2012 Dodge Durango Expert Review:Autoblog
Two years ago, on a lark, my girlfriend and I clambered aboard a new Dodge Durango Hybrid and motored from Detroit to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to take in the kitschy phenomenon known as Groundhog Day. The idea was to do a combined road trip story and vehicle review, but Chrysler didn't even wait for us to return home before it killed off production of the gas-electric SUV. In fact, it wasn't much more than two months after its initial announcement that production was cancelled at the truck's Delaware plant.
Blame Chrysler's then-dire financial condition, but the hybrid Durango barely made a dent on the Pentastar's production charts, lasting one model year and moving just 224 copies. Hold your belated "Who Killed the Electric SUV?" shrieks, though. Despite a nearly 25-percent increase in claimed fuel efficiency, the Durango Hybrid wasn't a particularly good vehicle. This wasn't wasn't really its fault, of course, as the already aging second-generation Durango upon which it was based wasn't a terribly refined piece to begin with.
Fast-forward to 2011, and we've commandeered an example of Dodge's all-new third-generation Durango to make our second-ever pilgrimage to see Punxy Phil. More importantly, we're using the trip as an opportunity to see if Chrysler has finally gotten around to building a better Durango.
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Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
In a bit of real life imitates Hollywood art, hitting the rewind button on our Durango-to-Punxsy trip echoes the journey of Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day. In the 1993 Harold Ramis cult classic, a self-absorbed meteorologist played by Bill Murray is trapped in the Pennsylvania hamlet on February 2, doomed to relive the same small town celebration over and over again until he gets it right. In his journey of self-discovery, Connors goes through periods of seemingly consequence-free indulgence, intense learning and suicidal depressions before making a concerted effort to better himself.
Coincidentally, Chrysler itself has also been locked in its own Groundhog Day-like boom/bust cycle of product development for decades, perpetually embarking on periods of inspired design and innovation, only to relapse into the familiar, easy malaise of building bland and technologically moribund vehicles until it's once again near death. The Pentastar has made something of an art out of producing its best work on the brink of financial Armageddon, a pattern it has been repeating since the original Chrysler minivan. In what is hopefully its final bout of rope-a-dope automaking, Chrysler has rebounded from bankruptcy in 2009 to deliver this new Durango and the excellent Jeep Grand Cherokee, along with the promising new 300 and Charger sedans.
Like its post-bankruptcy parents at Chrysler, the 2011 Durango has emerged a significantly different and altogether leaner and meaner mid-size proposition than its predecessor. Its sleek new sheetmetal now clothes a unibody architecture derived from the same cloth as the Grand Cherokee, only this time out, the whole works has been stretched to accommodate a third row. At least on the surface, losing its body-on-frame construction should help refine the Durango's ride and handling portfolio while improving its fuel economy through the virtues of lower weight. The proof, however, will be in the driving.
But back to the exterior for a moment. While the original Durango started off as a visually inspired bit of truckishness, its masculine, drop-shoulder look inspired by the 1994 Ram pickup, subsequent generations chipped away at its 'all of a piece' organic quality. The 2011 model earns much of this back with a conservative yet imposing bluff-faced look that's dominated by a massive crosshair grille and a clear-eyed stare from its twin-element headlamps. The profile reveals a standard two-box shape, with blacked-out B-pillars imparting visual lightness. If we've got an aesthetic nit to pick, it's in the rear, which looks a shade too derivative for our tastes. With its horizontally oriented taillamps bridged by a thick chrome garnish, the design borrows rather heavily from the Grand Cherokee, but because the Durango snugs closer to the ground, the rear ends up strangely rather minivannish. All-in, though, it's a handsome piece that's unlikely to scare off SUV traditionalists.
Just as Phil Connors was waylaid in Punxsutawney by a massive snowstorm in Groundhog Day, we set out from Motown with seemingly every forecaster wringing their hands about the impending 'Storm of 2011' and 'Blizzard of the Century' that was conveniently expected to march in lockstep with our own journey. With only all-season Michelin footwear and Pennsylvania's mountainous and indifferently plowed roads ahead, we brazenly (and perhaps stupidly) set out in search of a 125-year old land beaver.
Our Inferno Red travel companion? A modestly spec'd Durango Express, mercifully optioned with all-wheel drive. Chrysler has adopted a rather contrived and baffling trim scheme with the new Durango, and "Express" is Pentastar-ese for "base model." No matter, with an as-tested price of just $32,340, even a cursory glance at our tester's spec sheet reveals real value. Of course, if you've got a bit more dosh in your pocket, the other available trim levels in ascending pocketbook damage are Heat, Crew, R/T, CrewLux and the range-topping Citadel, which offers more bells and whistles than a slot machine factory.
Chrysler has been dropping its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 into anything with wheels on it as of late, and with good reason – it's a fine engine. As plumbed into the Durango, the new powerplant delivers 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Backed by a mandatory five-speed automatic, it offers plenty of power, albeit located a bit high up in the revband (peak torque arrives at 4,800 rpm). Thankfully, over the course of our journey, we would come to find that the drivetrain combination is perfectly agreeable – the Pentastar is a smooth operator and the transmission doesn't hunt between cogs unnecessarily. Admittedly, the manual shift facility on the gearlever is occasionally casual in its responses, but most drivers piloting this three-row kinschlepper probably will never knock it out of 'D' anyhow.
