Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Little Big car: Part 1 - An unbiased review of the Renault Duster

After a wait of almost 4 months I finally laid hands on my first "SUV", the Renault Duster. While I spending weeks chewing my way through many centimeters of fingernails I scoured the net for reviews of this "compact SUV". Some of them almost had me in tears and I thought I'd made a genuine error when I put my money down on this car. I got my Duster on November 1st, 2012 and I fell in love all over again.

In more than one review it was said that the Duster is a car you'd buy with your heart but not with your head. That got me thinking. All these reviews are written by people who know more than a little about cars. What does a lay person look for? I am one; an ordinary person who wants a car for a particular purpose. I decided that if someone was looking for help buying a Duster, there should be an 'unbiased' review. So here it is.

My son and I love the outdoors and the only holiday destinations that pop up in our heads are some wild places. Till now we had been targeting places where we went on 'safaris' into the forest on vehicles belonging to the resorts or forest department. The Supreme court's recent ban on tourism in tiger reserves, (now lifted), had forced us to travel to hitherto unexplored (by us) places and we loved what we experienced. I also realized that my son had grown up enough to qualify as a Woodcrawler!

It meant that I did not have to worry about having to look out for him like he was a little kid. Anaimudi Shola National park was our first destination and a kilometer into this pristine environment made me realize our handicap. Our car was not designed for this sort of terrain.

We had been contemplating the Mahindra Thar for a while now but there were two reasons causing us to postpone our decision. The Thar was a soft top with no hard top in sight. I had too much of precious photography gear to lose if someone decided to slit the canvas top. Besides I'm a nice person. I take all my family member's into consideration when I decide to buy a car! My mother is pushing 70 and a Thar would not only be difficult for her to get into, it would also not be a very comfortable ride for her. Therefore, the Thar only kept flitting in and out of my peripheral vision.

Then Renault announced the Duster. It had everything we were looking for.
  1. Good looks
  2. Intimidating road presence
  3. Big tyres to take any pothole
  4. High ground clearance
  5. Great space for the two of us
  6. Cavernous boot for all our luggage and gear
  7. Comfortable seats for mom in the back
  8. An engine that would ensure our pockets weren't emptied at the fuel station
  9. A price tag that wasn't overwhelming
  10. Overall - VFM
I hope that all those who said people would buy the Duster with their hearts will read this!!

The Duster looks good in my eyes. I'm a conservative guy and I like no-nonsense looks rather than outrageous styling. After contemplating the Thar, the Duster was miles ahead in its design. Simple, neat and imposing for a little car! From the front it looks like an anaconda, but that must be because of my obsession with snakes recently!

Clean lines on the side with the flared wheel arches. To me, the best view is from the rear, but that must be because I like stubby butts (ask my friends)!

It is not as tall as a conventional SUV though the ground clearance is 205mm. I guess the roof rails were added to make it appear taller than it really is. Personally, I didn't like the quality of the stuff on top! Even the scuff plates are plastic so I really is no protection if you get a knock from some rock or hard surface at high speeds, but then I'm sure no one will take the Duster on a rally! We all drive slow over broken roads don't we? I don't buy cars to smash them anyway!

The interiors are spartan but neat.

The dials and displays are clear and basic. Besides the usual speedo, tacho, fuel and temperature gauges there is also a driver information panel where you have your odometer, trip odometer, fuel consumption and other essential information.
The integrated audio system gives a decent output through the four door mounted speakers. The USB port and audio controls are clustered around the display, with the AC controls placed at the bottom.

 You have comfortable fabric covered seats (height adjustment is available only in the 110PS versions), but I felt the lack of thigh support at the end of my drive of 150 kms. I have already added an after market padded, customized seat covers. It has lifted my seating position by a centimeter and now gives good support to the thigh and back. If you plan to use your Duster, it will be a good idea to get your seats covered by professional upholsterers. The seat covers available in the Renault accessories section look good but didn't seem very firm.

I know a lot of comments are made about the quality of plastics but if you really wanted 'superb plastics' you shouldn't be buying the Duster. Buy the Koleos or any SUV that costs 20 lakhs and above! Otherwise, quit complaining!

There is decent head and leg room both in the front and back. I read somewhere that the rear leg room is less than adequate. I'm sure that person would have been a six footer. The average Indian adult's height is between 160 to 170 centimeters and the rear leg room is more than sufficient for anyone who measures under 170 centimeters.

