Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
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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