Toyota Prado TX rental
Drive around southern Morocco and you’ll see loads of Dacia Dusters. The Renault-owned Romanian brand has a factory in Tangier where Docker vans and Lodgy MPV taxis are also assembled. You’ll see those everywhere too.
After spending a week in a Prado TX (right; more about that job shortly), I rented a Duster from Medloc to start work on Morocco Overland IV with a pal.
I’d spent the preceding weeks on Google Maps, Bing and BaseCamp, extracting a whole new tangle of routes right across southern Morocco, way more than I’d manage to cover in 12 days driving. Sadly my tally turned out to be even less than hoped when the weather turned on the Prado job, ruining their route, snowing up passes down to 1800m and wreaking flood damage, landslides and transient floods across the land.
With many normally bone-dry rivers still flowing I knew we wouldn’t achieve much in the Dacia but we went ahead anyway; no recce is totally wasted. On the very first day we were snowed back then blocked by a churned up oued and rerouted by a closed mountain road. On the second day (left) we had to turn back three times before lunchtime! We settled into this pattern for the next week or so, probing, turning back and covering about 3500km (map above).
Renting a Duster in Marrakech Airport [RAK]
I’d rented from Medloc in Marrakech years ago but it can still feel a bit sketchy to a first-timer. Unlike Avis, Hertz, etc, Medloc and other Moroccan rental agencies don’t have a cabin office in the Menara airport car park, a 5-minute walk from the terminal. Nor might they meet you with a sign as you come out of Arrivals (not me at least, but I was there already). I had to call them and tell them where I was, using a car park place number.
Next: do not expect your freshly valeted car to be there waiting for you. Two guys rocked up after I called but it was about a hour before our actual car, booked for 11am, turned up. It’s not just me; the week before a ‘executive/prestige’ rental outfit dicked us about for even longer sourcing a second Prado which had been booked well in advance. And this was a multi-car job worth tens of thousands. Note that Dusters come as 2WDs too; make sure you book the right one!
Our car was a little dinged and repaired here and there but with seemingly good tyres (as requested), a similar spare and the all-important jack and wheel-changing tools (always check these; half the Prados’ jacks were missing). I’d make a show of checking the oil level while they watch too; it shows conscientiousness (our’s looked like Brent crude).
I paid the rental fee on a portable card reader: €65/day plus a deposit of €1500, same as we do when renting bikes from Loc. Basic 3rd party insurance is included; no other damage waiver insurance was offered. I signed various forms, the pouch of documents went back in the glove box and we were asked to return the car with the same four bars on the fuel gauge.
On returning the car another call identified my location in the airport car park. People turned up fairly swiftly; checked around the car, asked about the bodged repair to the turbo hose (see below), made some calls and even unexpectedly refunded me the 200D I’d paid for the repair with no receipt then signed the car off. There was no cancellation of the €1500 deposit; he said he’d email me later with it (he didn’t). This was unnerving but checking my bank statement that evening, it seemed it had never been taken in the first place while the full rental fee had. This was similar to a moto I’d once rented off a trailer by the roadside in central Marrakech from M2R using a wifi card reader. It all felt sketchy as hell but panned out too. Even where possible I try to avoid using my card in Africa – cash for the rental and deposit is an option with Medloc.
Lessons learned: go ahead and use your 4×4 to its full ability on Moroccan tracks but make sure you have a number to call and try it before you get in trouble. Alone in a smoking Duster with over 100,000 rental kms, you may want to constrain your off-roading ambitions. Some places we drove would have been a near impossible recovery but don’t assume they’ll come down with a replacement if you car breaks down. They may suggest you try and get it fixed locally. I’d also bring a good tyre compressor. I’d also considered blagging a couple of planks somewhere for bridging as well as traction, although rearranging rocks, kicking away oued banks and on soft terrain stopping early and deflating did the trick.
I note that Hertz at RAK offer an auto KIA Seltos ‘or similar’ AWD for under €60 a day. It looks like a Duster and a Duster you may get. Renting with Hertz ought to feel more reassuring, but only if you get a proper 4×4 Duster (which don’t come as automatics in Morocco, afaik).
In a line
Prepare to be surprised with what you can manage in this light, all-terrain SUV.
