After a two year absence, the Dodge Durango is back, and while you may recognize the SUV proportions and crosshair grille, this is a very different vehicle than the truck that bowed out of the market in 2009. Most significantly, the Durango is now a unibody vehicle, rather than the body-on-frame truck it was previously. That has serious implications for the ride comfort, but passengers are just as likely to notice the more comfortable cabin that aims to erase memories of the last five years of Chrysler interiors. Since the 2011 Dodge Durango is an all-new vehicle, there’s also fresh engineering or new features in every aspect of the car.
Digging up the Durango
The Durango has some commonality with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, but it is substantially larger. The wheelbase is five inches longer while the length is stretched ten inches more than the Grand Cherokee. It is also marginally taller and wider.
The new truck’s shape looks like a natural evolution of the original Durango, consciously avoiding the blunt and chunky sculpting of the second-generation model that sold from 2004 to 2009. The hood replicates contours from the 1998 Durango and the same clean character lines appear low on the doors and high over the rear wheels, while new lower fascias and bigger wheels lend the Durango a sportier, contemporary stance. Eighteen-inch wheels are standard, but there are three different 20-inch designs for three different trim levels.
Nicer interiors, outdated technology
Building on the Chrysler Group’s commitment to improve its interiors to competitive levels, from the dismal quality of the recent past, the Durango’s cockpit is marked by tasteful materials, solid construction, and attractive appearance. Exceptionally soft armrests, supportive seats, and good visibility keep driver and passengers comfortable. Unfortunately, the Durango doesn’t receive Dodge’s new navigation system because the vehicle uses an older electrical architecture. All models, save for the entry-level Express, use the familiar Chrysler 6.5-inch touch screen head unit flanked on either side by a handful of hard buttons. While the interface is functional, it certainly looks and feels older than the better integrated systems offered by the competition.
Seating for seven is standard, with a 60/40 split bench in the middle row that folds and tumbles with a single handle for entry into the third row. Rear-seat space in both rows is good, but the third-row compromised by legroom and seats that sit low to the floor, as is the case in almost every three-row utility vehicle.
Dodge is topping the Durango line with the Citadel model, priced at $42,645. Marked most noticeably by the chrome mesh grille, it includes almost every available feature, including blind-spot monitoring, Nappa leather, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats, a back-up camera, and an Alpine audio system. The only options are the V-8 engine, all-wheel-drive, a towing package, rear-seat entertainment, and a skid-plate package. The opposite end of the spectrum is the Express model. Starting at $30,045, it includes remote start and satellite radio, but Bluetooth is an option..
Old-school, eight-cylinder power
While competitors like the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet Traverse top out with six-cylinder engines, Dodge will offer its well-known Hemi V-8 as the optional engine. In the Durango, it delivers 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque for strong low-end acceleration and pulling power. The V-8 makes for an impressive tow rating of 7400 lbs with rear-wheel drive. The five-speed automatic, however, does hold the powertrain back, often hesitating on downshifts and sometimes refusing to shift into the lowest possible gear. With rear-wheel-drive, the V-8 Durango returns 14 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.
The base engine is Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6, making 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, and also paired with a five-speed automatic. While we were unable to drive a V-6 Durango, past experience in the Grand Cherokee and other vehicles has shown the 290-hp, 260 lb-ft engine to be a civilized, competent powertrain. Power builds nicely throughout the rev range, but this V-6 really finds its mojo in the upper third of the tachometer. However, the 4800-pound Durango will be the heaviest vehicle to receive the Pentastar V-6, which will certainly dull the engine’s responses. The V-6 lowers the towing capacity to 6400 pounds while fuel economy climbs to 16/23 mpg with rear-wheel-drive.
With either the V-6 or the V-8, all-wheel drive is available on all trim levels as a $2000 option. There are two four-wheel-drive systems though, depending on the engine. With the V-6, Dodge uses a setup with a fixed 50/50 torque split. V-8 trucks receive a two-speed transfer case and have a variable torque split.
Nothing truck-like about the ride
We spent an afternoon winding through Northern California in a Dodge Durango R/T, which is positioned below the Citadel, but distinctively embodies Dodge’s sporty attitude. Cosmetically, it trades chrome and black plastic exterior trim for body-color pieces. The R/T also removes the roof rack and adds unique 20-inch wheels and a sport-tuned suspension that lowers the Durango’s ride by 0.8 inch. It handles and steers nicely and despite the sporting intentions, Dodge hasn’t sacrificed the ride. The R/T rides more comfortably and confidently than the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is designed with greater compliance and body roll for off-road forays. At highway speeds, though, the R/T’s wide tires generate a noticeable amount of road noise.
A modern utility vehicle
With the Durango, Dodge has a competitive vehicle in a relevant segment. That’s big news for a brand that’s built several mediocre, uninspiring vehicles in critical categories over the past few years. While the Durango resets its reputation in terms of cabin refinement and ride comfort, it does so while retaining the V-8 power and towing capacity that most crossovers have abandoned. That rare mix of characteristics should appeal to those who load up the family and tow a large trailer, camper, or boat. This is the modern family utility vehicle, uncompromised.