While it's easy to be dazzled by the laundry list of features that comes on the big baller Citadel, the measure of any interior's excellence is invariably its base specification. Strip away the frosting on this crossover and you'll find an honest and well-appointed cabin that just plain works. Switchgear falls readily to hand, materials are surprisingly rich and there's even passel of surprise-and-delight items lurking in the standard equipment column (three-zone climate control, remote start, trailer sway control, ambient lighting and Sirius and Bluetooth audio, for starters). Most importantly, Dodge has nailed the basics, with pleasing soft-touch materials, comfortable seats and generally good workmanship all-around. Like the exterior, the Durango's center stack won't overwhelm with the unrelenting modernity of its arch rival, the Ford Explorer, but other than perhaps having some initial difficulty getting the Bluetooth audio sync'd up, operating everything was easy-peasy (which the Blue Oval often isn't). The cabin is also unerringly quiet, with engine, wind and road noise all nicely muted.
Whiling away the miles on Interstate 80 and then getting into the bendy stuff in PA before the storm hit gave us ample time to appreciate the Durango's well-sorted ride and handling. The combination of a long wheelbase (119.8 inches), 50/50 weight distribution and a matching torque split yields reassuringly predictable handling. Even without the added poke of the available 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and the first of many flakes beginning to fall, we found ourselves pushing deeper into corners with surprising surety and conviction. Like most everything else in this class, the Dodge's rack-and-pinion steering veers toward light and feel-free, but good accuracy and nicely linear braking from the four-wheel discs (13-inchers all around) bred confidence, and the stability control programming doesn't allow you to get too far out of shape to save the big boy. The new Durango's modest ground clearance may not do much for its off-road capability, but its lowered center of gravity definitely improves handling.
With surprisingly few delays, it wasn't long before we had run up around 350 miles on the odometer as we pulled into the sleepy hamlet of Punxsutawney. For those who have seen Groundhog Day, a little reality check is in order here. The movie portrays an idyllic small town, but the truth is a bit grittier than that. Like any number of small towns in the region, Punxy is a bit scruffy around the edges, athough not without its charms. Unsurprisingly, the actual filming for the movie took place not in Phil's backyard, but in the town of Woodstock, Illinois.
Because Punxsutawney is so small (about 6,000 inhabitants) and the mountain communities around it are small, too, hotels are hard to come by. The ones in town gouge $600-800/night for the privilege of being local on February 2, and nearly all lodging within an hour of town is booked months in advance. Thus, we pointed the Durango toward our lodging about 20 miles away – the Clarion Hotel in DuBois (pronounce it like you're W.E.B., not a wannabe Francophile). Conveniently, this happened just as the weather turned from bad to worse, graduating from heavy snowfall into a bona-fide ice storm that coated the roads and surrounding forests with an inch of the beautiful but deadly stuff.
Take it as a measure of our confidence in the Durango's foul-weather prowess that we didn't just hole-up for the night. Instead, we scored a last-minute seating at the beautiful Gateway Lodge Bed and Breakfast in Cooksburg, nearly 40 miles away down Route 36. What followed was nearly 90 minutes of picking our way along super-slick, utterly dark and deserted forest roads. We arrived late but none the worse for the wear, and after tearing all sorts of ligaments trying to negotiate the
The movie would have you believe that Gobbler's Knob, epicenter of the whole Groundhog Day phenomenon, is in the town square, and that the party really gets cranking at daybreak. This, like so many things from Tinseltown, is a slice of well-meaning fiction. The Knob is located atop a hill nearly two miles outside of town, and if you want to have any chance at seeing the prophetic rodent up close for yourself, you'll have to make the journey there at Oh-Dark-Thirty either by hiking or shuttle bus, as the roads are closed off to traffic. (Unless you manage to secure media credentials, which allowed our civilian Dodge to nestle incongruently adjacent the television satellite trucks).
One thing that the movie underplays is how big Groundhog Day has become – perhaps because attendance has skyrocketed since the film was released. Even in a down year, many thousands turn out (this year's celebration took place on a Wednesday during horrible weather in the week leading up to the Steelers in the Super Bowl), from drunken college revelers to entire families, with many folks carrying signs, donning GHD t-shirts and wearing amusing Phil-inspired headgear.
Even combatting sub-zero temps, it's still a hugely enjoyable spectacle – particularly for lovers of campy humor. Local high-school girls do dance routines to a deejay's beats, there's a potato gun shooting t-shirts and stuffed groundhogs, along with a fireworks display and a court-jester like emcee. The best part of the whole crazy scene might just be the Inner Circle, the good-natured tuxedo'd and top-hatted league of otherwise ordinary gentlemen who are charged with organizing the festivities and being Phil's keeper for the other 364 days of the year. (Pennsylvania's most photographed resident resides year-round in a nicely appointed alcove in the town's library with a lady friend). The Inner Circle members get their pictures plastered on newspaper and website pages worldwide like red carpet A-listers, yet to a man, they're all jovial, hard-working small town guys that just happen to get their 15 Minutes every year. In the context of the wholly surreal scene, there's something reassuringly down-to-earth about an event that can make this sort of thing possible. Our Dodge seems right at home at this bucolic ball, looking crisply tailored while simultaneously evincing a rugged and unassuming honesty. Despite the Durango being a brand-new model, nobody looks twice at our ride except an approving Harlem Globetrotter whose teenaged handlers have parked next to us in the reserve lot (seriously).
