What is a SUV that cant live up to its name? Well, the Renault Duster AWD too promises a lot and thankfully doesnt break those promises. It continues with almost everything that the Duster has always offered, but with a selectable all-wheel-drive system now. To make sure how far the Duster AWD has come from its 'urban dweller' status, I decided to take it for a quick (and mostly unharming) spin.
Apart from the visual giveaways like the AWD badging and the mode selector on the central console, there's not much that will tell you about the vehicle's all-wheel drive capabilities until you hit a patch of bad/more demanding terrain. More on that later, but first let's talk about the positioning of the vehicle in Renault's line up. As expected it's priced higher than the 2WD Duster; it is powered by the 110PS version of Renault's 1.5 dCI engine; has ample space on the inside; and to top it all, it's on sale already.
To keep it from cannibalising the sales of its smaller brethren (okay, variants), the Duster AWD is available in RxL and RxZ versions only, priced at Rs 11.89 lakh and Rs. 12.99 lakhs respectively. As mentioned earlier, the Duster AWD is powered by a 1.5-litre engine making 110PS of power and a 248Nm of torque. The power is sent to all four or the front wheels (depending on the mode) via a 6-speed manual transmission and an electronically controlled AWD system.
While the company claims a figure slightly short of the 20 kmpl mark, I was able to get a consistent 12-13 kmpl during the test, which is good considering the Duster was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, had to climb inclines, and then do a bit of expressway runs to and fro Mumbai (from Pune).
Unlike the Renault Duster 110PS (2wd version), the clutch is now lighter, which works well with the new gear ratios and a remapped ECU. It not just helps in making the Duster more drivable at low rpms, the added benefit is evident while off the road.
Talking about going off-road, it's the shift-on-fly AWD system that makes the whole process so enjoyable. It comes in three modes: 2WD, Auto, and 4WD Lock. The first sends power only to the front wheels (similar to what happens in a 2WD Duster), the Auto mode decides and sends power to those wheels which have the most traction, and the 4WD Lock mode powers all four wheels (with equal torque) at speeds up to 60kmph after which it switches to Auto.
In my experience I found the 2WD more than sufficient while for the rougher part of terrain where there's a chance of losing traction from wheels (read slush) the vehicle is best kept into Auto mode. I switched from 2WD to 4WD Lock while trying to negotiate a steep yet narrow section, and the change was easily evident.
Thats not to say the 2WD mode is completely useless: it's good for commutes and for on-road time, but when off-road, it gets beaten by physics. And that's when the Duster shows its capabilities without being hampered by lack of power or grip - because the AWD has adequate amounts of both.
That's not all. The suspension on the Duster AWD has been updated, too. The vehicle now enjoys the suppleness of an independent suspension system, which not just makes it a better tool off the road, it helps improve the ride on paved surfaces as well. On the whole, it feels very stable doing expressway speeds. Mid-corner undulations do affect the car but none of the ones that 'my' Duster encountered was good enough to make the vehicle switch lines.
Talking about switching lines, or lanes depending on how precise you like your driving to be, the Duster proves to do that without drama. It's very close to being an SUV (without the compromised dynamics, of course) so there's some body roll, but none that I couldn't live with. And unless you're looking for the tarmac-hugging, stiffly sprung nature, this should suffice. Especially given the fact that it's not a specialist tool but something that tries to do a bit of everything without necessarily failing at it.
The steering is light but doesn't really bother or hamper the vehicle's high speed stability. The gearbox on the other hand had a small issue while shifting from second to third, but on the whole it does the job stupendously. In fact, I found myself keeping both my hands on the steering wheel without worrying about making frequent gear changes, both in the city and on the highway.
As for braking, if you're graduating from a sharper and more focussed hatchback, then you might sense that there's a little lack of confidence when you drop the anchors. I wasn't really gunning for the best laptime of my life (nor was I on a racetrack, remember?) so it didn't really take too long to understand how the Duster is under braking. A few hours into the drive and you'll be able to adapt to the way the Duster behaves.
Apart from the mechanical grip the Duster offers, there's a number of driver aids to keep things in shape: there's the ABS, Traction control, and even a cruise control system. In terms of safety, the vehicle comes with two airbags up front. The Duster's built to attract eye balls. Even two years after its launch, it's still likeable and this version's more visible 'AWD' branding on the sides mean people take notice. Overall the design is the same as the 2WD Duster, and with the few updates that the AWD version gets, it should be able to keep things interesting for a few more years.
It's more butch and that works well for the Duster. The two-tone colour scheme makes the Duster look rugged, unlike the Terrano's more consistent one paint look, which arguably looks more premium. What also works in favour of the Duster AWD in making it look more handsome is the dust and mud that one would accumulate while off-roading. Silver as a paint might start to appear boring easily, but that doesn't happen on the Duster. The headlamps now have a black housing which goes well with the contrasting two-tone theme and the dark alloy wheels. And with the lack of LED DRLs, it manages to look good without necessarily going overboard with weird-looking LED lamps. Phew!
On the inside, there are a few changes but nothing over the top, except the red and black seats which don't suit my taste. That aside, it's a nice and spacious cabin to be in. The new steering wheel which comes with cruise control switches is nice to hold, the gearshift knob (6 gears, no less!) isn't awkwardly positioned, and the touchscreen entertainment+navigation system is well within reach too.
The instrument cluster is new, complete with three pods and it's quite legible, too. The MFD (multifunction display), the column mounted audio control stalk, and the adjustable steering wheel make life very easy.
There are a few things that Renault could have added to make the vehicle a bit more complete. A reverse-parking camera, an automatic climate control, and a dead pedal should have present. Having said that, it must be mentioned that the parking sensors are helpful and the standard air-conditioning unit works fine. While the 2WD Duster continues to attract all those who want a vehicle that rides well on bad roads but offers a near car-like driving experience, the Duster AWD is for those who want what the Duster 2WD offers but with better capabilities.
For now, this is easily one of the most balanced products that are offered in the Indian market. The Duster AWD is one of those cars that I wish I hadn't returned to the Renault guys. There's so much fun to be had!
Words and Photography- Paranjay Dutt