2016 Renault Duster Automatic (AMT) Review: First Drive

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Called the Renault Duster Easy R-AMT, this one comes with the country's first 6-speed AMT gearbox that the company has sourced from ZF.

Called the Renault Duster Easy R-AMT, this one comes with the country's first 6-speed AMT gearbox that the company has sourced from ZF.

2012 was the year that changed people's perception about SUVs all thanks to Renault Duster - a monocoque platform based 5 seater 'compact' SUV with quite car-like drivability. The pre-Duster era was mainly dominated by body-on-frame big SUVs with capabilities to take on almost all sorts of terrains. But they were either too expensive to buy or too big and uncomfortable to drive on city roads. Renault saw an opportunity there and came up with a product that was affordable, easy to drive on city roads and could handle a little off-roading too - a proper urban SUV. The company's target buyers were the ones who, due to no option or budget crunch, were otherwise going for mid-sized sedans or entry-level 7-seater SUVs like Mahindra Scorpio and Tata Safari. And rest is the history, the Renault Duster became the French carmaker's first successful product and a brand builder.

Now that the product has become over 3 years old in the market, and is facing tough competition from the Hyundai Creta, the company decided to bring in the updated Renault Duster with several design changes, new features and some mechanical updates. The facelifted model made its India debut at the Auto Expo 2016, followed by its launch in the first week of March.

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We recently took a short drive of the new Renault Duster, here are our first impressions -

Design - What's new in the updated Duster?

Let me start by admitting this that the Renault Duster is the only 'SUV' looking vehicle in the so-called compact 'sports utility vehicle' segment. Every other car in this segment including the Hyundai Creta look more of an urban crossover. Now with some cosmetic changes here and there, the new Duster looks refreshing if not quite different from the pre-facelift version.

Though the company claims to have made several design changes to the vehicle, it still looks largely similar to the pre-facelift model. The most noticeable part in the new Renault Duster, however, is its front fascia that now receives a more contemporary looking single slat chrome grille instead of the old model's multi-slat grille. Other changes include revised headlamps and new fog lights surrounded with black plastic casing.

Save for the new 16-inch gunmetal finished alloys and slightly revised roof rails & body cladding, the vehicle's side profile also looks more or less similar to the original Renault Duster. The same goes with the rear profile, only change here is the set of new taillamps with LED lighting. Having said that the vehicle's new orange colour with all the aforementioned changes look quite appealing.

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Performance - How different is it to drive?

During our product briefing, the company said that it has used new CMO10 & T4 E&E architecture on its engines to improve the new Renault Duster's ride & handling, but it it felt no different in real driving conditions. If there's one difference that can be felt is the car's improved ability to perform at lower RPMs compared to the old model that had a little turbo lag issues below 2000rpms.

While the AWD variant of the car was on sale with the pre-facelift version as well, it's the automated manual transmission (AMT) variant that's an all-new entry into the lineup. Called the Renault Duster Easy R-AMT, this one comes with the country's first 6-speed AMT gearbox that the company has sourced from ZF. Before getting into the details of how it drives, let's understand what it is. The AMT is nothing but a manual gearbox with an electro-hydraulic mechanism that with an ECU (electronic control unit) takes care of clutch and gear shift movement via cogs. In an AMT, the driver has an option to depend entirely on AMT to take care of the gearshift part or do it manually.

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There's no doubt that the Duster's AMT unit offers convenience, but it somehow dilutes the driving pleasure for which Renault's compact SUV is known for. The gearbox lacks the precision and smoothness that a regular automatic gearbox offers. Having said that, the Duster's gearbox is the finest AMT that we have in the country thanks to its shorter gear ratios leading to faster gearshifts. But like a typical AMT, there's a gap between the input (acceleration) and the response as you can feel the mismatch between RPMs and the gear you are in. Overtaking might be a bit annoying as it takes a little time for gearbox to downshift and you feel powerless till that happens.

One of the things that impressed me most in the new Renault Duster is its improved steering system. It now feels much more planted and unaffected on rough roads, which wasn't the case earlier. The old model's steering used to get imbalanced on the bad surfaces. The Duster was always known for its capabilities to absorb almost all sorts regular terrains thanks to its very well setup suspension. The new model retains the same suspension - MacPherson Strut at front & trailing arm at the rear - and with a better steering system, the overall performance on almost all roads make the Duster the finest car to drive in its category.

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