Not long after the bleary-eyed masses have shuffled off The Knob to find warmth and perhaps an early morning beverage, we stop to slake the Durango's thirst. Despite the weather and the winding Appalachian roads, at 19.6 miles per gallon, our fuel economy is still within range of the EPA's estimates for our V6 AWD model (16 mpg city/22 mpg highway). Those numbers aren't likely to warm Ed Begley Junior's cockles, but we can't think of any three-row CUV that would manage that unlikely feat, anyway. Thanks in part to its lighter unibody construction, those efficiency figures aren't far off that of the short-lived Durango Hybrid's 20/22 rating.
Even still, fuel economy is a key area where the Durango takes a backseat to its cross-town Blue Oval competition. Despite the new V6, the Dodge's drivetrain simply isn't as advanced or as adept at sipping fuel as the 17/23-mpg Explorer 4WD (and a more efficient turbo four-cylinder model from Ford arrives later this year). An eight-speed ZF transmission for the Durango is said to be just around the corner, and might be worth waiting for.
That said, even though we didn't stuff our Durango to the gills with seven people or max out the V6's 6,200-pound tow rating with a trailer full of Groundhog Day merchandise, we're not sure we could've picked a better chariot for our pilgrimage to Punxsutawney. The Dodge's refined ride and handling, fuss-free technology and endlessly impressive foul-weather handling made it a first-rate travel companion, full stop.
In the end, Bill Deeley, President of the Inner Circle, raps on Phil's tree stump, and the Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators is coaxed out of his quarters with much fanfare to a barrage of flashbulbs and cheers. Despite the bright lights, our furry friend somehow eludes seeing his shadow, signaling an early spring to the jubilant crowd.
All of which seems rather fitting. If the excellent new Dodge Durango is any sort of bellwether for Chrysler's future product, Auburn Hills' long winter of discontent may end in celebration sooner than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Let's just hope they're smart enough not to get caught up in their own vicious cycle again this time.
Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
Event photos: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic
Geologically speaking, dinosaurs ruled the earth for a brief period. In automotive terms, the same holds true for the traditional sport utility vehicle. But while dinosaurs will never return, SUVs are attempting a comeback.
Autoblog readers all know the history of the American SUV; it started with the Suburban in 1936 when Chevrolet dropped a station wagon body over a truck chassis. Natural selection favored utilitarian characteristics, so the Suburban grew. Other forces were active in the land of Jeep. Their Wagoneer (1963) survived for decades thanks to genes that combined plushness with off-road capabilities. Another variation on the SUV was the unibody Jeep Cherokee XJ (1984), a new phylum that somehow mutated from body-on-frame parents.
Environmental influencers such as cheap gas and low lease rates caused an SUV Cambrian Explosion throughout the 1980s and 90s. Spontaneous parallel genesis occurred at other manufacturers yielding dozens of Darwinian finch-like variations. Then disaster struck. The entire range of SUVs nearly went extinct with the meteoric impact of 2008's financial collapse and a spike in fuel prices. Does the 2011 Dodge Durango represent the rear-wheel drive SUV's last gasp or its reemergence?
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
Your author first laid eyes on the present Durango at a Hail Mary press conference held in December 2008 as a precursor to the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. Those were dark days for Chrysler. The press conference was meant to show that even though then-owner Cerberus was incapable of successfully managing Chrysler, there was still energy and passion at the Auburn Hills HQ.
Then head of design, Ralph Gilles, stoically put on one heck of a show as to what the future held for Chrysler. Alongside an early 2011 300 and Dodge Charger, the red Durango styling buck looked rough. The solid body had blacked out windows and wavy body panels. But the proportions were modern compared to the already archaic 2008 Dakota, an SUV whose best days had passed years earlier.
Gilles is now President and CEO of the Dodge Brand and the Senior VP in charge of Design at Chrysler Group LLC. As evidenced in the fully renewed 2011 Chrysler LLC model line, Gilles earned every bit of both titles.
The all-new 2011 Durango shares nothing with the old model. Therefore, forget everything you know about the antiquated truck-based predecessor. In scientific circles, the jump between these two generations would be recognized as macroevolution as opposed to micro.
Those looking to trace genes will note a similarity in unibody construction, chassis layout and powertrains between the Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee. "The Durango and Grand Cherokee were both actually started when Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz were still together. The ML, Grand Cherokee, Durango and next-generation GL all share a common starting point," explains Jack Dolan, Durango's model-responsible engineer.
The result is a three-row, seven-passenger unibody SUV riding on a 119.8-inch wheelbase with four-wheel independent suspension powered by Chrysler's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 or the 5.7-liter Hemi V8. (For those looking for a modern comparison point, the new Jeep GC's wheelbase is smaller by five inches and is 10 inches shorter overall.) Properly equipped, the 290-horsepower V6 tows 6,200 pounds and the 360-hp Hemi, 7,400 pounds. Rear-wheel drive is standard, while full-time all-wheel drive an option."While the Dodge and the Jeep were developed together and share much of the same body structure forward of the C-pillar, their characters are much different. At every major juncture, engineers took the Jeep in the direction that maximized off-road capabilities. We optimized the Dodge for the street and meeting the demands of today's SUV buyer," said Dolan. And what does that buyer want? They want the capabilities of a truck-based SUV in terms of towing and cargo hauling in a package that delivers the car-like driving capabilities of a modern crossover.
The general package is wrapped in a modern shape that appears athletic, strong and modern. The body sits low over the wheels, and the greenhouse-to-body ratio lowers the roofline further. Gilles and team have refined Dodge's signature crossbar grille to give the new Durango an aggressive look akin to the 2011 Charger. This should come as no surprise once you know that the two vehicles were in the styling studio at the same time. The look is integrated and doesn't appear to be a genetic anomaly.
