The Renault Duster is regarded as a soft-roader, which means it’s quite good in a shopping mall’s parking lot but not much use when the going gets tough. So what happens when you drive it through some really harsh terrain? Gerhard Horn found out…
The term “soft-roader” is widely recognised as the description of a car that has bigger tyres than usual, added ground clearance and some suspension tweaks, but not to the point that it’s as capable off-road as a proper 4×4.
The question is, how far removed from a real off-roader is the average soft-roader? Is the gap between the two really that big, or would a soft-roader get you to some of the places seen as the preserve of the hardcore 4x4s?
We had the opportunity to find out a few months ago, on an epic adventure in Namibia. Renault invited us to drive a Duster through some remote parts of this beautiful country – to a secret location where a film crew was busy shooting a new season of Ultimate Braai Master.
We had previously driven the Duster on our own soft-roader adventure, but on that occasion it had faced little more than a badly corrugated dirt road in the Komatiland Forest. A bad road in Mpumalanga and five days through Namibia’s most hostile terrain are two completely different things, and to be honest, we thought the Namibia trip could do some serious damage to the Duster’s reputation.
On our arrival in Windhoek, the Renault dealership wasn’t exactly reassuring. We were told over a cup of coffee that the Dusters we’d be driving were brand new and that the modifications made for the trip had been completed that very morning. So not only were we heading out in vehicles with delivery mileage on them, but we were using untested equipment. The odometer had barely reached double digits, and we faced a five-day drive covering 3000km. At least we could look forward to a 600km section of tar on the final day!
The first leg of our trip was a gravel route from Windhoek to Sossusvlei Desert Camp. These roads are notorious for shredding tyres, so we were surprised to see that the modifications made to our cars did not include a new set of shard rock resistant rubber. In fact, the modifications were limited to a sturdy roof rack and a set of jerry cans in case we couldn’t find 50ppm diesel.
The Namibian version of the Duster includes a stainless steel bull bar as standard, but other than that it was the same Duster we know in SA.
The first 300km turned out to be mostly uneventful. The Duster has a rather rudimentary all-wheel drive system that kicks in automatically when it detects a loss in grip. This made the Duster fairly entertaining on the first leg of the journey, simply because it lets you get the tiniest bit sideways before it intervenes and saves the day. It was loads of fun, but too much of a good thing can lead to a brand new Duster landing on its roof in the middle of nowhere, so we turned off the road to check the tyre pressures. In our hurry to get going, we had forgotten to check this vital element. The car was still set up for city driving and as anyone in the know will tell you, an overinflated tyre and a gravel road really don’t mix. After we had let out some of the air the Duster fell back in line again.
We were missing the sideways action, but had some time to reflect on the Duster’s 1,5-litre turbocharged diesel engine. We have praised this engine before, and it is certainly one of the best currently in production. For its size it delivers a powerful punch, and this allowed us to cruise kilometre after kilometre, without ever having to gear down from fifth.
The hours flew by uneventfully and eventually we pulled up at the Tropic of Capricorn to watch the sun setting over the magnificent Namibian horizon. Our tour guide started getting uncomfortable with our constant picture-taking and loitering, but we regarded this as a wonderful moment that needed to be savoured.
The reason for the guide’s scurrying became apparent an hour or so later when we still had 100km or so to drive, without sunlight illuminating the way. The Duster’s headlamps were in working condition, but a moon-free evening in the middle of nowhere is just about as dark as it gets. Couple that with wildlife running around freely and you have a recipe for disaster.
We suppose it was inevitable that one of us would hit something, and we just happened to be in the car when Lady Luck decided to go home for the night. We were in a hurry to get to Sossusvlei and, while driving at 100km/h or so, crossed paths with a frightened young buck. It had simply stared at the first car in convoy, but decided to run across the road a split second before we arrived. There was no time to brake or swerve. The buck died instantly, as did our stupid determination to get to our destination quicker rather than safer.
Surprisingly, the Duster suffered little damage, mostly thanks to the standard Namibian bull bar. The fog light was broken and the bumper was a bit scuffed, but other than that the car was fine.
We eventually arrived at Sossusvlei late at night, thankful for the harsh lesson in mortality. Let’s just say that, in our experience, it’s best not to drive in Namibia after dark.
The next morning we headed for Death Valley. We had seen our itinerary a few weeks earlier and knew that this would be the true test of the Duster’s off-road prowess. You can drive yourself into the desert up to a certain point, but then there’s a large sign stating that only real 4x4s may enter here.
We were in a car with four driven wheels and we weren’t about to give up just because some sign advised us to. It seemed that the previous night’s lesson had been quickly forgotten.
We drove past the sign and got stuck about 300m later! It wasn’t the car’s fault, but rather our own for thinking that we could drive a soft-roader over soft sand in its default auto mode. In sand, momentum is king and the traction control was making anything resembling momentum nigh impossible.
We switched it off immediately, locked the car in all-wheel drive with power distributed 50/50 to the front and rear axles, and set off again. This time we not only kept up our momentum but found ourselves choosing the most difficult path through the soft sand, time and time again.
We made it through, much to the amusement of a large crowd gathered in the 4×4-only parking lot. We explored the area and came back to an entirely new crowd that had gathered around our little 4×4. As it was decorated in “Ultimate Braai Master” livery, most people thought it was a publicity stunt. They wouldn’t believe we had got the car there under its own steam. One guy suggested that Renault had used a helicopter to drop it there. Another wondered aloud whether he had made a mistake in renting an expensive Hilux overlander at the airport. After all, there was a perfectly good Ford Kuga standing at home, but he’d thought a soft-roader wouldn’t make it.
By the end of the second day we had proved that you could push a soft-roader much further than you’d expect, but that deduction may be limited to the Duster. After we had driven it for the first time, we expected as much because it is a relatively straightforward, lightweight all-wheel drive crossover.
In the days that followed we kept on driving the Duster into places it really shouldn’t have been. We went to the edge of the Fish River Canyon, through dried riverbanks and over the occasional rocky stretch. On the last day, we even did a 50km off-road track in the hopes of seeing some wild horses.
The Duster got us to the set of Ultimate Braai Master, where we enjoyed plenty of meat and melktert and revelled in the atmosphere of a reality TV show set. (In case you were wondering, the cooking time and elimination process really is as intense as it seems on the screen.)
The trip left us with renewed respect for Renault’s humble little Duster. It started with almost zero kilometres on the clock and by the end we had added 3000 more.
Along the way we lost a fog light and one tyre. That’s the grand total of the damage Namibia could inflict on our French car. It did not develop a rattle, squeak or niggle. The dust did work its way into our luggage in the boot, but this was a small annoyance and something that would probably happen to a hardened 4×4.
Namibia is basically a torture chamber for cars. We often heard stories of how people had rolled their cars, or ruined tyres and been left stranded for days.
On the fourth day, we saw an example of what can happen. We came across a Prado claimed by the desert. It had rolled and burned out – just beyond one of those sneaky corners after a rise in the road.
Namibia is as harsh as it is beautiful, but it turned out to be no match for the Duster.