The Renault Duster is here and it's extremely competitive, but does it have what it takes to land a powerful punch of practicality well above its entry-level class?
The Renault Duster is a good car – bordering between being an overgrown hatch and a full blown SUV, it truly defines the meaning of the crossover genre that has been gaining global popularity over the years. The mantra is simple – a car needs to be big enough to satisfy your ego and small enough to fit into a parking spot in any crowded city. It needs to be powerful enough to give you the thrills but frugal enough to minimize fuel bills. The Duster does all that, after all it was designed for emerging markets and saw light of day badged as a Dacia – pretty much on the lines of the Logan, but in a different segment altogether.
Renault seems to have got the timing right with this little SUV considering that there will be a slew of Premier Rio sized mini SUVs hitting the market soon. The French have even got the pricing right which always seems to be the tricky factor for any international manufacturer trying to make headway into the Indian space. So as far as competition from its own segment goes, it’s pretty much a no-brainer because the Duster has got the quality, style and frugality to beat pretty much any other SUV between under 10 lakh Indian rupees. Between the 104PS 1.6-litre petrol engine and the 85 PS 1.5-litre diesel mill, Renault has the likes of the Scorpio and the Safari decently covered.
But could the 110PS diesel Duster (Read: Renault Duster First Drive) just be bordering on the edge of greatness? It may still be the small SUV that everyone seems to be talking about but with the top-of-the-line RxZ variant and its extensive features list could it just entice a buyer with a bigger budget to save some cash and be happier in the process too? To put things into perspective it only made sense to pit the Duster against one of the most successful SUVs in recent times – the Mahindra XUV 5OO.
The XUV itself is a success story like no other – not really belonging to the entry level SUV segment and not quite making it up to full blown mud-plugger status either, it fills a gap that had been wide open for the longest time between the Scorpios and Safaris and the Fortuners and Pajeros of our world. With the kind of bookings that the XUV 5OO (Read : XUV500 Road Test) recorded within a month of its launch, this homegrown butch is a behemoth in its own right. Of course, the XUV costs more than the Renault but that tag difference is down to about Rs 2 lakh for the W8 2WD variant compared to the Duster’s 110PS RxZ. Suddenly, things don’t seem too much in favour of the Duster at this point!
Round 1: Design and sheer size!
If there’s one Indian vehicle that we can all be proud of in terms of its styling, it’s got to be the XUV 5OO. While the whole cheetah-inspired PR speak may be a little too cheesy for our tastes there is no denying that Mahindra has done a fantabulous job with penning the XUV. All the way from the peeled-away bodywork under the headlights to the LED daytime running lights and that very feline wheel arch bulge that intrudes into the slab of glass at the back all made us go weak in our knees when we first laid eyes on it. In fact the whole of the XUV is so sculpted it looks like Schwarzenegger before he got into politics!
The XUV has simply set the benchmark in terms of vehicle design for anyone looking to bring in a macho machine. It makes the Tata Safari look like a pencil pusher and even a car as attractive as the Skoda Yeti seems to be batting its big eyelids in appreciation. All that design flair extends inside the car as well with a very geeky centre console with enough going on there to keep somebody with Attention Deficit Disorder occupied for days. Then there’s that very Honda Civic-inspired hand brake lever and the optical illusion air con vents with the whole cabin delving in and out of black, maroon and metal accents. The XUV (Read : XUV500 Road Test) then seems like the perfect vehicle to intimidate others on the road while feeling nice and smug behind the wheel – perfect description of an SUV isn’t it?
While the XUV 5OO exudes testosterone from every shutline, the Duster (Read: Renault Duster First Drive) seems like the cute big bug that everyone wants to pet. There really isn’t much happening on the outside – it’s actually a whole bunch of simple body panels put together really well at first glance but the Duster grows on you and when it does you’ll fall in love with its simplicity. The first thing that you’ll see apart from those massive headlamps glaring at you is the way the wheel arches bulge out on all four corners. And then there’s this sense of width that will hit you in the face when you stare at it for longer owing to the lower half of the front bumpers being blackened out.