Inside, the changes are more pronounced. Tired of taking heat for kid-friendly all-plastic interiors (pre-2011 Grand Caravan and Journey), Dodge stylists upped their interior design goals to eclipse even their own well-regarded Ram 1500. The change is dramatic. While not the equal of industry leaders like Audi, the 2011 Durango features large swaths of seamless soft-touch trim panels and cushy surfaces everywhere you're likely to lay a finger.
Attention to detail is especially evident in the gauge cluster and door panels. Glints of chrome highlight the easy-to-read twin-pod gauges. The sweeping shapes on the door panel are accented (depending on model) by various contrasting inserts and deftly molded-in details. We especially appreciated the remote release for the spring-loaded third-row headrests, as the press of that button dramatically improves rear visibility.
These nuances enhance the fact that the Durango's interior can reportedly be reconfigured 28 ways. We didn't confirm the number, but as you scan our photo gallery, you'll see we tried plenty of different arrangements. With both rear rows stowed, there's room to haul a six-foot sofa with the tailgate closed. Folding all three rows of seats on the passenger-side of the Durango (yes, the right-front seat also folds flat) makes carrying 10-foot 2x4s possible. Maximum cargo room is 84.5 cubic feet – about equal to a Ford Flex, but smaller than a Chevrolet Traverse's 116.4 cubes.
The large rear doors make for easy access to both rear rows. One-touch action on the second-row seat opens a path to the third-row where there's room for a sub-six-foot adult. That adult wouldn't want to spend all day back there, but a neighborhood jaunt won't require chiropractic care.
If you're familiar with the 2011 Grand Cherokee, you've got a good idea of what's under the Durango's hood. The base engine is the 3.6-liter V6, Chrysler's new it-goes-in-nearly-everything-we-build engine. Fortunately, it's a pretty good mill. While not rated at over 300+ horsepower like GM's 3.6-liter or Ford's 3.7-liter V6, it delivers 290 horsepower just fine. Like Chrysler's marketing people might have asked themselves, we're wondering why engineers didn't dig a little deeper. Peak torque is 260 pound-feet and fuel economy is 16/23 miles per gallon in RWD spec and 16/22 when driving all four wheels. These numbers will all improve if Fiat's MultiAir heads are fitted to this engine, though engineers remain mum on the prospects.
The V6's mileage figures would have also been better if Chrysler had a RWD transmission with more gears. Strapped for development dollars (a modern transmission requires hundreds of millions to develop), the all-new Durango soldiers on with the old W5A580 five-speed automatic. It could be worse; the 2011 base Avenger still has a four-speed. Chrysler is working on an eight-speed transmission, however, that will debut in some models as early as 2013.
V6 Durango models are available in both RWD and AWD configurations. AWD units get a permanent one-ratio transfer case that begins with an initial torque split of 50:50.
Meanwhile, the legendary Hemi V8 with cylinder deactivation is optional. It cranks out 360 hp and 390 lb-ft torque and is backed by the heavier-duty 545RFE five-speed automatic. RWD and AWD are also both available, but the Hemi's AWD has a low 2.72:1 reduction ratio low range. Additionally, in low, the front and rear prop shafts are locks, helping deliver better power for light off-roading. The Hemi's AWD also includes a Neutral position, enabling flat towing. Mileage is 14/20 for the RWD, and 13/20 for the AWD version.
Everything that makes up the 2011 Durango finds itself packaged into four models with new designations; the Express, the Crew, the R/T and the Citadel. Unlike in years past, there is no "base" model. At $29,195, the entry-level Durango Express includes tri-zone automatic climate control, LED ambient lighting, hill-start assist and trailer sway control as standard equipment.
The Crew, at $33,195, is expected to be the volume model. It packages most of the content most buyers want into an easy-to-buy model that adds dozens of features including a power liftgate, proximity key system, power front seats, rear-view camera and an Alpine premium audio system with full media connectivity. The Citadel is the fully-loaded Durango, and at $41,795, it has leather and power everything. Sirius Backseat television, AWD, skid plates, trailer towing equipment and the HEMI V8 are the Citadel's only options.
This leaves us to describe the 2011 Durango R/T. This $32,170 SUV wears a unique front fascia with a deeper front spoiler and a monochromatic look. The R/T specific wheels measure 20-inches and wear P265/50R20 Kumho Solus tires. The body rides 20mm lower, and the rear suspension includes ZF Sachs Nivomat air springs to make sure the Durango can still haul stuff when it's not hauling ass.
We spent all of our allotted time behind the wheel of an R/T blasting around California's Napa Valley. The performance-oriented SUV is immediately comfortable and easy to drive. The interior is quiet, the seats supportive and all major controls work as designed.
Another characteristic that made itself immediately known was this vehicle's weight. At 5,331 pounds, the AWD R/T feels heavy because it is. The Hemi had to work hard to make the R/T hustle, making us think that driving a V6 Durango might try our patience. (A complete road test will fill in the blanks as soon as these vehicles become available.)
Surprisingly, when the roads got twisty, the Durango's new fully-independent suspension somehow masked at least a thousand pounds. The R/T carved a sharp line through corners. Unlike V6 Durangos that use an electro-hydraulic power steering system, the HEMI R/T uses a standard hydraulic steering rack-and-pinion unit. The feedback and information delivery through the wheel was surprisingly helpful and full of life. This made the R/T genuinely entertaining on roads better suited to a Lotus Elise. The four-wheel disc brakes also kept pace just fine, but we did smell the pads after a particularly long and curvy downhill where we were pushing on.