This photo is with the after market seat covers put on and the front seats in a position that is comfortable for me to drive.

The aircon is very good. Cools the car really quickly, even without the rear AC vent that is available in the 110PS versions. There is a bottle/cup holder just behind the handbrake which I didn't find very obtrusive. It is it's place that the rear AC vent is placed so really can't understand what the fuss about lack of leg room for the third passenger is all about.

Lots of reviews seem hell bent at finding faults at 'something different'. Hey! Even we humans are different from one another! We look different, walk different, talk different. I wear my watch on my right and that is different! Here are a list of things that are different, but certainly not 'quirks', on the Duster.

1. The ICE (audio control) buttons are placed just behind the steering wheel on the right side. For those used to lifting your thumb off the steering wheel to press the audio control button it will take a little while to get used to this. Personally I like it this way. You can use, not one thumb, but many fingers to adjust volume, mute or scroll through albums! It's like playing a piano! For someone upgrading from a car without steering audio controls it will not be a problem at all.

2. The ORVM controls are located between the front seats. Most cars have it on the right side door. I wonder why it should be bothersome. After all, we adjust the rear view mirrors before shifting to first gear so why does it matter where the buttons are placed? The only thing I felt could have been added are a provision to make the mirror close automatically like in my Optra. Helps in congested roads and heavy traffic! I wouldn't have to lower the window and stretch my arm out to close the mirror and risk it getting knocked by passing traffic.

3. The CENTRAL LOCKING button is also 'oddly' located, on the central console just above the AC controls. It is placed on the left of the hazard warning button.

 4. HEAD LIGHT HEIGHT ADJUSTER: The headlight adjuster is placed on the right hand side of the dashboard just above the bonnet opening lever. It is cable operated unlike most vehicles where is is electronic, and that probably explains its location.

5. REMOTE BOOT OPENING: Before you go looking for a remote boot opening lever or button, let me assure you, you won't find one even if you lift up the mats or look under the seat! It is not there. Someone was complaining that people could just open the trunk and walk off with their valuables! How crazy? In the days of the Ambassador, Premier Padmini and Maruti 800 we have never seen this feature and learned to live with it. You can always lock your trunk with your key or with your remote central lock!

6. BONNET SUPPORT: The Duster has a hydraulic bonnet support instead of the conventional hook. Again, there was someone complaining that if it failed someone would have to be holding it up. I'm yet to see the hydraulic support arm in the boot fail, even in the humble OMNI. Also, as if you'll be opening the bonnet as often as you'd open the boot! C'mon, there is a limit to making ridiculous comments!

Besides the 'quirky' the Duster has its share of pluses too.
1. The 85PS engine is pleasure to drive, and apparently better for city driving than the 110PS version. There is a little noise that can be felt inside but not annoying. After all it is a big diesel car, isn't it?

2. Drives like a car. The Duster is based on the Logan's platform and because of that you don't find it difficult to handle, either on the highway or outdoors. It drives like a car and takes the rough with dignity.

3. The boot is really huge. 475 liters with the parcel shelf in position and more than double of that with the shelf removed and rear seats folded down. Enough space for family, pets & luggage!

4. In addition to the charger socket on the front console, Duster has an additional socket at the back on the side of the parcel shelf. It is a very thoughtful touch, I think.

5. The AC is very powerful. Cools very quickly and the rear vent is really not necessary, this being a compact SUV.

6. There is a large glove compartment with separate partition for user & service manuals. It is also illuminated. There are fairly deep door pockets but it won't hold a 1 liter bottle though.

If this has to be an unbiased review I have to admit that there are some things I don't like in the Duster. Here is what I dislike.
1. The power window buttons on the front door a positioned quite in front, beyond the arm rest. You have to reach out because it does not fall within the natural reach of your fingers if you tend to keep use the arm rest. It also scrapes this arm rest when you stretch for them.
2. Windows don't have 'continuous' mode. You have to keep the button pressed or pulled to roll down or up completely.
3. The AC could have had automatic climate control. It get chilly very quickly. Summer is far away so I'll only know how good it is only a few months from now.
4. The rear seat flips fully. It is not a 60-40 foldable seat like you find even in little hatchbacks.
5. Removing and replacing the spare wheel is a pain. There is a bolt in the boot that has to be loosened to lower the tray holding the wheel. The tray has to then be unhooked from the bolt to get the wheel on the ground. It is an even bigger pain to lift the wheel, search blindly for the nut's hooked end (your fingers have to be made of elastic) and fix the wheel tray's clamp on it. You will need the help of someone for this exercise. Hopefully, I'll not get many punctures!

