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Dodge Durango SUV: A behemoth whose soul belongs in a bygone era

The redesigned Dodge Durango SUV is well equipped for shuttling and towing but is otherwise impractical in today's automotive landscape.

March 17, 2011|By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
  • The redesigned Dodge Durango SUV -- unless you really need it, it's tough to justify this 5,200-pound V-8 SUV that gets relatively few miles per gallon.
The redesigned Dodge Durango SUV -- unless you really need it, it's… (Chrysler Group LLC )

So you're in the market for a 2011 Dodge Durango SUV. Congratulations. After amassing nearly 500 miles on a top-end Citadel model recently, I can say you have great taste in vehicles. The new Durango is well-made, a good value and behaves on the road like your mother is watching.

But before you sign that check, I have two questions for you. You'll be towing something big, right? Because the Durango has up to 7,400 pounds of towing capacity when equipped with a Hemi V-8, it doesn't mind having a trailer full of ponies or a Beneteau 34 sailboat hitched to its rear.

Also, while you're towing one of these behemoths, will you be packing a coterie of six passengers plus yourself? With standard seating for seven adults, the Durango shuttles as well as it tows.

I ask only because if you don't see towing and schlepping across town in your vehicular future, you probably can find a more pragmatic choice than the Durango. Unless you really need it, it's just too hard to justify this 5,200-pound V-8 SUV that gets the 13.6 miles per gallon I experienced in my week of driving.

Dodge started with the unibody platform (and indeed many other components) that Jeep uses on its markedly capable Grand Cherokee. It tweaked and tuned the chassis to give the Durango a road-friendly disposition, thereby paring down much of the Jeep's considerable off-road prowess.

The four-wheel independent suspension and responsive steering help this Dodge drive and park smaller than it is. The ride quality is excellent; the Durango's solid construction (hence the tonnage) is an asset when contending with potholes and road noise, yet never a liability when forced into quick maneuvering.

Drivers still benefit from the upright and commanding view of the road that has long been a selling point for SUVs. Getting in and out of the Durango is appreciably easier than the norm.

This stems from the fact that this Dodge sits at least half an inch lower than the Grand Cherokee. Its wheelbase is also 5 inches longer, with the overall length 10 inches longer.

This added space pays dividends in the form of a third-row seat that folds flat into the floor when not in use, giving you a total 84.5 cubic feet of cargo space.

Two genuine adults can fit in the back — mostly. While head and leg room are sufficient, because you're sitting between the rear wheel wells, hip room is a little snug.

The only other flaws in an otherwise rock-solid and straightforward interior are thinly padded second- and third-row seats and a touch-screen navigation system that is small and has a low resolution. Regardless, the system's affordability makes it a wise use of $395. It's standard on the Durango's CrewLux and Citadel models.

This relative bargain for the navigation option is also indicative of a larger undercurrent of value in the Durango. The only option the high-end $46,825 Citadel V-8 I drove didn't have was the $2,000 all-wheel-drive add-on.

What it did include was leather, a rear-seat DVD system, a backup camera, adaptive cruise control with collision warning, a lane-departure warning system, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row seats and an Alpine audio system.

Work your way down the Durango caste system from the Citadel and you find the CrewLux, the performance-oriented R/T, the Crew, the Heat (basically the R/T without the Hemi V-8) and the base Express, which starts at $30,045 for rear-wheel drive with the V-6.

The 290 horsepower V-6 is standard on all Durangos except for the R/T. Torque is rated at 260 pound-feet and the V-6 can tow 6,200 pounds. I spent a day with a V-6 Crew all-wheel drive and found acceleration adequate, though the engine certainly needed all of its power to move its 5,000 pounds.

Dodge's Hemi V-8 is a $1,495 option. This engine puts out 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. It is no barnburner either, but it motivates the Durango well enough. Plus, since it has a maximum towing capacity of 7,400 pounds, it can probably tow said barn. All Durangos have trailer sway control and all V-8s have a tow mode.

Sadly, as capable as these two engines may be, they're hampered by their transmissions. Both are paired to different five-speed automatics, each of which feels outdated and slow to respond.

Five gears also limits the Durango's fuel-efficiency; in a day with the V-6 all-wheel drive I saw 17 mpg, and after a week with the V-8 rear-wheel drive I saw 13.6 mpg. The EPA rates this V-6 and V-8 at 16/22 mpg and 14/20 mpg city/highway, respectively. Color me surprised if an eight-speed automatic doesn't find its way into the Durango in another year or so.

All this capability is wrapped in a completely redesigned shell. While aesthetics are as subjective as one's attitude toward toy poodles, these eyes see a resolute handsomeness in the Durango's square shoulders and sculpted sheet metal.

As good and transformed as this new Durango is from its predecessor (last seen two years ago), its soul is a relic of a bygone era. In the 1990s, $1.15-a-gallon gas and a more stable geopolitical climate meant when you bought a vehicle, want could trump need. You could drive the biggest thing that would fit in your garage without a modicum of justification.

This is no longer the case and our more nuanced automotive landscape reflects this fact. Now, every brand on your local auto mile offers a minivan, crossover or SUV that is more specifically designed for how you will use it. The Durango's broad-strokes approach limits the number of buyers for whom it's a wise choice.

But if you do indeed travel with a boat and a brood, you will find this Durango much to your liking.

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