A previous-generation Durango would have been miserable on the same roads. As would its driver and passengers. The 2011 Durango, however, is no old-school dinosaur, but a new-and-improved breed that Dodge hopes will be the most extinct-proof model to date.
Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL
New Car Test Drive
A more efficient, passenger-friendly SUV that's true to its roots.
Overhauled for 2011, the Dodge Durango qualifies as a wholesale advance on its predecessor. It's not merely competitive. It's near the top of its class in many of the things SUV buyers want.
For 2012, Dodge Durango adds a new 6-speed automatic transmission to go with the Hemi V8. 2012 Durango trim levels have been simplified and the number of Durango variants reduced. The 2012 Durango is available with second-row captain's chairs.
This SUV will work best for those with varied needs: plenty of seats, good cargo capacity and great hauling flexibility, class-leading towing capacity or dual-range all-wheel drive. The standard setup is rear-wheel drive, yielding even weight distribution, a compliant bump-soaking ride, quiet cruising and good response to driver commands.
Engine choices include an adequate performing V6 with a lighter appetite for gas, or an exceptionally powerful V8.
The Durango SXT is the base model, but it's far from basic, with three-zone temperature control, a full complement of power features and a decent stereo with standard satellite radio. The loaded Durango Citadel has everything you need and a lot more, including remote starter and ventilated seats. The sporty Durango R/T is bold, quick and genuinely fun to drive, despite its substantial size. Options are reasonably priced, and run the gamut from blind-spot warning to 500-watt Alpine audio to two grades of navigation.
The standard 3.6-liter V6 brings 290 horsepower, paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission, though this modern four-cam engine is hauling 4900 pounds around. On the plus side, the V6 gets an EPA-estimated 23 mpg Highway and has a big fuel tank, so those 400-mile scenic routes won't leave you worrying about the next gas station. Those less concerned with mileage will opt for the Hemi, not because of its 70 added horsepower but for the extra 130 pound-feet of torque and the V8 soundtrack.
All Durango models seat seven adults comfortably in a cabin that looks better than before. Materials and fit-and-finish are miles ahead of previous Durangos, yet they remain wholly appropriate for the SUV mission. Durango can be configured to carry big boxes, a sofa, or four people plus a 10-foot step ladder or stack of lumber inside.
It can tow a minimum 3500 pounds fully loaded and up to 7400 with the V8 (considerably more than the crossover competition). With low range available in AWD V8s, it can handle ascents or descents you shouldn't even consider attempting in most crossovers.
The Durango has been rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. All models come with a full complement of airbags, rollover sensing and electronic stability control with trailer sway control. Optional safety features include rear cross-path detection, a rearview camera, rear park sensors and active cruise control with forward-collision warning.
Durango competes in a crowded category against the GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander and 4Runner, Hyundai Veracruz, Kia Sorento, Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX-9, and Honda Pilot. Top-drawer Durango models could also compete with the Acura MDX and Volvo XC90, though Nissan's Pathfinder is the only seven-seat, rear-wheel-drive competition to offer a V8 in this price range.
The Durango is a great vehicle for drivers who can legitimately take advantage of its strengths. But needs are an important part of the decision. Those who do no towing and don't need the V8 might consider the Dodge Grand Caravan. With the same V6, a 6-speed automatic and less weight to cart around, the Grand Caravan is quicker, gets better mileage and handles as well in typical family duty. It also has more people room and as much cargo space behind the second row as the Durango does behind the front seats. Then again, a Grand Caravan is not a Durango.
The 2012 Dodge Durango is available in four trim levels, with either a V6 or V8 engine. All Durangos come standard with seating for seven and an automatic transmission, and all are available with all-wheel drive.
Durango SXT ($28,995) is powered by a 290-hp 3.6-liter V6 with a 5-speed automatic. It comes well equipped, with cloth upholstery, three-zone temperature control, cruise control, a compliment of power features, six-speaker audio with single CD, Sirius satellite radio and Uconnect hands-free phone operation, a fold-flat front passenger seat, 50/50-split folding third-row seats, 60/40-split fold/tumble second-row seats, and 18-inch alloy wheels with all-season tires. All-wheel drive ($1,000) is optional.
Durango Crew ($33,695) and Crew AWD ($35,695) come with the V6, upgraded Alpine audio with a 6.5-inch touch-screen media center, power driver and front passenger seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, rearview camera, Keyless Enter-N-Go proximity key, and power liftgate. Crew models can also be equipped with the 360-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V8 ($2,095), which features cylinder de-activation technology and comes with a 6-speed automatic.
Durango R/T ($35,795) and R/T AWD ($37,795) are the sportiest Durangos, powered by the Hemi V8 with a lowered suspension, bigger brakes, 20-inch wheels, body-color trim and suede-like, red-stitched upholstery. The R/T comes standard with the Alpine audio and remote start.
Durango Citadel ($40,995) and Citadel AWD ($42,995) are the top of the line. They come standard with the V6, but also with nearly all available luxury features, including Nappa perforated leather seating, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, sunroof, the best audio with on-board hard drive, HID headlamps, blind spot warning, rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, R/T brakes and the 20-inch wheels. Citadel models are also available with the V8 ($2,095).
