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Off-Road Test: Duster vs Desert

Off-Road Test: Duster vs Desert

Nov 2016

Words Danie Botha pics Kian Erikson

Since its international introduction, Renault has sold more than 1.5 million Dusters. Locally, the Duster has made a huge impact too, with around 10 000 units sold. Some owners love their Dusters so much that they regularly claim their little crossovers can go anywhere a pukka 4×4 can go. That gave us an idea. So we took a little road trip to Namibia…

REN-NULT?” asked the border official, peering through the gap in the glass screen. “No, Re-nau,” said I. “Ren-nult?” said the border official. “Re-nau… Re-nau,” said I. “What? Ren-nult?” “Yes, that’s right… Ren-nult,” said I.

Clearly, the friendly official was not going to budge, and the Duster would be listed as a ‘Ren-nult’ in the Botswana road permit records. Not that there was much time for debating the pronunciation of the French manufacturer’s name – we still had some way to go to reach Swakopmund, on the west coast of Namibia.

There we would meet up with Werner Schaap of the Battle of the Dunes competition – essentially a bunch of 4×4 drivers who tackle the toughest Namib dunes and see who can make it up or over. That was exactly what we had in mind for the latest Duster 1.5dCi 4×4, too. Duster 4×4 owners are forever bragging about how good their little crossovers are in an off-road environment. Stories of Renault Dusters completing tough 4×4 trails (sans a few plastic parts) abound, and many enthusiastic owners swear by the little French crossover’s off-roading abilities. Their trust in the little French car is not unfounded, at least not from a technical point of view. The Duster is equipped with the same 4WD system used in the Nissan X-Trail, and it features three settings: 2WD (front-wheel drive), 4WD Auto (where the computer distributes power according to traction), and 4WD Lock (50/50 split between the front and rear axles at speeds of up to 60km/h).

The 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine produces a relatively modest 80kW of power, but that is supplemented by a very handy 240Nm of torque that peaks at 1 750r/min. The 4WD Duster is available only with a six-speed manual gearbox, and this ‘box features unusually low ratios. First gear is so low you can easily pull off in second gear on a slight downhill. Although the shorter ratios do take some getting used to driving on the road, the advantages in an off-road environment is that you have what is essentially a low-range gear for 4×4 driving. And that low gear, in conjunction with 240Nm of torque, is a surprisingly capable combination in an off-road environment.

Throw in the 205mm ground clearance, and short front and rear overhangs, a kerb weight of just 1.3-tons and you have – theoretically – a very handy off-roader. If we were to tackle the Namib dunes though, we needed even more off-road added to the Duster package. To scale the bigger dunes, you need plenty of momentum but obviously the sand is not like a flat saltpan where you can easily build up speed. You need plenty of ground clearance so you can hit the base of the dunes at speed without having to go back and collect some plastic body parts. To get a few extra millimetres of clearance, we organised with Opposite Lock in Swakopmund for the fitment of 40mm spacers to the Duster’s suspension (McPherson with rectangular lower arm and anti-roll bar in front and multi-link McPherson set-up at the back). This would add 20mm of actual body clearance.

To aid traction and flotation on the sand, Goodyear AT/SA all-terrain tyres (215/70 R16) were fitted to the standard rims. These tyres still confirm to Renault’s standard specification requirements, and added another 10mm of actual clearance. We tested these Goodyear tyres in our all-terrain tyre test in 2012 and, back then, they came out tops in the sand driving test, as driven by rally legend Hannes Grobler. So in theory, the theory was pretty sound. But to get to the Namib we first had to negotiate the monotonous Trans-Kalahari highway, cutting through Botswana. The road is mostly in good shape, but as far as roads go, it is unfortunately as entertaining as watching a game of bowls on television.

What was clear was that the Duster runs on what initially seemed like air. After refuelling a couple of times, we worked out the average consumption was just 7.4 litres/100km. And it wasn’t like we were trying to break any economy records, short shifting and saving the horses either. With that consumption we could reach around 675km on a 50-litre tank of 50ppm. And if we drove like Miss Daisy's chauffeur, we could porobably stretch that to about 800km. Driving on this long stretch, with no radio station signal in sight, we appreciated the Bluetooth system that was hooked up to our iPod. The top of the range model comes with cruise control as standard, and we used this to great effect on this road - in sixth gear the engine has plenty of poke to maintain the selected 120km/h.

