On a recent soft-roader excursion, I drove the Renault Duster on the sort of terrain you’d normally find a compact crossover. It fared exceedingly well and I remember thinking that it might be able to cope with an even tougher challenge.
A week after that expedition, Renault phoned and asked if I’d like to be part of the Duster Namibian Expedition. Naturally, my answer was yes. The terrain in Namibia is fierce and well-known for its car killing abilities, so if ever there was a time to test how far you can actually push a duster, this is it.
As this was my first time in Namibia, I had no idea what to expect, but I have to admit that I didn’t expect the car to fare exceptionally well after my first glimpse of the Namibian landscape. From my seat in the plane, all I could see was sand, rocks and a few trees. This place was built to torture so-called soft-roaders. No wonder the Hilux and Land Cruiser are so popular over there.
A quick trip to the local dealership later we were equipped with brand-new Dusters. And I really do mean brand-new. My test unit had less than 10km on it, which is mighty strange. Normally manufacturers would run in a fleet vehicle before it’s given to the media.
The Namibian Duster is exactly the same car as the SA version, except for the inclusion of a bull-bar as standard. I remember grinning at this ridiculous piece of metal, thinking that it might be of some use on a proper 4×4, but not on a cheapy compact crossover. As it turns out, this piece of metal saved my life a few hours later when my co-pilot pummelled one of the four legged locals.
Driving in Namibia is no joke, as I soon found out. One has to be properly prepared before you take to its famous gravel roads. Unfortunately, we weren’t. We forgot to deflate the tyres to the proper pressure before setting off, which meant we spent the first 500km on gravel with a tyre pressure of 2,8 bar. And that, as anyone in Namibia will tell you, is a very bad idea.
The cars were beyond skittish. Just the smallest amount of mid-corner braking, or lifting off the accelerator, and the car would become insanely tail happy. Luckily the cars were in Auto mode, meaning the all-wheel drive system would detect the problem and interfere immediately. It was also the first time I was able to experience the Duster, or any other car for that matter, in an emergency situation.
I can tell you that the Duster is fairly easy to control beyond the limit. Once the tail steps out, you just apply some opposite lock, at which point the all-wheel drive system kicks in and takes over. You always hear people complaining about these systems and how they dilute the driving experience, but let me tell you, out there in the middle of nowhere, I wanted to kiss the man who came up with ESP and traction control.
The next day we pushed the Duster to its limit. With the tyre pressures sorted, we made our way to Sossusvlei. The road into this famous site is tarred, but once the tar stops, there is a sign that warns you that only real 4x4s may proceed further. Not one to give up, I simply locked the Duster in 4WD, turned the traction control off and pointed it towards one of the dunes in the distance.
Soon after that I became extremely annoyed by the driving habits of the German and American tourists. It seems these guys fly in via Frankfurt and rent a 4×4 with a roof tent to get the full Africa experience. I don’t really have a problem with that, seeing as Namibia relies on tourism to keep it going. What I do have a problem with, is their driving technique on dunes.
I was taught to follow in the tracks of the leading car, not only because it makes driving through soft sand easier, but also because it minimises the damage to the environment. Not knowing these rules, the European and American tourists just cut their own paths through the sand. This means you’re greeted by a hundred different path options as soon as you turn the first corner.
The Duster had no problem whatsoever with the soft sand. The gear ratios I complained about in previous driving impressions suddenly made a lot of sense. In third gear the Duster cruised over the soft sand, while second was only ever needed when momentum was lost. Thankfully, the Duster made it through without getting stuck once.
On the other side the car was flooded with interest as soon as I parked it. Most of the people wanted to know what modifications we made to the car to get it here. When I responded with “none”, the serious questioning began.
“Does it have low range?”
“And a rear locking diff?”
“Are you lying to me?”
“If you can make it, do you think my new Ford Kuga will be able to make it?”
It think quite a few egos were damaged that day. You have people who spend millions preparing the ultimate off-roader for expeditions like this and there we were with a Renault Duster with a bull bar.
We pushed it a lot further than that, but according to an embargo in my inbox, I can’t tell you much more than that.