My thumb is attached to my hand and I quite like it there. But when the new Renault Duster tried to bite it off, I was, as you'd imagine, not amused. Somewhere along the production line of Renault's SUV, it seems they'd forgotten to smooth out the rough edge in front of the steering adjust lever.
I'd jumped into this re-badged Dacia, and set about making myself comfortable in the driver's seat. It was upon slipping my hand under the steering column and pulling back on said lever that I nearly waved goodbye to my first digit. The plastic in that little gap where the handle resides, is razor sharp. I wouldn't be surprised to find a set of teeth donated by the great white in Jaws.
Maybe I was still fuming from my injury and not thinking straight, or perhaps it's just poor designing on Renault's part, but my next problem arose soon after when trying to locate the knob to adjust the wing mirrors. You'll usually find this on the driver's side door on most cars. Not on the Duster. For some reason, it's been buried below the handbrake, making it almost invisible.
I bet the person responsible also thought sticking the electric window buttons on the centre console was a good idea too. I tend to disagree — as I do with placing the button for the horn at the end of the indicator stalk. Almost every time you attempt to press it, you inadvertently switch the wipers on and accidentally indicate left when you're actually turning right. And if you have momentarily forgotten which way you have set the blinkers, don't look to the dash for help, because the only visual indication you'll get from it is that the hazards are on. When they're not. Though they could be. Who knows, because as there are no independent turn signals on the instrument cluster, there's no way of telling. Granted, you need to be mentally challenged to forget such a thing, but for a 2012 model year car lacking such basics just doesn't bode well. Nope, not a good start to my test drive of a car that has been an unequivocal success story in our region. So far, I was left wondering how.
Anyway, my thumb had stopped spewing blood (but my head hurt from all the shenanigans) and I ventured out into the great, wide open with my new best friend…
Under the bonnet of this attractive 4x2 sits a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine that produces 135bhp and it has been mated to a four-speed automatic, which sends all the power to the front wheels. This combination sounds fair enough but out on the highway, I felt the Duster could benefit from a fifth gear. When you're touching 100kph and seemingly coasting along, the motor sounds like it's revving too high. Even though the gearbox can't drop down into fifth, you're always praying that it magically would to help it settle down. Despite that, its fuel economy does not suffer, getting 7.8-litres per-100km and the powertrain gets you up to speed relatively quickly, making merging with traffic easy(ish) while the gear changes are reasonably smooth.
The leather-wrapped power steering is precise and offers good feedback and there's plenty of stopping power in the brakes. Incidentally, this Duster, the mid-range SE trim, comes with twin airbags, ABS, a really cold and powerful AC, an MP3 and USB compatible stereo with steering wheel functions, roof bars, 16in alloys and fog lamps. The top-line SE+ adds leather seats and side airbags to the mix, but there's no doubt mine is certainly well-equipped.
When you're only paying Dh56,000 for it, the reason for its success suddenly becomes crystal clear. This thing is a real bargain. The exterior boasts lots of French/Romanian flair and I particularly liked its chrome-trimmed grille and muscular fenders, while the interior is airy and spacious. The seats may appear on the small side at first glance, but once you plant yourself on them, they're really rather comfortable. The front chairs offer a decent vantage point and you'll be looking down, nose up, on others on the road while the back seats are just as comfortable. What's more, you have plenty of leg and headroom.
We got off on the wrong foot, but I have to say I liked the Duster, voted Car of the Year in Croatia and Russia in 2011. It's as honest as they come and doesn't pretend to be something that it's not. I had to ignore those little issues before I could appreciate its robust looks, which you can make a bit better by ticking the side steps, wheel arch mouldings, mud flaps and chrome exhaust trim options on the spec sheet. If you want an affordable, comfortable and reliable runabout for the family, give the Duster a good look. Hang on, you already have — Renault has sold all 145 units and there's a waiting list for the next batch arriving soon.
All that's left to say is I'd have given it two thumbs up… had one not been strapped up in a large plaster.