How do you make a vehicle that’s already good (and popular) even better? You give it a proper gearbox, of course.
Renault’s Duster hasn’t been in the country that long, but since its entry into the market in 2013, more than seven of them are sold every day. The sales have surpassed 12 000, and it seems as if every third car on the road is a Duster. Its popularity can be chalked up to a number of reasons: It’s affordable for a new car, it’s a compact yet comfortable car perfect for a family, and then of course it also performs well when you hitch a caravan or trailer to it. The 1,5 ℓ diesel engine’s 240 Nm torque is more than enough to tow a vehicle with far more than its tare weight (that’s if it was legal of course). Now Renault has expanded the range by introducing the Duster’s first automatic variant. Not only do buyers now have more options, but the EDC automatic transmission is the transmission of the future, in more ways than one. Renault also gave this model’s diesel engine a bit more oomph and pushed the torque up to 250 Nm.
In high gear
From a towing perspective, double cab bakkies and utility vehicles have taken over the market, and on closer inspection you’ll notice that most of these vehicles have diesel engines. The Duster fits perfectly into the smaller utility vehicle segment. Three of the five models have diesel engines and their prices also don’t differ vastly. The cheapest diesel model costs R280 000, the new automatic model is R20 000 more, and for another R5 000 you’ll get behind the wheel of the 4x4 model. Besides the decent price and engine, the automatic transmission isn’t just any old transmission. The EDC stands for “efficient dual clutch” – the type of transmission commonly used by manufacturers such as Volkswagen, which calls its version a DSG. This transmission
is known for seamless shifting between gears without having to compromise on torque. It’s therefore ideal for towing and even more economical than a manual model. It’s odd that manufacturers don’t all throw their weight behind this type of transmission, because you still see conventional automatic gearboxes in new and even more expensive vehicles. The dual-clutch transmission in essence isn’t a pure automatic gearbox but rather an automated transmission. It’s basically two gearboxes in one, with a clutch plate that makes the gear changes in a fraction of a second. The one clutch works on the uneven gear numbers (1, 3 and 5) and the second one on the rest (including reverse).
The lighter side
The Duster is not a heavyweight and also not intended to tow heavy trailers. Besides the 4x4 model that has a towing capacity of 1,5 t, the rest can tow up to 1,2 t. If you look at the tare weight, the caravan or trailer’s gross vehicle mass (GVM) is not allowed to exceed 1 136–1 224 kg (depending on the model). With the automatic model it’s 1 224 kg, which means there are only a handful of caravans you can choose from. You can, for example, tow only one of Jurgens’ range of seven road caravan if you adhere to Renault’s 1,2 t limit, and that’s the Sprite Sprint with a recorded GVM of 1 110 kg. You could also tow the heavier Sprite Swing (with a GVM of 1 240 kg), because empty it weighs 1 016 kg, but its GVM is 16 kg heavier than the Duster’s tare weight, and the authorities don’t allow that. The Kilber-Startrek tow bar (which is on our test vehicle) ironically enough is restricted to a tow load of 1,5 t, but the allowed vertical weight on the ball (the caravan’s nose weight) is fixed at a measly 45 kg – among the lightest on the market. That limits you, because Renault’s own limit for the nose weight is 75 kg. Looking at the Sprite again, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to pack the caravan in such a way that the nose weight won’t exceed 45 kg without negatively impacting the caravans’ road-holding ability. The Duster with this type of tow bar is therefore better suited to smaller caravans (like the teardrop type, smaller camping trailers, as well as fibreglass trailers built by companies like Sherpa Leisure). The nose weight of the Sherpa Tiny, which we used for this tow test, is 48 kg (that includes the Sherpa’s spare wheel in the back and not in the nosecone). >
What does the inside look like?
For this class of vehicle, a rearview camera is a luxury. The screen is an impressive 15 cm wide and is located in the centre console, in front of the gear lever. Unfortunately the camera’s lens isn’t in the middle of the back door. It’s above the number plate above the tow bar but offset to the right by 22 cm. That means the image of the tow bar on the rear-view screen is to the left – on the first third-line. So if you’re using only the screen to reverse towards a caravan or trailer, it requires practice because the images makes it appear as if you’re reversing askew. Many vehicles in this class have parking sensors that sound an alarm if there’s an obstacle in its path. With some cars you can’t even switch the alarm off and in others you can, but it deactivates when you switch the vehicle on and off. The Duster’s stays off until you switch it on again. Another luxury is the hightadjustable headlights. It enables you to lower the angle if you’re towing or even if you have passengers and luggage in the car. The knob is to the right of the driver, closer to the bottom of the panel. If you want to see what angle you’ve set it to, you have to get out of the car, and judging by how difficult it is to turn the knob, it seems like a complicated procedure. The lever that opens the bonnet is below the beam-angle knob. The bonnet is easy to lift and is propped up by gas struts.
The Duster is neat on the inside, but very plain. The driver seat height can be adjusted, but not when you’re sitting on it – you have to get out to do it. The settings are limited and I struggled to get comfortable. You have to be ready to really hit the brakes, especially if it’s your first time behind the wheel. Initially you don’t brake hard enough to bring the Duster to a complete standstill, but you do get used to it. The steering wheel is small – almost like a race car’s. I like it! And the bottom is flattened to create more leg room and it’s nice and thick for a strong grip. One thing though: I would have preferred it closer to my body – with my long legs it’s impossible to sit any closer to it. Unfortunately the door handles are in the way of the controls for the electric windows. If you look at the dashboard, I miss the engine’s temperature gauge. I prefer to be able to see the temperature. The 250 Nm torque for the 1,5 ℓ engine is good and the car tows fine, even though the caravan or trailer is lighter than it’s towing capacity. The engine sounds a bit gruff compared to today’s quieter diesel engines. The most comfortable towing speed is 100–110 km/h. At 100 km/h the revs are at 2000 rpm in sixth, and goes up with 400 rpm if you accelerate to 120 km/h. It’s not a bumpy ride because the Duster has a soft suspension. It handles well and there’s no sign of body roll. And, of course, the transmission totally takes the cake. >
The Duster is not a heavyweight and also not intended to tow heavy trailers.
RENAULT DUSTER 1.5 DCI 4X2 EDC DYNAMIQUE
ALL THE RIGHT BUTTONS. The button on the end of the wiper stalk is for cruise control. The large digital clock display on the reverse camera screen is a nice touch. The parking sensors can be toggled on or off.
ON POINT Attractive cloth seats come fitted as standard on the Duster but the tow bar is a Renault-approved aftermarket accessory.
Pieter Crous has been towing his whole life – this is what he thinks of the Duster.