All passers-by get interested. "Which car is this?" "How much does it cost?" The answer to the second question is inevitably met with raised eyebrows and a slightly incredulous: "Is it good?"
Space woes: Not much backseat space, seat quality average
Yes, it is. The Renault Duster is actually incredibly good. It looks beautiful, gives great mileage, is comfortable, has lots of boot space, but most importantly, drives beautifully. It has its flaws, but none of them serious. A 'compact' SUV, the Duster is the first affordable one in this category from a foreign car maker, and the first serious competition to the SUVs from Indian majors M&M and Tata Motors. In fact, with the penchant for owning SUVs growing among Indians, Duster could also be a threat to several premium hatchbacks and mid-range sedans.
Getting into - and out of - the Duster is a breeze, given its low height compared to that of a Scorpio or a Safari. But within, the effort at making itself 'affordable' shows. The quality of the plastic used or that of the seat material can hardly be called premium, though it is not tacky either. And while there is no feeling of being cramped, the total space inside is not as much as in competing SUVs. Space is particularly limited in the back seat, where seating three adults for a long journey could be tough on them, more so with the rear air-conditioning unit placed in such a way that it juts into the space provided for the passenger in the middle seat. The Duster also has only five seats in all, compared to its rivals' seven.
Dream drive: The driver has a height-adjustable seat, the AC is very good
The comparatively low height of the vehicle - 1,695 mm versus 1,975 mm for the Scorpio, 1,785 mm for the XUV500 and 1,925 mm for the Safari - also translates into less front-seat headroom. The driver may not feel this, thanks to a height-adjustable seat, but a tall front-seat passenger could be uncomfortable. The headroom at the back, however, is all right, and so is the legroom.
There are plenty of pockets for bottles and other stuff. And there is some quirky design, too. For example, the music controls knob is behind the steering wheel on the right, and you could miss it. The control for the power mirrors is placed under the handbrake lever.
The AC is good, very good. Only in blistering 45-degree-plus temperatures will you need to switch on the rear AC unit. Even with the fan speed kept low, the AC cools the entire vehicle in quick time, making it ideal for India's blazing summers.
It is the drive that makes the Duster a winner. Whether you travel on a good road or a bad one, the drive is equally comfortable. We deliberately took the Duster through some horrendous stretches of ripped-up road, and the suspension worked like a wonder. There was barely a bump felt even in the back seat.
Core strength: The 110ps, 1.5-litre diesel, top version is ideal for Indian roads
We drove the 110ps, 1.5-litre diesel, top version. The gear shifts are flawless, there is barely any lag between shifts that is typical of diesel cars, and power delivery and pick-up are outstanding. The clutch, however, seems extra tight. The power and torque numbers are lower than those of rival SUVs, but at no stage does the Duster feel underpowered. At speeds higher than140 kmph, it still moves with as much balance and smoothness as at lower speeds. Its low height also provides a low centre of gravity, which contributes to the balance and effortless ride quality. The average mileage was an impressive 11.3 km per litre.
Its smaller size, compared to other SUVs, means it is easily manoeuvrable, and also has a lower turning radius than its rivals. Parking is thus less troublesome. The bottom line: with its small size, and five seats, the Duster is perfect for nuclear families.
The Renault Duster certainly has the qualities to make the competition bite the dust. But then, a good product is only half the battle won. The other half - sales experience and quality of service - is where Renault will have to deliver.