That’s further exaggerated by the overall stance of the Duster – short in height, but nice and wide with a nice mix of positive and negative spaces along the sides. But what really gives the Duster its masculinity is the inclusion of very hardcore SUV details like the bash plate that folds up hugging the lower halves of the front and rear bumpers and the very classy roof rails. What could have been a very boring rear end is saved by a clever use of subtle creases and bulges around the tiny vertical tail lamps. Put the XUV and the Duster next to each other and the difference in sheer size is compelling but that is the real genius behind the Renault’s design. In effect it is a small vehicle – the roof being only slightly taller than a Suzuki Swift when we parked it in the office, but stand alone, the proportions on the Duster along with strong design elements make it look a whole lot bigger than it actually is. It’s body mass versus clever trickery and we’d have to say, the Duster definitely holds its own against the XUV here!
Round 2: Room and all that ruckus
Before you’ve concluded that the bigger vehicle wins hands down over the smaller one, let’s make one thing clear – how often do people really use that third row of seats if it even is usable in the first place? That’s right, more often than not it just becomes another perch for your backpack and other bits and pieces that never leave your car. The XUV 5OO is faced with that syndrome because despite having a third row of seats, there’s barely enough legroom there unless you’re a kid, or a midget. Where the size on the XUV really becomes advantageous is in terms of headroom and shoulder room on the second row which is more than enough for three average sized adults.
With the rear air con vents integrated into the door pillars, the usually unfortunate one who has to sit in the middle won’t really feel too bad either. There’s also this nice sill plate to help vertically challenged occupants to get into the XUV 5OO making ingress and egress pretty easy. There’s lots of space on the front row too and the split glove box actually avoids you having to wriggle your legs apart when you want to fetch something from there – simple open the top half and use that bit!
The Duster (Read: Renault Duster First Drive) is not much different in terms of practicality – it’s got loads of legroom and despite the shorter overall height has enough head room throughout to seat the tallest of occupants most of us will come across in our lifetimes. But the way the car is designed, it actually feels more sedan than SUV, with you sitting lower than you would in the XUV. Again, three adults fit on that rear bench but the RxZ variant also comes with avery unique HVAC unit between the front seats to cool the rear and that could be a very awkward mass between the legs of the guy in the middle. That said, the HVAC unit really scores in terms of cooling that cabin quicker than we’ve seen on most vehicles. The front bucket seats are comfortable and there’s a very nice mix of low seating (for an SUV) while at the same time giving a commanding view of the road. Then there’s this very nice touch on the dash that allows you to simply plonk small belongings on it without having to worry about them falling back in your lap every time you brake or accelerate.
Needless to say, the XUV has the bigger boot, but you’ve got to keep the third row folded flat down to use any of it. That’s when it frees up 703 litres all the way to the back of the middle row. The Duster gets 475 litres of space but it also gets a very usable parcel tray making an additional shelf while keeping your luggage out of sight of prying passers-by. Both cars let you fold down the second row of seats as well and while the XUV (Read : XUV500 Road Test) gives you around a massive 1500 litres of space the Duster isn’t too bad either – 1064 litres which is actually more than enough unless you plan on starting a moving and packing firm instead. So while the bigger XUV obviously gives you more luggage space, both vehicles are adequate for a family of five – makes you question whether you need that extra bulk in your car, doesn’t it?
Round 3: Horsepower and travel
Having an SUV these days is more about the need for space than satisfying the itch for the outdoors and sadly, most XUV 5OOs are being put to service within city limits – which actually works out well for the Duster! Of course, the XUV also comes in a pricier All Wheel Drive version but configuration to configuration we’re looking at the Front Wheel Drive W8 here since the Duster RxZ shares the same layout. There’s a much larger engine under the hood of the Mahindra though and weighing in at 2.2-litres, 142PS and 330Nm, it dwarfs the Duster’s 1.5-litre, 110PS and 248Nm unit on paper.
