An SUV selling for under R350 000 is what many hard-working South Africans are aspiring to own. It needs to be big enough for the whole family, but still look good on the road, and it must have a high driving position and enough luggage space for the weekly groceries and the school run. Much is asked of these sorts of vehicles, so where do you put your hard earned cash? For this test, we have two of the latest value-focused SUVs on sale. Although diesel may have become a dirty word as of late both are shamelessly diesel-powered. This ensures reasonable performance to keep up with traffic without much effort and promises excellent real-world fuel economy. With the fuel price continually heading north this is an essential consideration.
First up we have the splinternuwe Mahindra XUV300 (pronounced three double oh). It’s fresh off its Indian launch and has come to South Africa before heading anywhere else internationally. This is an important vehicle for Mahindra and had already managed 400 pre-orders locally, yes that’s before it even made it to our shores. A good start for a seemingly solid offering.
Next, we have the new Renault Duster 4×4, it may look remarkably similar to the previous model but it’s a ground-up replacement following the same simple formula. Having sold over 16 500 since its initial launch in South Africa Renault has much to lose. Let’s see how these two measure up shall we.
The Duster 4×4 is available only in Dynamique specification and matches up to the range-topping turbodiesel XUV300 W8 on price, less than R3 000 separate the pair. Parked alongside each other both have prominent faces and high bonnet lines. The sort of thing that gives you confidence when needing to face-off the inevitable Fortuner driver in traffic. The Mahindra does stand out with it’s LED headlamp signature, 17-inch machine-finished allow wheels, dual-tone paintwork and incredibly short rear overhangs. The Duster rides rugged-looking 16-inch items and comes with functional black roof rails, front and rear skid plates and signature Renault C-shaped daytime running lights.
Both are sweet for pavement hopping with the XUV offering a handy 180 mm of ground clearance while the Duster is obviously taller with the underbody 210 mm away from the road, a segment leader in this regard. Both do the rugged off-roader look but the Duster is far more convincing while the XUV300 could be seen as the classier design.
Step inside and the XUV300 first and white leather dominates the cabin, it looks luxurious and the chairs are more supportive than the Duster over longer journeys. If you have kids getting washable seat covers may be a necessity to protect the pale upholstery. The Mahindra, because of its dual-tone interior feels airier than the Duster but both offer good amounts of passenger leg and head-room as well as interior storage. The Duster trumps the Mahindra with a larger square sized boot with 149 l of additional packing space though, a cooler box per passenger is possible.
The Mahindra fights back and impresses with a long standard features list and that’s compared to a vehicle that is already well equipped. Both offer standard touch screen infotainment systems with navigation, automatic climate control, six speakers, a reverse parking camera and mobile phone mirroring. The XUV300 adds useful dual-zone climate control, leather seats, a sunroof, tyre pressure monitoring, keyless entry and seven airbags as standard. By contrast, the Duster has only two airbags and leather is a R10 088 option, not cool when the competition is this fierce. It does counter with helpful blind-spot monitoring, hill descent control and an eco-driving mode for impromptu economy runs.
So what are they like to drive?
For starters the Mahindra has a strong engine, it does suffer from a whiff of turbo lag but 300 Nm is more than enough for a vehicle of this size. All the torque is available from as low as 1 500 rpm and sent trough the front-wheels. It’s refined and well-insulated below 120 km/h, the suspension is well-tuned and irons out most road imperfections. It is firmer than the Duster though and as a result, it feels more wieldy on a twisty road. The long-throw gearbox is awkward to operate as the centre armrest is not adjustable, this can be forgiven as the Duster doesn’t offer one at all. Mahindra has moved its game along with how solid the XUV300 feels from behind the wheel.
Both cars suffer with tiny drivers footwells, however, with no footrest, it is rather annoying but something that you can get used to. The Duster is more relaxed to pilot with less noticeable lag and is buttery smooth to operate, the gearshifts are slick too and you can pull away in second easily once you develop the knack for it. The suspension is soft and floats over corrugated dirt roads, the 4×4 has a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension for good wheel articulation off-road. This soft setup may concern enthusiastic drivers as it wallows at speed with light steering, but the Duster is far from sprightly so the cushioned ride is indeed appreciated. During our test period, the Duster proved to be the more frugal powertrain of the two returning 5.7 L/100 km while the XUV300 posted a respectable consumption of 6.3 L/100 km.
By a nose hair
What we have here is an achingly tight contest. Both the Mahindra XUV300 diesel and Duster 4×4 are strong competitors in an increasingly popular segment and are two of the best value offerings available and that’s high praise considering competitors such as the Ford EcoSport and Hyundai Creta. Mahindra has demonstrated its seriousness to succeed by developing a refined and well-equipped compact SUV that is tied down on the road and mitigates body roll better than the Duster which may pitch and roll if you push it too hard, but that’d be missing the point.
The Duster offers a practical no-frills driving experience with a sense of dependability and robustness while the addition of the four-wheel-drive system adds appeal for the adventurous at heart. Its exceptionally frugal motor delivers in the real world and the supple ride of the Duster sees it take this twin-test and only just, not leaving the Mahindra clear in it’s rearview though. Even though you may not use its off-road capabilities regularly, it’s well worth knowing that you can. The Duster remains the small crossover to beat and should keep a close eye on compelling new prospects.
In a nutshell –
Mahindra XUV300 1.5 Diesel W8
Undercutting the competition without compromising on quality
Noticeable turbo lag and boot space is only average
Engine: 1 497 cc, 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 86 kW @ 3 750 rpm, 300 Nm @ 1 500 – 2 500 rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 12 sec, top speed 175 km/h
Tyres: 215/55 R17
Economy: 5.8/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 6-speed manual
CO2 emissions: 142 g/km
Price: R324 999
In a nutshell –
Renault Duster 1.5 dCi Dynamique 4×4
Dependable demeanour with a supple ride and immensely frugal turbodiesel
Leather seats are a R10 088 option
Engine: 1 461 cc, 4-cylinder turbo diesel
Power: 80 kW @ 4 000 rpm, 260 Nm @ 1 750 rpm
Performance: 0-100km/h 12.5 sec, top speed 168 km/h
Economy: 5.2 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 6-speed manual
CO2 emissions: 138 g/km
Price: R327 900