Options include a couple of packages for the lower-trim Durangos. The Popular Equipment Group for SXT ($1,395) adds the audio upgrade with 40GB hard drive, leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto-dimming inside mirror, rear park sensors and a rearview camera. The Leather Group ($1,295) for Crew and R/T adds leather seats with two-position memory in front, heated front and second-row seats, and a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system ($1,695) is available. Stand-alone options for all Durangos includes a towing package ($695), with Class IV hitch, full-size spare tire, upgraded cooling and load-leveling rear shocks, skid plates ($250), a roof rack ($250), engine block heater ($50) and the sunroof ($850). (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
Safety features include front and front passenger side-impact airbags, full cabin head-protection curtains, anti-lock brakes (ABS), electronic stability control (ESC) with trailer-sway control and a tire-pressure monitor. Optional safety features include blind spot warning, rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, rear camera and rear park sensors.
The Dodge Durango was completely redesigned for 2011, and exterior changes for 2012 are limited to paint. Three new colors expand the standard palette to eight choices.
By exterior dimensions, the Durango falls near the middle of the three-row sport-utilities and crossovers in its competitive set. At 199.8 inches long, on a 119.8-inch wheelbase, Durango has a smaller footprint than a Chevrolet Traverse, and a slightly larger one than Ford Explorer or Honda Pilot.
Nonetheless, the Durango has a higher towing capacity than all of them in comparable configurations, and with the optional V8 it can pull a class-leading 7,400 pounds.
It wouldn't be a Dodge without a big cross-hair grille, and the Durango doesn't disappoint. Its grille is broad and tall enough to deliver presence, especially given its forward slant in a class where most front ends slope rearward for aerodynamic reasons. Yet with its chrome flourishes and finer detailing, the Durango's nose is more elegant than the macho, blunt-snouted designs that preceded it.
The hood flows out to the fenders, rather than sloping off like that on the previous-generation Durango, and combined with a deep air dam in front, it creates a more wagon-like proportion in side view. The long rear side doors look even longer because they have no fixed quarter window at the rear. In total, Durango creates a fairly subtle shape, with chrome down low on most models and even more sprinkled about on fancy ones. Its windows are neither Hummer-like slits nor particularly tall.
The rear end slopes gently, neither as upright as the ultra-practical Pilot nor as fastback-slanted as Traverse or Explorer. The rear lighting is simple, effective and elegant, though in our view a bit too similar to that on Durango's corporate sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In substance, the Durango approximates a longer, three-row version of the Grand Cherokee, which itself was derived from the Mercedes-Benz ML and GL classes (Mercedes owned Chrysler when these vehicles began development). You might consider Durango the least expensive way to get some Mercedes engineering in a seven-seat package.
The cargo hatch in back is powered on all but the base model, but the glass doesn't open separately. It's an issue only when you want to drop a couple of grocery bags in back without hefting up the entire hatch. The lock button is camouflaged in the big chrome Dodge band across the back, and the manual hatch release is big enough to use with gloves. A rear wiper and small spoiler are standard on all.
Several exterior features are intended to improve durability. The wheel-well openings and lower edges all around the perimeter are dark plastic to avoid scuffing and rock chips. The rear bumper has a top cover to avoid paint damage should you rest a heavy package or stand there to reach the roof. The low-profile roof rails have swivel-out crossbars built in so wind noise is reduced when there's no cargo up there. There is a small attachment loop at each rail end.
Unlike the previous Durango, the current generation uses five-lug wheels, which means a wider choice for those wishing to customize. This one is available with wheels up to 20 inches from the factory, though the standard 18s are probably best for multi-purpose use. The 18-inch wheels deliver the best ride and probably the best all-season traction, and we wouldn't guess that the typical Durango buyer will be overly impressed with the slightly improved steering response that comes with the lower-profile tires on the 20-inch wheels. Choosing the 20-inch wheels is usually a styling decision.
The spare tires, temporary or full size, are stowed underneath the rear, in front of the rear bumper. It can be a nuisance crawling under there in mud or snow, but this storage system doesn't require unloading or dirtying the cargo area to change a tire.
The Durango's interior blends a lot of the space, flexibility and family friendly features of a minivan with seating that's less upright and design that's a bit more anti-utilitarian. Dodge claims there are 28 distinct seating configurations. We're not sure precisely how they count that total, but we assure you that there are many.
And there's a new one for 2012, because the Durango is available for the first time with second-row captain's chairs. These decrease ultimate seating capacity by one passenger, but they create a neutral zone between the two kids sitting in the second row.
Trim varies by model, no surprise, and the fit and finish is generally good. Above your waistline materials are soft-touch or heavily textured, while those closer to the floor are harder plastics that are scratch-resistant and easy to clean. R/T models come with black, pseudo-suede upholstery broken up by red stitching. The SXT and Crew come with cloth that negates temperature extremes, with a lighter headliner to brighten the cabin. The Citadel comes standard with black or tan leather. One of our nit-picks inside is the generous chrome touches that generate a lot of sunlight glinting.
Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillar is slimmed mid-way to aid front quarter vision, and the door pillars will be behind most drivers. The third-row headrests don't block the view because there is a dash switch that drops them at the touch of a button, though heads in back definitely narrow the scope of the image in the rearview mirror. The optional rearview camera comes in handy when Durango is fully loaded with passengers. The front wipe/wash coverage is very good, the rear is good, and the headlights provide satisfactory illumination. HID headlights are available on some models, low-beam only.