Overtaking also rarely required a downshift – the top gear and the 240Nm of torque dished up quick bursts of momentum for safe overtaking. We reached the Namibian border without incident and, after spending the first night at the cosy Trans-Kalahari Inn just north of Windhoek, we finally arrived in Swakopmund and the Opposite Lock workshop. The 40mm spacers were fitted in good time, and that afternoon we pointed the Duster’s nose in the direction of the Namib dunes, escorted by Werner in his dune-conquering Jeep Wrangler 3.6 V6 Rubicon shorty. It was quite a sight, probably – a little crossover job and a modified Jeep Wrangler, heading towards some massive sand dunes. But before we tackled the dunes, we deflated the Goodyear all-terrains to 0.6 bar – thanks to the l.3-ton curb weight, we could go quite low. Next we selected ‘Lock’ mode for the 4WD system, so the drive was split 50/50 between the front and rear axles (at speeds up to 60km/h).

Importantly, we also disengaged the standard traction control system via a dash-mounted button. The last thing we needed on a tricky 38-degree slope was for the electronics to decide an accident was imminent and to shut down the power delivery to the wheels… such an eventuality could end in catastrophe. Driving these massive dunes can be dangerous, especially if you don’t stick to the so-called ‘streets’ – the lanes between the big dunes that are infinitely easier to negotiate than going over the big dunes. And remember, we were in a crossover that’s not really supposed to be able to drive here. At all.

You want us to go up where?

We arrived at the first set of massive dunes. Werner was clearly not going to ease us into this… he aimed straight and up, over the first heap. We watched as the Jeep hit the softer patches, sand flying in all directions as the Jeep’s 209kW of power and mud terrain tyres displaced it at an impressive rate. Well, tally-ho then, we floored the Renault in first gear, snap-changed it to second to lose as little momentum as possible, and hit the base of the dune at a good rate of knots. Up she went, up and up… and over! But oh dear, on the other side of the dune the sand was super-soft, and there was a big hole right next to Werner’s tracks.

The sand dragged the Renault into the hole, the turbodiesel being smothered in second gear by the braking effect of the sand. Oooooooh $#@t! We hooked first gear, dropped the clutch and gave the accelerator pedal everything we had. The wheels spun, throwing sand everywhere, the diesel engine revved higher than most diesel engines would ever rev, but the Duster dragged itself out of the slide, and back onto Werner’s tracks. Phew, it was a close call. “Well saved,” said Werner matter-of-factly after we pulled in next to him at his vantage point on a high dune. “The Renault handled that pretty well… let’s go find some bigger dunes.”

The next dune he settled on was indeed higher. But it also had three ‘steps’ before you reached the crest, and turnaround point. So you had to head up the short but steep first climb, through very soft patches, build up some momentum on the short section of ‘level’ sand and then aim up the next climb to finally reach the crest and the turn-around point. Relatively easy pickings in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, but not so much in what many punters consider a ‘pavement special’.

So we went through the same routine: first gear flat, second gear flat, hit the base of the dune, and oh no, the sand was super-soft, the wheels spun and the engine started to lose revolutions. We willed the little crossover on: “Come one, Ren-nult! Come on! You can do it!” And over she went. Up the next dune she went, too, and made the turnaround on the slip face of the next dune too. Going down a steep dune, the Duster had to deal with a sharp breakover angle, and it was one we couldn’t tackle too slowly, otherwise the crossover would be left beached on that crest. There was a subdued ‘thud!’ from underneath the body as the undercarriage hit the sand. A closer inspection later revealed the sand had slightly bent the protection plate under the car. Thankfully we had fitted the spacers and the all-terrain tyres, otherwise we may have come back to SA with a boot full of Duster body parts.

Werner smiled at us. “That’s impressive. But now try it the other way around…” Oh dear. The up and over the sharp crest and down the steep, soft slip-face route that we had just completed was clearly a much easier task than the other way round. This way there was little space to build up any momentum, well… ag, we were certainly going to give it a shot. Into the first hole we went, and out – but with only about 10 metres of run-up space to tackle the steepest, softest climb with that sharp crest looming at the top, the Renault couldn’t muster enough momentum and ground to a halt halfway up, its wheels spinning aimlessly. We switched to Plan B: making a big U-turn so we could build up more speed.

There still wasn’t a lot of space to work with, though, and despite managing around 4 000r/min in second gear at the base of the climb, we again only made it halfway up. We needed another 20km/h or so of momentum to get up this dune, but the only way we were going to achieve that was to ram the Duster through the first part of the climb, which would, inevitably, have resulted in damage to the vehicle. So we doffed our caps to this dune and headed off. After a short break, we headed off again. But in the first patch of soft sand, near disaster. When you restart the Duster’s turbodiesel engine, the traction control is reactivated by default, and the 4WD system reverts to the ‘Auto’ setting. That soft sand had obviously got the wheels spinning, which in turn resulted in the traction control closing the power tap, resulting in a substantial loss of forward momentum. We only just managed to get through.

