2016 Duster AMT Review: Words & photographs by Syed Shiraz
There are seven Renault Dusters in my immediate circle, four of them being the 110 PS variants. And no, none of the owners bought it upon my recommendation. If that was the case, they would all be driving the AWD version… But, to be fair to them, most had made the purchase way before Renault got the four-wheel-drive Duster to India. Anyway, all of them are happy and always talk about the amazing ride and handling of their Duster. But, those four, who drive the 110 PS version, go a step further. Every time you speak to them, the conversation somehow sees them thanking Renault for being extremely considerate about its customers’ physical fitness. They are thankful because their Duster came with a fantastic Leg Press machine as standard equipment. Okay, it’s also called a clutch…
It took time for Renault to understand that not all who buy SUVs are into squats and stuff, and that they would love to buy the Duster sans the mandatory, though complementary, gym membership. But better late than never as they say, so here comes the Duster automatic with India’s first six-speed AMT (Automated Manual Transmission). Renault also took this opportunity to give the Duster a facelift, putting in some new features and ironing out some rough edges to make it appeal to a wider set of audience. So let’s see how the ‘new’ Duster looks and feels now.
2016 DUSTER EXTERIORS
The form of the Duster is one thing, among others, that Renault had gotten right from day one! In fact, it has always been the SUV with the BEST proportions in its segment. The height, width, and length of the SUV have always been just spot on, ensuring that it neither came across as a bully on roads, nor did it get lost in the company of me-too wannabes, or hatchbacks-on-stilts in other words. As you can see, nothing changes on that front, thankfully.
In fact, the new ‘kayak’ roof rails and aluminium bash plates now add more prominence to the muscular design. The size and shape of the headlamp assembly remains the same but now the bezels inside are squarish and look just fantastic! The grille is all new too and looks great as well what with the Lozenge in the middle now getting a much bigger font size.
The rear also gets new taillamps with the LEDs shaped to look like a waterfall, according to Renault (pic above). Look closely and you’ll realize that it’s not a poetic description by the company; they actually mean it. The wing mirrors get integrated turn indicators while a new alloy wheel design rounds off the changes on the outside.
2016 DUSTER INTERIORS
This is something that the Duster has always been criticized for from day one, especially considering the price bracket this SUV plays in. Folks at Renault have addressed the issue with this facelift. Somewhat. I say that because although the cabin has become better, there is little feel of ‘newness’ in it. For example, while the dashboard is certainly new — the centre console is a one-piece unit that now also houses the centre air-con vents — it is eerily similar to the old one.
Which is not a bad thing as I, for one, have always found the rugged interiors of the Duster quite in line with the overall toughness of this vehicle. Anything else (read ‘soft, luxurious appointments’) would seem, well, soft, and therefore contradictory to this SUV’s image. So why spend more on the tooling Renault when the result is not very different from the previous one? That slight restructuring of the dash has pushed the multimedia touchscreen (which doubles up as the rear view camera display while reversing) further down by more than an inch, making one take their eyes way too much off the road while using the otherwise nice navigation system of the Duster.
The plus side is that the door lock and hazard-flasher buttons have moved up and are now at a very convenient reach. Still, the best thing to have happened inside ergonomically is the correct placement of the ORVMs’ adjustment control knob; it’s now where it should have been from the beginning — on the door panel. Oh, those mirrors are now (finally!) electrically foldable too. I almost forgot the most important addition that has come with the facelift on the inside — climate control, or automatic air-con in simple words. Other than doing its core job it also adds a touch of premiumness to the dash, which was something the Duster could always use… Renault have not provided a dead pedal to rest your left foot on; they should have as there is enough space for one.
The seat upholstery is new, and beige on the dashboard has been replaced by dark brown, but I don’t know what stopped Renault from offering a classy, all-black interior on the Duster, at least as an option. Anyway, all seats remain as comfortable as they were earlier, and the overall cabin ambiance does feel half a notch above than the outgoing model’s.