As I drove it out of the showroom in Cochin, into mid morning traffic on NH-47 the first thing I noticed is the view. After years of sitting in sedans & hatchbacks, where you feel your butt is almost scraping the road, I felt I was back in the seat of my Tata Sierra. Duster gives you a commanding view and when a tiny hatch drives up next to you at the traffic light you can give it a contemptuous look!

From Edapally junction to the bypass junction at Ollur, outside Thrissur, it is a beautiful stretch of four lane road. The Duster was in it's elements, overtaking with ease. You can feel the turbo kicking in and a surge of additional thrust as you put your weight on the pedal. Keep your tacho between 1500 to 2000 rpm or shift gears.

I have only clocked less than 300 kilometers after four days of ownership. I will add more of my experiences after a couple of weeks of driving it on all types of terrain.

Meanwhile, the Duster is for you if you fulfill the following.

  1. Upgrading from a hatchback or small sedan.
  2. Want to do a bit off rough driving where a 4x4 is not a necessity
  3. If you always carry more photography gear than luggage like I do! I carry one duffel for my clothes but two large camera bags for two DSLR bodies and a large collection of lenses, a large & small tripod, a monopod, and additional camera bags for portability in places where I need only one or two lenses. 
  4. If you are looking for a practical car and are not fixated on luxury. You'd be better off looking at something that costs twice as much if that is your reason to buy a Duster.
  5. If you are realistic to understand an SUV, compact or otherwise, can seat only 5 in comfort. The rear seats are for little kids. If you want a seven seater, buy a MUV like an Innova or Aria
  6. If you like to drive at a resaonable speed and pick your way through potholes and rough roads
  7. If you are on a budget and fuel economy is one of the criteria that swings your buying decision.

If you don't fulfill the above, but still bought a Duster, you probably used your heart and not your head!!

You can read a really detailed review from TEAM-BHP here

Watch this space......I will keep updating as my experience with the Duster grows!

The third part is uploaded


  1. Nice write up, Rajesh. Keep updating …

  2. Rajesh Ji,

    Great purchase. Congratulations.

    I too have booked one with same color...and eagerly waiting for the delivery.

    Few comments/questions, wish to share:

    I have booked a petrol one, coz of a neat / noiseless feeling while driving.

    But am also budget conscious and getting double minded if I have made a right decision. Not sure if a petrol car of this size can give me a mileage of 10 to 13 Kms/ltr as claimed by the Company.

    I do not want to keep calculating the expense while going on a long drive each time. You see what I mean :-) So thinking of converting the booking into a Diesel one.

    Next thing am confused about is 85 vs 110.

    Basically, like you I am buying this beauty, to go out freely on long drives. I am not for very high speeds or rash driving.

    The doubt is if the 85 bhp would be good enough for hilly terrains with 4-5 people and few pieces of holiday luggage.

    I do not change cars once bought it wud stay for like 7-8 thinking why take a chance and better buy a 110 and be done with it.

    In this process, my budget has gone up from like 10 Lacs (petrol) on 13.75 Lacs for 110 RXZ (O) confused now ?

    Would love to see your comments.

    Many thanks
    Ved Kapoor

  3. Hi Ved,
    My only experience with the 110Ps is the test drive of a few kilometers inside the town. It is not as good as the 85Ps. I have read all reviews agree with this. As for long drives, I'm yet to go on a long drive with my Duster. The longest was after I got it from the showroom (Cochin to Palakkad), a drive of about 150 kms. I really enjoyed the drive, maybe because of the exhilaration of having got my new car!!

    I'm not sure if 85ps will be a poor performer on good roads in hilly terrain. You'll probably have to downshift gears on a stiff climb. I guess if you keep the RPM between 1500-2000 you shouldn't have a problem. In any case your fuel efficiency is bound to drop in the hills and the 6th gear will of the 110ps will be practically useless, so I guess the 85ps should return better figures for the liter.

    Like you, I keep my cars for around 5 years so the extended warranty should also help.

