2014 Dodge Durango

Say what you want about the Dodge Durango, but ever since it came on the scene in 1998, it has occupied its own niche in the SUV market – not too small, not too big, tough, able, not always the best on the road and not always the best off-road. If it were a football player, it would be a tight-end that can block and catch. If it were a hamburger – a double burger with cheese and bacon, but not the Whopper.

As part of a mid-cycle upgrade for what was already a very capable SUV that Chrysler introduced in 2011, and built on the same platform as the Mercedes GL-Class and Jeep Grand Cherokee, the 2014 Durango has gotten some refinements worth noting that have cleaned up its tailoring and toned up its body and powerplant. The result is an SUV that shows itself to be a very good value in a category full of sticker prices that can run away faster than a kid who's been told he has to take ballroom dancing lessons.

Chrysler executives showing us the new Durango made a special point to reiterate that the Dodge brand is not going away, as has been rumored after the company took the Ram and Viper – the cream of the brand – out from under the Dodge umbrella. Turns out Dodge has been the brand attracting the most young people (who knew?) and has a younger average age buyer than Honda. The Dodge brand historically has also attracted buyers who aren't exactly Phi-Beta Cappa, which some companies worry about. Chrysler not so much. Dodge buyers tend to be more the working, high-school-educated, community-college-educated backbone of the work force in America. If they keep coming to Dodge, the Durango is a pretty good piece of hardware to save up for.

Driving Notes
  • Power management has been executed very nicely. The Durango comes with either the familiar 5.7-liter Hemi V8 or the standard 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. We tested both around the canyons around Los Angeles, which meant we had highway time, as well as taking it around the twisties. The verdict? If you are a suburban kid-hauler and soccer-team coach using the Durango in lieu of a minivan, then by all means opt for the more fuel efficient and perfectly adequate V6. If, on the other hand, you have stuff to pull – boats, trailers, etc., then it's Hemi time. The V6 produces 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The Hemi cranks 360 hp and 390 lb-ft.
  • The fuel economy numbers are not official* for the Durango with the new eight-speed tranny, but the company says it results in a nine-percent hike. That will be an improvement over the following current numbers: a two-wheel-drive Durango is rated at 16/23 with the V6 and 14/20 with the V8. The all-wheel-drive setup knocks one percent off the V8's fuel economy, and doesn't impact the V6's mpg at all. Nice. By virtue of the improvement in fuel economy and size of the gas tank, Chrysler claims the Durango has the longest one-tank range of 600 miles in the category. Durango also has an Eco driving mode we tested and liked. That system fiddles with throttle sensitivity and cylinder-deactivation. The driver, though, can override that with the push of a button if it's not optimal for driving conditions or the vehicle's load.
  • As mentioned, the Durango has been given Chrysler's new eight-speed automatic transmission. The new tranny works via the same sort of rotary knob as has been put into the Ram 1500 – a not-exactly-big innovation, but we are digging how it frees up real estate in the dash. It's a simple and elegant change that can become a signature of Ram and Dodge trucks and SUVs, and one we suspect rivals won't copy for fear of looking like followers.
  • The exterior features a new grille look and taillights meant to elicit a racetrack aura that is defining Dodge's lamp design. We did not get a chance to try the towing package, but the specs say the the V6 will pull 6,200 pounds and the Hemi will tow 7,200 pounds.
  • Chrysler has added to the Durango's trim levels menu by including a new "Limited" model to go along with the SXT, Rallye, R/T and Ted Turner-money top-o-the-line Citadel. The kit that comes with the Limited includes leather seats, heated seats and steering wheel, an 8.4-inch Uconnect screen and 18-inch wheels. Distinguishing the R/T and Rallye trims are a monochrome exterior, 20-inch black wheels, dual exhaust pipes and black accents around the headlights. LED running lights come standard on Rallye, Limited, R/T and Citadel, while R/T and Citadel get HID headlamps as well.
  • In case you have missed it, every automaker is moving fast into "smart" systems to prevent collisions, pedestrian accidents and, if they could, your dog from peeing on the living room carpet when you're not home. Durango offers blind-spot monitoring, rear-cross-path alert that helps keep you from backing into a head-down texting driver or pedestrian, collision warning, crash mitigation that works the brakes better than many drivers can and driver's-side knee airbags.
  • UConnect won AOL Autos' 2012 Technology of the Year Award for the upgraded system that was installed in the 2013 Ram 1500 and Viper. That system is in the Durango, with the added feature of a Yelp app that is pretty handy for finding what you want wherever you are. Taxidermy in LA? Yeah, it told us where to go. A new emergency-help button has been added as well. Entertainment screens have been moved into the seat-backs for backseat passengers, and out of the drop down position from the headliner in the old model.
  • Because Chrysler sees Dodge as a "value brand," it has to price aggressively, and it is doing just that. The Durango's starting price is still $29,795, excluding destination. The Durango Limited starts at $35,995 (a bump of $800 over the 2013 Crew), while the R/T now starts at $38,995 (up $2,500). The Durango Citadel will start at $40,995 – an increase of $1,000. In true cheeky fashion, Dodge reps compared the price of the Citadel with a Mercedes GL that shares the same platform, has less equipment and costs more than $30K more if you get all the goodies on the GL that are on and in the Durango.
UPDATE: Chrysler has provided official fuel economy numbers for the 2014 Durango: Rear-wheel drive V6 models achieve 18 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. All-wheel drive models loose one mpg on each cycle. RWD V8 models achieve 14 mpg city, 23 highway and 17 combined, while AWD models register 14 city, 22 highway and 16 combined.