2016 DUSTER RIDE & DRIVE
Aah! This can spell even darker days now for a lot of sedans and SUVs… See, the Duster always handled and rode better than not just the vehicles in its class but than almost everything else this side of 20 lakhs! It’s the same story with the facelift as no changes have been made to the steering rack or to the suspension. None were needed anyway as the ride still remains superlative and the steering continues to teach a lot of low-slung saloons some cornering manners. But you know that already; you are here because you want to know how well or bad the Duster drives without that active third pedal in the driver’s footwell, right?
Well, first of all, it’s not for nothing that Renault have termed this gearbox ‘Easy-R’ as that is precisely what this tranny makes your life behind the wheel — EASIER! Forget the comparison with a manual; I have seen people, who learnt driving on a manual transmission, going blank upon seeing most automatic levers to start with. Figuring out P-R-N-D-3-2-1-sport-plus-minus-algebra along with an inconspicuous button on the lever is not as easy for all as it might look to some. Newbies will be glad to know that they would face nothing of this sort with the Duster automatic. Operating the AMT is fairly simple — foot on brake, flick the lever to ‘D’ and you’re ready to roll. After, of course, taking your foot off the brake! And when you do that… well, nothing much happens save for sedate progress. Honestly, this trait would be appreciated by owners in chaotic traffic conditions. And the driveability is actually quite good if you’re trundling along with traffic; it’s just that the gearbox gets puzzled for a few seconds when you mash the throttle to the floor, say, while trying to catch the light, and then gets its act together and downshifts.
But you can get around that by choosing the manual mode. Just slot the gear lever to the left and you’ll have all six ratios as your slaves doing exactly what they are told. And that’s the mode you again choose when you are really in a mood to enjoy the Duster’s fine dynamics. This was the first time I was barrelling down the Ambey Valley / Lonavala twisties and boy, did I have some fun! You can just leave the AMT in manual and have fun frustrating the hell out of quicker and nimbler machines on the ghats!
And when I came on to the Mumbai-Pune expressway, I had to really gun it because, thanks to the endless hours of video shoot by fellow journalists with whom I was sharing this test vehicle, I was about to miss my flight back to Delhi. Therefore, a little short of 170 km/h was what I saw on the speedo once, and the Duster was as stable at that speed as it was at 120 km/h. Beautiful! Relaxed cruising in between the short bursts saw the tacho needle hovering at 2,100 rpm at 100 clicks on the speedo. Now, Renault claim an ARAI figure of 19.6 km/l for the AMT, but how close the real world economy would be can only be verified after a comprehensive road test, which we will do as and when the test units are made available.
Duster AMT Review: VERDICT
Like I mentioned earlier, the Duster, ever since its launch, has made things difficult for many sedans and even bigger SUVs. The only people who didn’t buy it were the folks who either wanted a seven seater, or an automatic transmission, or rich (in every sense of the word) interiors, or all of this in one SUV/MUV. So while large families (who require seven seats) will continue to buy the XUV 500 automatic (if they don’t go in for an Innova or a Lodgy), some of them, for the same amount of money, might choose to buy a Kwid along with the Duster AMT and still be left with some change…
All others who turned away from the Duster earlier due to the unavailability of an automatic transmission, might now just flock the Renault showrooms as the Duster 110 PS AMT starts at INR 11.67 lakh (ex-Delhi) making it the cheapest diesel automatic SUV on sale in India today, barring, of course, the sub-four-metre TUV300 automatic . Compare it with Creta AT’s 13.57 lakh; Scorpio AT’s 13.13 lakh, and XUV AT’s 15.52 lakh, and it almost becomes a no-brainer.
Now, how about a Duster 85 PS AMT, Renault? It would be cheaper by around 80 thousand rupees (the current difference between 85 PS and 110 PS manual variants of the Duster) than the 110 PS AMT and should kill the aforementioned hatchbacks-on-stilts pretending to be SUVs…