    I'll update this blog as my experience grows.

    Meanwhile, happy waiting! (I got mine three & half months after paying advance).

  4. Congrats Rajesh...

    My white 85PS (O) is in transit and probably I will get it by this weekend. On test drives, I felt 85PS is only for a sedated drive and on highway drive the 110 gives more power reserve. Me and my friend had a change to do a test drive of both in a long stretch and I felt 85PS is more strained at 120/hr and it was struggling to go beyond that, got 130/- max @ ~3000rpm, but in 110 it gives a feeling of more power reserve and the engine was more silent / strained at those speeds (less rpm than 85PS)

    Please share your findings...

  5. Dear Sajith, I drove from Cochin to Palakkad after I got the vehicle on 1st November. There were occasions in between the drive that I realized that the speedo was at 120 kph which I noticed because I glanced at it. I do that frequently because I don't want to exceed 90kmph during the running in period.

    The vehicle showed no signs of any strain at all. In any case I drive only between 90-110 kph on highways. Also, I got the vehicle for it's high ground clearance because the places I go to have bad roads or no roads at all! Which means I'll not be driving at more than 30-40 kph there.

    Depends on what purpose you want the vehicle for. Happy driving..

  6. Dear Rajesh,

    For once I see someone giving a genuine review.

    I have been driving around my Duster in Delhi, since September 30, and was surprised to see a lot of negative ones on team bhp, mostly by people who have just taken a test drive. I dint see what all the fuss was about the query design.

    My complaints so far have never been about the vehicle but more often about the insensitive sales/service staff at Renault showroom.
    Though I say this, I would have liked to see a few improvements, like the turn signal knob being on the right side which would have helped me drive with one hand on the gear lever and the other on the steering, but this must be my personal preference.

    Also i feel the door settings are not proper as I hear rattling sound from the door locks, while driving. In the first 1000 Kms. that I have driven, I have already taken it to the service guys, twice but this problem recurs.

    Would have also been nice to have a brighter indicator light for turn signal on the dash board, and the USB connecter at a different place so it does not intrude while lifting your hand to operate the signal knobs

  7. Thanks for your input Thomas. In know a small test drive is not enough to write a major review but people who are professionals in automobile assessment must know something ;-).
    I agree with you that service is still a problem for Renault and I hope it improves. I own a Fiat Punto and I have had little niggles from the beginning. With the Duster it too early to say anything.

    Three of the four cars I own including the Duster come with the turn signals on the left and wiper control on the right so I'm used to it. I guess it comes out of shifing the entire steering components from a LH drive car to make it RH drive. Actually I have a problem in the Beat where it is the 'conventional' layout!

    I think the turn indicator beep lets you know it is working and it goes back to 'neutral' very effectively. I use a short USB stick so I have no problems there.

    I think everyone had personal preferences and all vehicles are different. So I guess when we have developed a mindset on some aspects and don't find it fulfilled the automatic reaction is to complain.

    I've enjoyed my experience with the Duster so far. I think if your expectations are not out of the ordinary it will be a good experience for the next few years. I hope a 4x4 will come only in 2014, otherwise I'll be so disappointed

  8. Rajeshji,

    Nice review :)

    i am frm Tvm, own Duster RXL 110ps. from where you fitted padded Seat covers? i have the same problem of lack of thigh support during long trips. Last month i took duster from Tvm to kannur.

  9. Shagin, My seat covers are by a local upholstery shop. It is custom fit and not the covers that you pull over the original covers. He dismantles the seat and stitches the cover over the seat without spoiling the original covers. Does a good job though his tastes are a little garish! If you want the seat covers like this you'll have to bring the vehicle. Takes a day (9.00AM to 6.00PM)

  10. If we compare the all new SUV's,my vote surely goes to the Renault Duster which is a lethal combination of looks and power.Its low price and classy looks are its USP.

