Chennai is becoming a hotspot for small SUVs. Less than 50 km from each other are Renault and Ford, two players who are about to change the dynamics of the premium C segment. The first one is already here, and has the opportunity to make the most of it till Ford unleashes the EcoSport. But Renault is on a firm footing with the Duster, at least as far as the product goes.
The Renault Duster is available as a two-wheel drive model only, with a few interesting engine options - a petrol engine and a diesel engine with two power ratings, combined with either a 5-speed or 6-speed manual. If that's not enough, Renault has positioned the car in a sweet spot, overlapping premium B-segment hatches, mid-level C-segment sedans and the more premium ones. You could say that Renault is once again doing to the car market what Mahindra did with the Scorpio ten years ago. And there hasn't been a credible rival to either the Scorpio or the Tata Safari in all these years.
It's numbers that will do the talking. Mahindra sells about 4,000 units of the Scorpio each month, despite it being a 10-year old platform. Renault is hoping to do at least 3,000 units for similar periodicity, and that doesn't include exports to the UK, the first right hand drive export market. If Renault can achieve those numbers, then its India story is truly bright, and it will allow for other cars like the Scala (Renault's badge engineered Sunny), Renault's take on the Nissan Evalia MPV and a small car that could be positioned under the Pulse, to seriously take off. And at the end of the first week , Renault have notched up an impressive 6,000 bookings. Some achievement!
The Duster, for all practical purposes, is a Logan underneath. It shares most of the platform bits and some of it is visibly apparent. Even though the Indian Duster has been changed radically over its European Dacia counterpart, it can't hide its telltale lights, or the indicator stalks, the headlamp beam adjuster or even the key fob. These, though, are the smaller bits, for under the hood rests its champion motor, the 1.5-litre dCi K9K, probably the second-most widely used small capacity diesel engine in India, after the Fiat Multijet.
On the outside, the Duster has some quirky styling elements. But it takes a lot of effort to spot them, for Renault has done a brilliant job of masking them with lots of chrome. The grille, with the rhomboid Renault logo, looks rather smart. The flanks may appear bland at first, but the clean lines also help the car look more pleasing to the eye. At the rear, the large Duster logo and the chrome surrounds for the lamps give the car an overall muscular appearance, which is exaggerated by the near lack of overhangs and very neatly designed rear wheel arches. It's compact enough on the whole, but butch where it really matters.
Going back to the inside, Renault has applied a lot of 'Indian' touches, from a rear blower with its own HVAC unit (unlike the blower on the Sunny/Scala) to the chrome accents all around and, most importantly, shifting the power window controls from the centre console to the door. It's Renault's way of de-quirking the car, though the control for the power mirrors rests right under the handbrake lever. Even the pod for music controls (like in the Fluence and Koleos) finds a home behind the vehicle's steering wheel. Quirky? Yes, but bearable. Overall build quality is good, with the exception of certain plastics for the door pockets, but on the whole, it's a good step ahead of its current competition.
The top-end versions get some smart interior trim, including the option of leather. It's comfortable for four persons and a bit of a squeeze for five, but not uncomfortably so. There is just a bit of dearth of under-thigh support, especially if you are 5ft 10in. or more, though legroom isn't much of an issue. Getting in and out of the Duster is a breeze, especially when compared to the Scorpio or the Safari, which have a taller entry and a deeper footwell. This doesn't mean that ground clearance has been compromised - at 205 mm, it is more than adequate. But more on that later.
For the short-ish test drive on the Renault-Nissan test track at Oragadam, near Chennai, we were provided with the Full Monty, 108 bhp, 1.5-litre dCi motor. Updated over the previous 104 bhp just two months ago on the Fluence, it is characterised by slightly better refinement and a flatter torque curve, which became highly evident on the track. Mated to a six-speed manual, it's quick off the blocks - quicker than the more powerful Mahindra XUV5oo by a good 1.4 seconds, taking 12.2 seconds to 100 kmph in our preliminary test runs.
The engine revs freely all the way up to 5,000 rpm, and feels more sprightly than the Fluence, too. That's also down to its lower kerb weight, tipping the scales well under 1,300 kg. Like the Logan, the gear ratios are well suited for Indian driving conditions. With the motor ticking at just over 1,000 rpm, it's easy to pull all that mass in fourth gear with little trouble. Renault has done a lot of work on the overall NVH levels, and it shows in this particular variant. Step into the less powerful, but no less competent, 84 bhp version and you find that apart from the higher harshness levels, it feels equally quick on its feet. In fact, in city driving, its power delivery is even flatter and it feels less strained. This could very well be the version that could bring in most sales for the Duster.
Driving on test tracks doesn't help in evaluating the ride and handling to the hilt, but we did get more than a fair understanding of what the small SUV has to offer. Handling is quite neutral and while roll does set in, you have to get the car to go full tilt before it exhibits any, thanks in part to the 215/60 R16 MRF Wanderers, which do a commendable job. Power delivery is well controlled, once again down to smart selection of gear ratios, and it takes quite some skill to do something very stupid in the Duster.
Steering feel is so-so, but it's positive and turns in reasonably well. It's the ride, though, that makes the Duster what it is. It rides flat over potholes and bad sections, and could make some larger SUVs look a bit out of place in this area. Combined with short overhangs and good approach, break-over and departure angles, this front-wheel drive SUV is good even off-road. Maybe Renault will offer a 4x4 at a future date, and we think it should.
Given the preliminary experience with the Duster, one thing is for sure - Renault now has the right car to make its mark in India. At a time when the auto industry, especially the four-wheeler sector, is going through a negative sentiment, the Duster could be the kind of car that could shake the market and hopefully put it on the growth path. We'll have to see if Renault can get its act together and pull off its strategy of carpet bombing the market in the long run, as the Duster starts at Rs 7.2 lakh for the base variant, and goes all the way up to the higher reaches of Rs 11 lakh plus for a fully loaded, 108 bhp diesel, ex-showroom, Delhi. The onus is now on Ford to prepare a befitting answer, or find itself having to watch its neighbour walk away with the accolades - and all the envy.