It isn’t that simple though – because when you compare the gross weights on the two vehicles, the XUV is a whole 669kg heavier. Forgive me for going all mathematician on you, but all those numbers mean that the Duster has a 3.81 PS/ton advantage. That isn’t much, but it just goes to prove that the half-litre advantage that the XUV 5OO holds over the Renault Duster doesn’t really calculate to much in terms of the numbers that really matter.
Both the Duster and the XUV 5OO (Read : XUV500 Road Test) also have their engines mated to 6-speed manual transmissions and with that last cog aiding in extracting as many kilometers as possible, both return very respectable efficiency figures for vehicles their size. While the Mahindra returned 12kmpl when we tested it just after it was launched last year, the Duster 110PS dCi did slightly better with 12.75kmpl overall. So you see, both cars are pretty evenly matched even in terms of running costs though they’re very different in character. The XUV is definitely more suited to highways when compared to the Duster owing to cubic capacity. It is also a tad more driveable than the Renault all thanks to the 330Nm of torque peaking at 1600rpm and staying there till 2800rpm which is more or less the rev range in which you’ll be driving most of your time on Indian roads.
The Duster’s 248Nm peaks at a slightly higher 2250rpm which means you have to give it some stick to make it go – there’s not much happening 1800rpm and you’ll have to downshift every time you drop below that figure. That said, it isn’t really too much of a bother because the Duster is also light and the engine despite being low on capacity is adequate to pull the car through. Put all of the above into perspective and the gap that separates the Duster (Read: Renault Duster First Drive) and the XUV 5OO is extremely thin as far as performance is concerned. If only the XUV was a little lighter, it would have left the Duster far behind.
Round 4: Family first and the grand finish!
Most buying decisions can’t really be compressed down to numbers because choosing a car is as personal an event as naming your child – you’ve got to make sure it matches the rest of your family and that your kid isn’t going to be made fun of in school for it! Both the Mahindra XUV 5OO and the Renault Duster are extremely desirable machines and you can’t really go wrong with either. It will boil down to whether you want to be the big bad bully with the XUV (Read : XUV500 Road Test) or the friendly neighbourhood muscle with the Duster.
They don’t differ much in terms of overall performance and as long as you have a family of five or less, you’ll be as comfortable in one as in the other. Where the XUV 5OO really makes an impression is in its features list. Boasting of never-before-seen gadgets on a vehicle of this segment, the XUV comes loaded with a touchscreen multimedia system, USB, Bluetooth, steering mounted controls and tyre pressure monitoring systems. That adds a whole lot of value, but it does come at a price. Like we said before, at Rs 13.04 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi), the XUV 5OO is a whole two lakhs more expensive than the Rs 10.99 lakh Renault Duster 110PS dCi RxZ.
To make things worse for the Mahindra, or better for the Duster (whichever way you may want to look at it), the Duster isn’t really too bad on the features list front either. It may not have a touchscreen music system, but it still has USB and Bluetooth connectivity, steering (stalk) mounted controls, electrically adjustable mirrors and parking sensors at the rear. It doesn’t have the leather upholstery that the XUV offers, but you can either get that as an option for Rs 30,000 more or just go all aftermarket on the interiors. So if you’re in the market for an SUV that you can drive to work everyday and take the whole family out as well, and that final stretch in the budget is proving too much to be able to afford an XUV 5OO, the Duster makes perfect sense. It does almost everything that the Mahindra XUV 5OO W8 2WD does and saves you some hard-earned cash along the way.
The Duster even exudes a very well put together international feel and you can flaunt that European manufacturer brand logo that belongs to Renault as well. But what will really make your day is when you’ll be able to fit your compact Duster (Read: Renault Duster First Drive) into the tightest of parking spots while your XUV wielding neighbour struggles next door. David did manage to get on Goliath’s nerves after all, didn’t he?