  11. I stay in Cochin and was in for a new car and the best of my considerations was for Duster.We called up the Renault dealer in Cochin for a test drive and took an appointment for 4.p.m.No longer than than i stepped into the dealers office for the test drive i saw a half sleepy, lazy down trodden sales person trying to recommend Scala instead of a Duster.Duster will take ages to arrive after booking,according to him.I asked when,six months or more,Scala is immediate delivery.I looked straight inside to note "TVS".I asked him is TVS the dealer and he said YES SIR.I sighed OMG and declined to take the test drive for duster.He asked me why this decision.I said because it IS TVS.I told him i own a Mahindra Logan and i know the hell i was going thru at TVS cochin service center.We walked off and decided to take a Skoda rapid from St Antonys.TVS has messed up all dealerships and services in any car compartment.I find it really STRANGE why Renault chose these bunch of jokers having a poor standing and consumer court cases for this vital dealership.They will mess it up from the beginning itself.Renault should decide on a better dealer the sooner or else they are going to have hefty cancellations and poor sales, the sooner

  12. True my friend. TVS can screw up anything you give them. The local bosses, who are usually handpicked from HQ, themselves have a lazy attitude so it is not surprising that the ones in the lower rungs also act that way.

    In any case they give you a test drive on 110Ps version so if you are planning to put your money on the 85Ps, it's not going to leave you impressed especially in Cochin's traffic.

    I was in and out of the show room in under half hour with my Duster becoz I told them I'd pick it up on 31st evening but went there only on 1st morning! Even then they had to screw up with the accessories. Though I had called a full week before, none of the accessories had been fitted or kept ready. After about 20 odd mins in the showroom I had to spend another 45 minutes at the service center just for the guy to pick out my accessories. He couldn't fit them becoz there was a staff shortage that day so I came back with the stuff in my boot! That is TVS service for you.

    Fortunately for me, Coimbatore is nearer to Palakkad and the dealer there is Anamalais. Hopefully, I'll get better service. Keeping my fingers crossed!

  13. Did you notice the rpm at which the engine was running at that time? But I clearly felt the engine strain (on comparing with 110) as the 130\hr in 85 was delivering @ ~3000-3500RPM where as the 110 the engine was @ ~2500RPM, both at 5th gear and at 6th gear in 110 the engine became less loaded. I clearly felt the 85 require a 6th gear. But this doesnt mean that the 85 cannot go beyond that, yes it can if it get more time and the engine rpm will be even higher, this is what i had mentioned as straining. This is also the main reason people felt the 85 engine sound is more than 110. This was from the demo vehicle which me and my friend took for a "small" long drive in bangalore.

  14. hi Rajesh Radhakrishnan,

    I invite you to join Renault Duster india fans group on facebook. We are around 200 members and will love to have your valuable comments as well on it.

    Rahul Arora

  15. Hey Rajesh, Congrats on the Duster from another Dusterian! Beautiful write up, honest, precise and clear, as the Duster itself!

    I drive the 85PS D RxL(O) since Sept and I am enjoying every ride - whether it is dropping my kid to school over really bad roads, picking up relatives (and the luggage that comes with!) from all railway stations around, the executive drive to my office or the week-end wanderings. I had driven it from BLR (where I work) to PGT and it was a breeze! Its SUV-like sedan features (or Sedan-like SUV?) makes it so pleasurable to drive, both during the all-2nd gear-drive in my city or the high-octane drive outside!

    All the best, sure will try to keep in touch. I too am from whereabouts of Palakkad, for that extra-connection!

    And I love the photo you posted in t-bhp. I couln't comment there, since T-BHP has been rejecting my registration since-i-dont-know-when, for i-don't-know-why!

  16. Hello AJ, Yes Team-BHP is a tough nut to crack. I got in after my third try ;-).

    I keep saying, and will probably stick to that view. The Duster is a good car if you have realistic expectations. I like what I have and I got it for a purpose. I has served me well so far but too early to say.

    I've done under 1200 kms and my fuel gauge is not working & there is a leak from the front passenger side (not A/C condensation). Will have to see how many niggles come before I go for the first service.

    1. Hey Rajesh,
      Couldn't agree with you more! I've done about 3700 kms on my Duster, driven in all terrains and many places without proper roads. Duster had never let me down!

      Unfortunate to have these niggles and I feel for you. I've had no issues when I went for my first service. In fact, I had none to report! Offlate, my front doors are giving very light creaking noise when the suspension is working in full, but the service engineer is not finding anything that he can fix.

  17. Rajesh, from other auto forums it seems you are facing the water clogging issue in the cabin. Please check my post on this (from my ownership report):

    1. Sajith, I saw your post. It is exactly the same issue. The drainage valve blocked on the scuttle panel and water overflowing through the A/C's outside air circulation opening.

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