I have quite often and quite openly announced my dislike for crossover-SUVs or compact SUVs, mainly in terms of their looks and the kind of people who usually buy them. However, I have refrained from commenting on how they drive, till the point I’ve actually driven them. A point I particularly kept in mind with the Renault Duster.

Now, I do think that the current generation of the Duster looks better than the first generation of this Renault money-maker, but I still find the cosmetics off-putting, especially at the rear. And yes, I have seen the upcoming next generation of the Dacia Duster, which previews what the Indian spec will soon look like and once again, the looks have improved but it’s still not a car that appeals to my tastes.  Nevertheless, I have had the chance to drive this particular spec of the Renault Duster quite a few kilometres, in a variety of scenarios over the last month and I really did get to know the car a little bit.

To begin with, this RxZ trim with the 1.5-litre diesel motor that produces a 110PS or 108bhp and 245Nm and uses a 6-speed manual transmission for its AWD drivetrain. It’s a very well specced trim too and has features like cruise control, auto AC, parking sensors, rearview camera and a 7″ touchscreen infotainment display with satnav too. It’s got an Eco mode for boosting your fuel economy, you can switch between 2WD and AWD, it also features hill-start assist, ABS and airbags. The RxZ 110PS AWD trim is currently listed at Rs 13.66 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi.

The last time I drove this Duster, it was through Mumbai and out into the nearby hills less than a 100kms out. First though I had to meet the rest of the weekend crew at a designated location and so I figured this is a good time to use the satnav to see how it works. It worked well enough, though I found the process to switch it off or cancel the function a bit complicated. It didn’t help that I had inputted the wrong location marker so it took me in completely the wrong way and through alleyways that were definitely not meant for car use, and certainly not one as bulky as the Duster. Instead ofusing common sense to pull over and rechecking my route details, I kept driving in deeper till I eventually came across a point that was flanked by autos parked on either sides and had no choice but to start reversing through the narrow lanes I had only just managed to navigate through while driving forwards. Mind you, this was at 5 AM so there wasn’t any natural light nor street lights, so the reversing camera was of very little help but the sensons were. Them and a local cabbie who understood my plight and guided me through the entire process. It took a while but I was finally able to free the car and find just about enough space to make it the face the other way to drive out again. Sure I was exhausted and sweaty but that was from the worry of damaging the car. The Duster itself was quite easy to manouvre despite its bulk, even with the manual box. Given that it’s not one that I’ve driven often, even in those tight spots, it inspired confidence in the driver and actually did manage to manouvre through, without a single scratch. So, definitely usable even if your house and parking are in a tight spot of the city.

On the highway, the Duster even in manual guise is quite a decent cruiser. The cruise control function is quite handy and easy to use when you’re trying to get the maximum fuel economy possible or when you have an endless stretch of road ahead (Yamuna Expressway?) and you just want to relax your feet. The 1.5-litre does have enough grunt for a speedy stint should that be necessary and you just need to drop down a cog or two to get the most of the torque band for an overtake. Just make sure you’re not running in eco mode. The seats are cosy enough and the ride is quite pliant, something I put to the test on the broken tarmac of Maharashtra’s highways. The ergonomics takes a little getting used to if you’re someone who usually prefers the pure, spartan steering wheen with no controls on it. But once you’re familiar, it’s easy to navigate the controls without getting distracted from the road.

On the small stretch where I did need its 4WD mode while accidentally taking the Duster up a trekking trail of loose stones, it was quite capable of finding grip and traction to pull itself up. Doing a n-point u-turn on the trail and heading back down it was also easy and it didn’t take long for a flat-tarmac-guy like me to get confident behind the wheel.

The Duster, much to my annoyance, really is a good choice for an urban SUV thanks to its driveability and ground clearance while being able to hold its own when things do get a bit off-roadish. It is also understandably a favourite amongst those who are in the profession of photography and production as the Duster, with its boot hatch open and reasonable stable ride, makes for quite a good support vehicle. That combined with its rugged looks that appeal to many (I’m still not a fan) makes it an impressive product in the Renault India portfolio.

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