The front buckets are on the soft side: very comfortable and not confining for short hauls, reasonably supportive to handle more miles at a time. The SXT comes with manually adjustable seats, and the bottom cushions don't adjust for height or incline. All other models have eight-way power adjustment for the driver (with four-way power lumbar) and a six-way power cushion for the front passenger. Most have a manual front-passenger seatback, so it can fold forward and flat, though the Citadel has power adjustment and no fold-flat feature.
The tilt/telescoping steering column fits a range of drivers. It's power-operated on the Citadel, and links wheel position with driver's seat, side mirrors and audio settings in the memory buttons. The driver's footwell is wide, so there is plenty of room for your left leg to relax.
Engine revs and road speed are shown in two very large gauges, trimmed with a blue LED ring that almost looks like neon, and inset with smaller fuel and coolant-temperature gauges. The Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) sits between, displaying everything from fuel economy or oil temperature to how long the lights stay on when you park, operated via left thumb-switches on the steering wheel. All controls, the door handles, door pockets and the cupholders are illuminated with that icy-blue. The gauges are back-lit in off-white.
Most controls are straightforward, and we're fond of the simplicity in the switch layout. The gear selector is a model of efficiency, with no buttons to press and a simple push left from the Drive position to downshift, right to upshift. Temperature controls are split into three zones, or can be matched with the touch of one button. The rear controls are operable if the driver approves by pressing a button. The lone stalk on the left side of the steering column has high beams, turn signals and front and rear wash/wipe, so it gets a little busy. The impetus for stalk controls is keeping both hands on the wheel, but not all can be done without taking your hand off the wheel to twist this one.
The base audio system is adequate for family duty, though Dodge's unusual pre-set station buttons take some getting used to. Each one stores two stations, reached with consecutive pushes. The premium 500-watt, 9-speaker sound system has plenty of rumble. The mid-grade 430-watt system played everything we wanted (though the radio mutes when you load/unload a CD), and it can be equipped with the lesser of two navigation options for a more reasonable price than most factory systems. This system isn't the most advanced, but the only behavior we don't like is its tendency reset the map scale on its own, even without locking the truck or changing the driver memory position. The graphics aren't as legible as the upgrade system, either. The display is up high and center, but like some others in the Durango, it's affected by polarized sunglasses.
Interior measurements are very competitive. You might gain an inch here or lose one there, but when your six-foot-plus correspondent can find a comfortable driving position, ride comfortably behind that in the second row, and then easily clamber into the third row and sit without knees, toes or head scuffing anything, we can't argue that Durango is shy on space.
The second-row seat is split with its narrow section on the passenger side. It keeps two kids belted in the middle row while letting two more get in back. The center position has a soft cushion but the backrest isn't as soft as the outer positions because of the armrest within. The rear side windows don't go all the way down, but the last few inches of glass that remain are flush and even with the top of the door panel all the way across.
Both sides of the second row recline slightly. There are aim-able reading lights and vents overhead, with more vents and a standard-plug, 115-VAC outlet on the back of the center console. You don't need an inverter to plug a game or computer into the Durango. There are recessed coat hooks in the roof, assist handles on the back side of the door pillar, bottle stowage in the doors, four grocery bag/purse clips flanking the front seatback nets, overhead controls for rear air, and good foot-room under the front seats.
Third-row access is very good. A one-pull strap folds and tilts up the second row seat, and the walk-through floor space is expansive as such spaces go. There is more room back here than the legroom dimension implies, and it offers the same adjustable reading lights and overhead vents as the second row.
Cargo volume is 17 cubic feet behind the third row (comparable to trunk space in a good mid-size sedan), 48 cubic feet behind the second row (comparable to a compact SUV or crossover with the rear seats folded), and 84 behind the front seats. Those numbers are substantially less than what's available in GM's longer trio of crossovers (Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave), but competitive with other mid-size models. There's a little bit more cargo volume in Durango than in a Ford Explorer, and little bit less than what's available in a Honda Pilot.
A simple lever drops either of Durango's third-row seats flat. With the right seat section folded flat in each row, there is more than ten feet of length. Durango can carry 10-foot items as narrow as a two-by-four or as wide as folding ladder inside. The cargo deck is 32 inches off the ground. There's one small, deep bin under the load floor on the left side, adjacent to where the spare hangs underneath, and a broader, shallower one under the main floor.
Even the base Durango SXT comes with a small, rechargeable LED flashlight, hooks and a power point just inside the tailgate, with a pair of tie-down loops in the floor. The cargo cover can be mounted behind the second or third-row seats. The gate has two loading or tailgating lights at the back/lower edge, and the close button for the power option is on the left side, low enough for a kindergartener to reach.
The Dodge Durango offers a fine mix of passenger-friendly transportation and truck-style ability to work. It starts with rear-wheel drive, in a class increasingly dominated by vehicles built on a front-drive foundation, yet it has a fully independent rear suspension and it's built with a one-piece unibody/frame, rather than a truck-style ladder frame. The Durango is easy to drive, with a comfortable ride empty or loaded, and it's quiet inside.
Both the standard V6 engine and optional Hemi V8 deliver plenty of power, and EPA mileage ratings aren't out of whack with the rest of the class. Durango responds to steering and braking inputs in a fashion that will please those who enjoy driving or go completely unnoticed by those who don't.
Though it was thoroughly redesigned for 2011, the Durango gets one significant mechanical upgrade in 2012. Models equipped with the V8 get a new six-speed automatic that allows the driver to manually select any of the gears. The EPA mileage ratings for V6 Durangos with all-wheel drive increases 1 mpg highway, though that results more from mastering the test procedure than a noteworthy mechanical change.
