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2014 Dodge Durango First Drive

Westlake Village, California - We can't help thinking of the Dodge Durango as a crude beast. First, in 1998, it was hardly more than a Dakota pickup stuck under a shed. Adding a third-row bench on top of the rear axle caused the marketing people to come up with the euphemistic phrase "theater-style seating" (only buttered popcorn would have alleviated the sitters' suffering). In 2004, the second-generation Durango was embarrassingly decontented and atrociously styled. But with the third generation, in 2011, the Durango took obvious steps forward, reflecting the sagacity at play during the Sergio Marchionne era at Chrysler Corporation.

The 2014 Dodge Durango benefits from what chief designer Joe Dehner calls a "mid-cycle action." Much of that action is accounted for by the addition of an eight-speed automatic transmission to all five models: SXT ($29,795), Rallye ($32,990), Limited ($35,995), R/T ($38,995), and Citadel ($40,995). Gear selection is controlled by the rotary e-shifter with a rubber overmold that typifies the nicely conceived details inside and out. Dodge claims the transmission contributes to a fuel economy improvement of up to fifteen percent. It operates smoothly and is always as ready to kick down a gear as a bobby soxer was primed to go to the hop.

Our experience behind the wheel of the 2014 Dodge Durango made us feel slightly ashamed of the bad memories. We drove away in a top-of-the-line Citadel equipped with the 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. It moved the SUV effortlessly down the freeway before we turned off and wended our way through the Santa Monica Mountains. Turning the beautiful, three-spoke multifunction wheel left and right was a delight. Inside the utterly pleasant passenger compartment, we couldn't help but compare the Durango's journey to that of America itself, from the land of sod-busting pioneers to one of suburbanites who think all kitchen counters should be granite.

No shortage of razzle-dazzle
Dodge has become a hot ticket for young buyers. These newcomers would be shocked to learn that the marque's namesakes, brothers John and Horace Dodge, were crude brawlers before John became a Detroit water commissioner and Horace supported the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Nevertheless, Tim Kuniskis, the current president and CEO, boasts of the brand's great favor among Millennials and Gen X buyers. The average customer is 48 years old -- seven years younger than the industry average.

Whereas many of its competitors, such as the Chevrolet Traverse, are blatantly substituting for minivans, the Durango throws back its shoulders and plants its wheels like a bull's hooves. It has a waist refined by CrossFit, shoulders and hips by bench-pressing and squats. The new split-crosshair grille floats over a textured background, imbued with a kind of movieland magic. Dehner says the headlamps are reduced in height by 1.5 inches, which plays up the SUV's width (a trend we note in many of this season's new vehicle introductions). There are LED daytime running lamps on the top four models, the foglamps are moved to the corners, and the tow hooks are removed altogether.

In back, the Durango now has the "racetrack" LED taillamps that we've already seen on the Dart and the Charger. One difference here is that the mesmerizing brilliance of 192 LEDs is diffused by an inner lens. For some people -- for example, those who refrain from fisticuffs in public -- it might be bit garish, but Dodge attracts extroverts.

Inside, the Durango now has a customizable, 7.0-inch, thin-film-transistor-display instrument panel and an available 8.4-inch touchscreen. Of course, hands-free calling and texting are available, and the Durango can be a Wi-Fi hotspot. All models are offered with second-row captain's chairs, and passengers are richly entertained thanks to a dual-screen Blu-Ray/DVD entertainment system.

No one on-board will be troubled by outside distractions. With laminated glass and twin-tube shock absorbers, the ride is whispery and supple; the four-wheel-drive Citadel's weight of 5397 pounds is impeccably disguised. Our only complaint was the busybody blind-spot monitoring system, which deserved a good slap in the face.

Another bull's-eye in Auburn Hills
Reaching the end of our outbound leg, we exchanged the posh Citadel for a sporty R/T. We had noted that Dodge keeps using the word "sinister," and this troubles us some. Brand director Richard Cox applied this adjective to the new, black headliner in the R/T. And the press materials say the 2014 Durango "has an even more sinister look" than before. Maybe something is at large in the culture that demands this. We see magazines like OffGrid brooding on the newsstand, skulls flaunted on clothing and flesh to the point of being almost passé, and the return of Nine Inch Nails with a new album.

Even with the Hyper Black 20-inch wheels and beady-eyed headlamps, we didn't quite find the R/T sinister to look at, and it was gregarious to drive (although we couldn't even crack the 16-mpg barrier). Everything is calibrated for sporty response: downshifts are instantaneous, the steering returns a solid handshake, and the brakes really dig in.

And there's truth in what Kuniskis says about the 2014 Durango's overall prowess "in a segment that's gotten a little soft" by emphasizing flexibility over capability. For the family with a boat or a race car to tow -- up to 7400 pounds -- without wanting to drive around in a bus, the Durango is an obvious, excellent choice, a way of adding some flash to everyday life.

We're impressed by yet another result of the thorough refreshing and vast improvement of a Chrysler product in this Marchionne era: memories of Durangos of yore are fading fast.

2014 Dodge Durango

  • Suggested retail price: $29,797-$40,995
  • Price as tested: $46,980 (Citadel)/ $45,070 (R/T)
  • Powertrain
  • Engine: DOHC 3.6-liter V-6/OHV 5.7-liter V-8
  • Power: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm/360 hp @ 5150 rpm
  • Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm/390 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic
  • Drive: Rear- or four-wheel
  • Measurements
  • L x W X H: 201.2. x 75.8 x 70.9 in
  • Wheelbase: 119.8 in
  • Track F/R: 63.9/64.1 in
  • Weight: 4756 - 5397 lb (est. )
  • Passenger volume: 133.9 cu ft
  • Cargo volume (behind first/second/third row): 84.5/47.7/17.2 cu ft
  • Performance
  • Towing: 6200 - 7400 lb
  • EPA Mileage: 3.6-liter V-6/5.7-liter V-8
    • 4x2 18/25 mpg / 4x2 14/23 mpg
    • 4x4 17/24 mpg / 4x4 14/22 mpg