This may come as a surprise but it’s the Renault Duster that fits the bill better than most compact SUVs when it comes to straying off to the beaten path, even if it’s just a little. After all, it’s the only car to have all-wheel drive as an option in a segment where front-wheel drive is the norm. The Duster is also the only compact SUV that can be had with an automatic gearbox for both diesel and petrol versions. Having driven the diesel automatic version a fair bit as our long termer, it’s now time to put the Duster CVT petrol to the test.
Renault dished out a major facelift for the Duster back in 2016, complete with refreshed styling. This petrol automatic version is based on the same update and as a result, retains that purposeful-looking stance. Visually the only addition is the large Xtronic sticker at the back which indicates the new drivetrain. As for the rest, this car gets the same square-ish headlights, S-shaped LED taillights and front and rear bumpers with dollops of black cladding. Rounding off the updates, the new fiery red colour option looks good and brings out the taut and beefy lines of the Duster.
Oddly enough, the diesel automatic AMT Duster can be had in the top-spec RxZ variant only whereas the petrol CVT is offered in the RxS variant which is a step down. Naturally, the latter isn’t as well equipped and misses out on some essentials such as climate control and a backup camera. The RxS variant doesn’t get soft touch dash and door pads either. The design and quality of materials remain the same which means you still the odd-numbered speedometer, a large steering wheel and sub-par plastics. Although poor fit and finish was one of the main shortcomings of the original model, Renault improved the quality with the facelift. That said, there is still a low-rent feel to the doors and the centre console surrounds and the overall fit and finish is iffy.
The driving position is mostly car-like, but you do sit up higher than in a hatchback. The A-pillars are slim, helping outward visibility though what’s not so impressive are the wing mirrors which are surprisingly small. As for space and comfort, the Duster CVT petrol is the same and in no way that’s a bad thing. The front seats are just about the right size and offer adequate back and knee support. More importantly, the rear-seat space is also ample with better thigh support than the competition. All in all, the cabin is not as well built as the competition, but there’s no denying that it’s spacious and thoroughly practical.
The Duster CVT uses a new 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol motor that makes 106bhp and 142Nm, lugging the 1160kg kerb weight, and is matched to an inoffensive CVT gearbox. In terms of performance this engine has a good midrange, pulling well around the 3,000rpm mark. However, this also means that one has to keep the Duster on the boil while darting into traffic gaps or overtaking at high speeds. Thankfully, the engine makes up for the restrained low-end with its refined nature as its hardly audible under regular driving. Thanks to the CVT, the power delivery is incredibly linear and thankfully, there is less of the typical rubber-band effect wherein there is a sharp rise in engine revs in proportion to the gain in momentum.
If you love driving and are the kind who wants strong performance out of your car, the Duster CVT isn’t for you. This engine honestly feels like it’s gasping under heavy throttle or while going uphill. Sure, it will maintain highway speeds all day long and get you from A to B but it’s not an inspiring motor. The CVT, too, despite having a manual mode, is no firecracker but as far as the shifts are concerned, they are incredibly smooth and barely perceptible.
As for the ride and handling, this petrol version is the same as the rest of the Duster range which is a good thing. The steering feel is light and progressive, only a little loose on-centre. Too bad that three-spoke wheel still judders when taking corners at high speeds. Renault says they have worked on reducing the juddering; however, it’s still there and would probably prove to be unnerving for some drivers. No such groaning when it comes to the ride quality as the Duster simply manages to hover across bad roads. Yes, it is slightly stiffer than its rivals but the trade-off to this is that the Duster feels a lot more solid when going through median bumps and potholes. Unlike some cars wherein you have to take caution while going over rough roads, you really can plough through in the Duster without second thoughts, the whole suspension is that solid.