• You can feel how lightness helps
• Great end clearances – never touched on some steep banks
• Recorded up 45mpg (16 kpl), that’s a 750-km range
• Nippy enough on southern Moroccan roads
• Suspension pretty good for what it is
• Had air-con and sat nav (but not the best)
• I didn’t miss Low Range much
• Road tyres worked fine up to a point when ATs would n’t have been much better. No punctures
• There is some underside protection
• There were fewer electrical faults (none, in fact) on our Duster than some of the Prados with similarly high rental mileages
• Underbody clearance is lower than it looks over central track humps
• Lame air-con and hard to see sat-nav
• Clicking noises under power from the back diff on loose surfaces; an LSD working or transmission wear?
Le Doustaire is a budget SUV going from an amazing £15k new in the UK. I’ve long been impressed by its unusually functional angles and clearance – as good if not better than a stock Prado. In my experience, along with appropriate tyres, for off-roading good clearance is the first priority, followed by 4WD and good articulation (suspension range) or traction control, and finally low range. Plus a snorkel.
The 4WD Duster has six speeds but no low range, just a crawler first gear. I’d outlined my intended use to Medloc and asked for good tyres and that I didn’t mind a well-used example so long as it wasn’t black. At Menara we picked up a bronze 1st generation Duster a few years old with a Renault K9K 1.5dci, 85hp TD in 6-speed manual and 117,000km on the clock.
Our car had a sat nav which actually worked for routing once you’d got the better of the interface, but the matt LCD screen was hard to read and was set too low for the driver. There was also air-con but it was pretty poor at pumping cool air around. I don’t know if low pressure in the system does that.
With the back seats down (left and below right) there’s almost enough room for two to sleep on the near-flat surface, if needed. The brakes were OK (non ABS) and so were the lights. I should get a job at Top Gear!
The Duster runs FWD until you turn a low-reach dial to ‘AUTO’ at which point the rear axle engages on demand, activated by front wheel slip. Another 90° turns the dial to ‘LOCK’ presumably engaging a central diff lock (up to 40- or 60kph) to split torque 50/50 for a bit more traction. I don’t think our car had ABS, nor did it have ‘ESP’ which includes traction control. Later models have more acronyms. This Renault video may help demystify things, or this page where there’s talk of the system overheating if used hard, so there must be something slipping somewhere.
It all feels a bit opaque compared to the old-school mechanical lever and lock systems I’m used to, but we only struggled twice; once when the articulation and so the traction was on the limit crossing a wash-out (left). That ditch took a bit to rocking/momentum (not ideal and how lurching, non-low-range cars get damaged). The other time was wet sand under a crust between low dunes where I wasted no time in stopping early, clearing the wheels, lowering the tyres and foot recce’ing a way out.
As I know well, on the piste you can manage with 2WD 95.3% of the time, but there’s no harm leaving it in AUTO which won’t wind up the transmission and ought only intervene when needed, though might create some drag and higher fuel consumption. It did feel like the steering stiffened reassuringly in LOCK so something was happening below, but a couple of times when turning on loose surfaces under power the back diff clicked as if there was a mechanical LSD in there, or something was slipping and would soon eventually strip splines or snap.
This is the risk in using lightly built ‘4WD’ SUVs on remote desert tracks where occasionally you might have to ask a lot of the transmission. There’s a reason why Land Cruisers and the like are relied on by aid agencies, despite their weight, cost and fuel. consumption. They are over-built to handle the task and last, but are of course still prone to failures.
This was why, again and again in our aged Dacia we backed away from terrain which we might have tackled in a stouter Prado with Low Range or with another vehicle present. And it was why we didn’t cross something which we weren’t confident we could reverse, if needed. Nor on this occasion did we intend to venture into the remote desert south of Rissani. The nature of flood damaged tracks: wash-outs, landslides, fallen rocks, boulder-filled river beds or actual rivers and slimy claypans (we encountered all these), is that a track can be perfectly drivable for miles, then virtually impassable, then fine for miles again to become completely impassable. It takes some experience of desert off-roading and a vehicle’s abilities to know how far to push it while also knowing what you can tackle without risk.
Camping fuel with fly-in rentals
Flying in to rent a vehicle then camp, you’re limited with what stoves or fuel you can carry on a plane. For boiling water a harmless volcano kettle will work but current models can be slow and fiddly. I managed to transport solid fuel ethanol blocks in my hold bag (they can be classed as ‘disinfectant gel’) to use on a compact gimp stove, and also thoroughly aired off my reliably powerful old Coleman petrol stove but ran up against the weight limit so left it. At the last minute I bought a Trangia burner which, using the same stand as a gimp stove, will work with alcohol that you can buy readily from pharmacies in Morocco.
