a very honest, no-nonsense and good-value SUV. It’s just that customers may wait a little longer before realizing that.
Hormazd Sorabjee is editor, Autocar India.
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