Review: 2011 Dodge Durango

Finding Redemption Through Repetition, Groundhog Day Style

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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 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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2011 Dodge Durango
2011 Dodge 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.

2011 Dodge Durango side view2011 Dodge Durango front view2011 Dodge Durango rear view

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 covers a unibody architecture cut 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 derived from 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 looking rather minivannish. All-in, though, it's a handsome piece that's unlikely to scare off SUV traditionalists.

2011 Dodge Durango headlight2011 Dodge Durango taillight

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.

2011 Dodge Durango engine

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.

2011 Dodge Durango interior2011 Dodge Durango front seats2011 Dodge Durango rear seats2011 Dodge Durango rear cargo area

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 with 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.

The movie portrays an idyllic small town, but the truth is a bit grittier than that.
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, although 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.

2011 Dodge Durango rear view

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 skating rink parking lot, we enjoyed a nice meal by the fire in the tavern, which was utterly empty aside from a couple from New York (in their defense, they were smart enough to spend the night there, unlike some people). The return drive to our hotel was even sketchier, but we made it back in time to score a few hours of sleep before heading out pre-dawn to witness Phil's annual coming out party.

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.

2011 Dodge Durango front 3/4 view

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).

We're not sure we could've picked a better chariot for our pilgrimage to Punxsutawney.
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.

2011 Dodge Durango rear 3/4 view

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.

2011 Dodge Durango
2011 Dodge Durango
View 21 Photos

Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
Event photos: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

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