Nearly all the vehicles in the Durango's class are front-or all-wheel drive, built up from a front-drive platform that started as a car or minivan. The rear-wheel-drive Durango is not, even if the gauges and V6 engine are similar to what you get in a Dodge Caravan.
If you think you need front-wheel drive for traction, think again. Most front-drive vehicles carry more weight over the front wheels, where it helps traction. The Durango carries as much weight on the back wheels as the front, and just winter tires and the standard traction control will take it farther than most owners plan to go. Durango's excellent balance and rear-wheel drive also mean the four tires do more equal work. Front tires aren't overwhelmed pulling lots of weight while doing the steering, and rear tires do more than hold the tailgate off the ground. This is one reason the Durango steers crisply and needs less U-turn space than its rivals.
We hustled the Durango along some mountain roads at a fast clip, and found a lot of grip in reserve if you miscalculate your road speed. That's easy to do, given the subdued cabin and lack of wind noise, compliments of laminated front windows, dual firewalls, good aerodynamics, and a solid structure. We also noted that ride quality and handling dynamics didn't really change with five adults and two kids on board.
Around town the Durango soaks up big and small bumps alike with nary a quiver. The nose drops under heavy braking, and there is a little body lean in the corners, but it's steady and predictable with no hint of drama.
Durangos with the V6 offer all-wheel drive with power routed to all four wheels at a steady rate all the time. The V8 models have a more sophisticated AWD system, with low-range gearing for steeper inclines/descents and a Neutral position for flat-towing. In normal range, the V8 system delivers variable all-wheel drive, instantly changing the amount of power sent to the front or rear wheels depending on the amount of traction available under the respective tires.
We'd rate the current Durango's off-highway prowess about equal to its predecessor. The new generation's suspension is better and more flexible, and ground clearance is about the same. A skid-plate package is available, but the new one has things like aluminum suspension arms that may not take abuse or grounding quite as readily as the old model's truck-style steel bits. You don't want to hammer it over rugged terrain, but Durango has enough off-highway capability for most needs. Durango will go much farther afield than most owners would consider, and tires will likely be the limiting factor for slogging through mud.
The 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 engine is smooth and generally quiet, getting mildly raucous only above 5000 rpm. Although its peak torque delivery comes at a high 4800 rpm, it has enough grunt to climb a 7-percent grade at 80 mph fully loaded in third gear. The V6 Durango will merge easily at speed provided you mash the gas pedal early, and it will downshift at least one gear for any notable speed gain. This is because the V6 is geared for highway fuel economy, and the transmission has five forward gears rather than the six or more of many competitors. Those competitors with five speeds often have more balanced gearing, less weight to haul, or both.
The 5.7-liter V8 Dodge calls the Hemi has 360 hp, but it's the 50 percent increase in torque and lower revving nature that make it feel more powerful than the V6. The Hemi features cylinder de-activation technology that shuts down some of its eight cylinders in certain steady-state driving situations, and its 6-speed automatic is more responsive than the V6's 5-speed. The V8 still lops a few miles per gallon off the top, but if you have a 6,000-pound trailer or just enjoy stirring acceleration, you'll appreciate it.
EPA ratings for the V6 are 16/23 mpg City/Highway, whether rear- or all-wheel drive, compared to 14/20 mpg for the V8 (13/20 with all-wheel drive). More expensive hybrids and diesels notwithstanding, everything in the Durango's class will be within a few mpg of its EPA rating. Driving style and vehicle condition can yield far greater differences. Our drive time suggests the EPA ratings are not far off reality with the Durango, though routine short trips in town on a cold engine are likely to lower the city numbers.
Durango's rear-wheel-drive architecture means better towing. All models are rated to handle a 5,000-pound trailer. With the tow package, the V6 rates 6,200 pounds and the V8 7,400 pounds max. A fully loaded vehicle generally means 1,000-1,500 pounds off those maximums, but in all cases the Durango has the best tow ratings in its class. Unless you consider the far-more expensive, distantly related Mercedes-Benz GL in the Durango's class.
Even if we never planned on towing anything we would seriously consider adding the tow package. It brings a larger radiator, an alternator that delivers more juice, better-cooled brakes, load-leveling rear shocks and a full-size spare. And the hitch comes in handy for bike or stowage racks, or a place to show your allegiances with one of those shiny hitch plates.
The Dodge Durango can carry six or seven people comfortably and rack up the vacation miles in quiet, comfortable solitude interrupted only by the half-kilowatt Alpine stereo. It can tow more than just about anything in its class, but it's full of the conveniences you never thought of before and now can't do without. The optional V8 is genuine fun, and its addictive sound is frosting on cake. By class benchmarks the Durango has a refined ride and solidly finished cabin. By the previous-generation Durango it's beyond comparison.
G.R. Whale reported from Southern California. J.P. Vettraino reported from Detroit.
Dodge Durango SXT ($28,895), SXT AWD ($30,995); Durango Crew ($33,695), Crew AWD ($35,695); Durango R/T ($35,795), R/T AWD ($37,765); Durango Citadel ($40,995), Citadel AWD ($42,995).
Options As Tested
Trailer Tow Group IV ($695) includes heavy duty engine cooling, 220-amp alternator, vented rear brakes, rear load-leveling suspension, class IV receiver hitch with wiring harness and full-size spare.
Dodge Durango SXT AWD ($30,995).
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