In fact, in any small town it’s easy to buy a 5kg bottle of butane for just 60D (£5), as well as a cheap burner head for around 40D in a hardware store. From previous experience in North Africa a bottle this size will last a month and is of course dead easy to use once out of the wind.
While faff-free, one thing we noticed is that Moroccan butane is of a lower quality than what you’d get in Europe. You won’t get a crisp blue flame but it got there in the end, probably no quicker than a v-kettle, Trangia or a gimp stove.
The independent coils all round give pretty good articulation and as mentioned, if nothing else, the clearances lapped up the piste. On the road the car was nippy in southern Moroccan traffic, didn’t roll much in bends and the brakes were OK. Six gears was a new one on me but if you don’t rush it you got it right most of the time. I’ve not driven a manual for over a decade but had I not read it before, I’d not have noticed first was extra low. Sixth is definitely an overdrive that drops the revs and noise.
The Duster’s clearance is nearly as impressive as it looks; not once did we scrape either bumper; more than I can say for the stock Prado I used last October (The Prados we used just before this trip were notably lifted).
So we were surprised when the undercarriage scraped, grounded and thumped on deeper twin-rut central humps. Looking underneath there is actually some steel protection, but the full-width bashplate under the engine (below left) seemed to be the Duster’s point of contact, along with maybe the forward edge of the rear diff housing (below right). Seeing that neither was getting pulverised made the occasional scrapes and thumps easier to endure, but it was irritating to have to drive deep ruts off-centre like a regular 2WD car to avoid excessive contact.
As it was, on many occasions one of us hopped out to either move rocks and/or guide the driver over tricky ground to avoid needlessly bashing the undercarriage.
A switch on the end of the wiper stalk I’d have never found toggles a nifty read-out on the dash which includes remaining range, live and average L/100km, odometer and outside temps. The Duster has a centrally mounted 50-litre tank and averaged the low to mid 40s mpg (6.5L/100km; 15kpl) which was pretty good. I doubt the hefty Tojo Prado ever exceeded 30. Accelerating the Toyota you could almost hear the gush of fuel pouring out of the pipe as the 3-litre engine heaved the 2.5-ton car into motion.
We did get caught out on one little used track which we started late, had it turn unexpectedly gnarly (above), and with us low on water and with no signal. The fuel range dived under harder use, compounded when a dash warning light came on (left) and power dropped off. Limp-home mode?
From day one Barry thought the turbo was playing up; not knowing the car I wasn’t so sure. But we couldn’t decipher the warning icon on the dash as the only handbook in the glove box was for the sat nav (it needed one). We checked for drips underneath and under the bonnet and carried on into the night. It was a tense couple of hours.
It wasn’t till next day in Tamnougalte when we got online to find that orange warning lights are less critical than red. We also got a tip to check the turbo inlet hose. Up to that point we’d assumed the turbo had gone (Barry’s failed on his Defender at just 14k). But Medloc did not respond to detailed emails explaining our problem, or requests for a replacement car. Calling was the answer (trickier for me with shakey French) to which they suggested we buy a new turbo and get it fitted (for 1000D we were advised; one could have come down from Ouarzazate next day).
We should have spotted the loose hose on the piste; rev the engine and it blew off and remained displaced, producing black smoke so common to many older diesel bangers in Morocco. But the plastic hose (as opposed to more flexible rubber) wouldn’t push back onto the turbo and stay there; some attachment /clip was broken, caused I presume by old age plus the engine rocking on the chassis mounts over rough ground. I’ve had this engine-wobble/hose-strain problem before with the Land Rover 101 and other vehicles. Once our spliff-tooting mechanic had firmly lashed the hose back on with bailing wire and two jubilee clips, normal performance resumed and stayed. Was the turbo whining more? Hard to tell.
Above all, what impressed me with the Duster was its lightness – or how little it took to get the combined 1500kg mass moving with very little throttle or a relatively high gear. Often you could trickle along a piste in third. And when things got a little rough this lack on mass translated into non-self destructing impacts where the mass of a proper 2-ton 4WD would have either broken something or bashed you against the insides. This really was a revelation in the Duster and why I’d rent one again. Just maybe not such an aged banger.
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