With the sun heading fast towards the horizon, we arrived at the last challenge: a massive dune, set at an angle of about 30 degrees, and ideal for so-called dune surfing if you drive the right machinery. Essentially, dune surfing entails driving on that steep side, going as fast as possible so the momentum keeps the vehicle from rolling over. You need plenty of horsepower, a good approach angle and copious amounts of brave to attempt this business. Werner showed us exactly how to do it in his powerful Jeep, ‘surfing’ the dune as high as a 4×4 can possibly go. It was beautifully executed.

The Jeep’s approach angle is a bit more than that of the Duster, so we couldn’t tackle the base of the dune at quite the same pace. We worked out an easier angle, and off we went, hitting third gear at about 70km/h in the soft sand before hitting that angle… and the Duster got remarkably far before running out of momentum, necessitating a quick turn down the slip-face to prevent rolling down the hill.

“The Duster did really well,” said Werner later, as we exited the dune belt towards Langstrand. “There were a few times I went up a dune and thought you wouldn’t make it, but you did. It does better than a Suzuki Jimny, too… although the Jimny is lighter and more agile, its 1.3-litre engine runs out of steam on the longer climbs. The Duster has more power and especially torque on tap, so it handles the higher climbs better.” Firstly, we were relieved that all the plastic was still in place. Second, we thought the Duster might be okay-ish in the sand, but we had never envisaged that it would be this capable. Maybe there is some truth in the ‘wild’ 4×4 statements made by the enthusiastic Duster owners after all?

The last hoorah The next morning we filled the tank ahead of the long drive back to South Africa. Driving with a leaded right foot in the dunes, revving the engine hard most of the time, the average consumption had increased to… 7.8 litres/100km. Blimey, that was impressive. On the 1 800km drive back to Gauteng we had plenty of time to ponder the latest incarnation of the Renault Duster. The top model, as tested here, sells for about R300 000. For that, you get a highly practical, economical and solid city slicker crossover. Unlike the original Duster models, which were a little rough around the edges in the refinement and noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) departments, this Duster is quiet, feels solid and has a solid drive.

It’s not perfect, no. In town the low gear ratios require a lot of gear swapping, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker. In fact, we reckon those shorter ratios are a bonus in the off-road department and more than make the car worth living with on a daily basis. If the ratios were much longer, the Renault would not have been as capable in the sand as it was. Anyway, one quickly adapts to the different driving style. The Renault Duster effectively straddles the pukka 4×4 and crossover segments. It can do medium grade 4×4 obstacles and it can definitely do sand with a few upgrades.

However, it’s the value for money attributes of the Duster that really seal the deal for us. For about R300 000 you get a cool little crossover that is an economical hatch, more of a 4×4 than most customers would ever need, and a practical SUV with plenty of space and kit. In its segment, there is nothing that offers the same amount of vehicle for that amount of money.

Living with a Renault Duster

Spending 3 500km in the company of the facelifted Duster highlighted some interesting and unique characteristics. These include:
To activate the hooter, you press a button on the end of the indicator stalk. Interestingly, older Renaults like the R5, which was on sale here in the ’80s, used the same system. The fuel-filler cap has to be opened with the ignition key.
The Renault has cruise control and a speed limiter. The latter is quite unique for a car selling for around R300 000.
Renault Duster 1.5dCi Dynamique 4WD
Engine 1 461cc, four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power 80kW @ 4 000r/min
Torque 240Nm @ 1 750r/min
Gearbox Six-speed manual
4WD system Electronically selectable between 2WD, Auto and Lock (50/50 split)
Average fuel consumption 7.3 litres/100km
Range (50-litre tank) 684km

Place to stay

Driving the 1 800km from Joburg to Swakopmund in one day is do-able, but spending the best part of 24 hours on the road is pushing the envelope a bit. So we did the first 1 400km in a day, and klapped the last 400km to the Namibian coast the next morning. We stayed over at the Trans Kalahari Inn, situated about 15km north of Windhoek, next to the Trans-Kalahari highway. If you’re looking for boutique-type fancy, you won’t find it here – the Inn is rather a homely stopover offering excellent food and ice-cold beer at reasonable rates.

Some Namibians drive all the way to the Inn to dine at the restaurant, and the rack of ribs is especially popular. It also offers camping facilities, so if you prefer to sleep surrounded by canvas instead of brick, that option is available, too. Pricing starts at R585 per person for a standard room, and camping is R250 per site (with a maximum of four people allowed per site). Information:; Tel +264 61 222 877

Source: Leisure Wheels

Leisure wheels