The Dodge Durango slipped under the waves during Chrysler's bout with bankruptcy, tossed overboard as the mother ship took on water. Now the floodwaters of financial duress have receded, and Chrysler has brought back the Durango. Formerly a pickup-truck-based, body-on-frame SUV, the new version is based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee architecture, which means it has the unibody construction of a crossover vehicle.
Who you callin' a crossover?
Despite being a technically a crossover vehicle, the Durango does a convincing approximation of a traditional full-size SUV. First of all, it's big. At 119.8 inches, its wheelbase is within an inch of a Ford Expedition's; the overall length of 199.8 inches is half a foot less than an Expedition's but is a couple inches more than a Ford Explorer.
Second, it can be had with a V-8 engine, Chrysler's venerable Hemi -- although the company's new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 is standard.
Third, it offers a choice of rear-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive rather than front-wheel drive/4-wheel drive. That, combined with the available V-8, helps give it the muscle to tow like an old-school SUV. The maximum tow rating is 7400 lbs (6200 lbs with the V-6).
Fourth, the Durango sits up pretty high, which makes step-in a bit of an issue for little kids or short adults. It also means you have to hoist luggage up to heave it into the cargo hold.
As a big SUV, the Durango has a lot of room inside, including sufficient space for adults its third-row seat, which is standard on all but the Heat model. Getting back there is a bit of a climb (that step-in height again) but there is sufficient room for adults up to six feet. Space in the second row is expansive and the second-row seats recline. Unfortunately, like many three-row crossovers, there isn't much cargo space with the third-row seats in place -- but they do flop down easily to create a flat load floor, their headrests automatically tucking in on the way down.
We've been saying it a lot about the post-bankruptcy Chrysler products, but that's because it's true: This interior is a night-and-day improvement over the cut-priced shlock the company served up previously. There are padded surfaces everywhere and precious little hard plastic. Electroluminescent gauges, bits of chrome trim, and blue mood lighting liven up the space, which is simply and tastefully laid out. Only Chrysler's UConnect nav-screen interface could use an update. It has lots of functionality -- my latest discovery: you can program favorite artists and it will alert you when one of their songs is playing anywhere on the satellite radio spectrum -- but the hard buttons and the menu logic could be improved.
Outside, the styling of the new Durango also owes nothing to its predecessor, and is better off for it. Instead, the exterior carries a hint of the Charger with its leaning-forward nose and connected taillights. Thick pillars -- as common in today's cars as thick waists are on today's drivers -- hinder visibility somewhat, but this top-spec Citadel model has a back-up camera, a blind-spot warning system, and rear cross-path detection to help cope. (The latter two items are exclusive to the top two trim levels, while a backup camera is available on all Durangos.)
Six is enough
My test example was equipped with the V-6 engine and rear-wheel drive, the most economical powertrain. The EPA says to expect 16/23 mpg from that combo. On a dead-flat 80-mile highway cruise up I-75, taken at about 75 mph, low and behold, I got an indicated 23 mpg. With a similar return trip and lots of suburban slogging in between, my average over five days was 20 mpg -- not bad at all for such a big boy. It might have done even better if Chrysler offered an automatic transmission that had more than five forward speeds. As it is, the V-6, with 290 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque, has muscle enough to move the Durango's considerable heft, but it doesn't exactly sound inspiring doing so. The low rumble of Chrysler's Hemi would be a vast improvement, but it's probably not worth the considerable fuel economy penalty -- the V-8 quaffs regular at a rate of 14/20 mpg (RWD) or 13/20 mpg (4WD).
There were precious few curves or bumps on my path, so I won't pretend to pronounce on the Durango's ride and handling. I will say, however, that I was impressed with the steering, which is perfectly weighted and was happy to discover that maneuverability isn't too horrible for such a big machine.
A player in the big leagues
With its available V-8 and big-truck look, this modern-day family wagon has a bit more testosterone than most three-row crossovers. Looked at against a different competitive set, it makes a somewhat more reasonable alternative to truly obese old-school SUVs like the Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia, and Chevy Tahoe/Suburban, with only the Suburban and the Expedition L offering meaningful additional capability.
We didn't feel too sad when the old Durango went away, but as it turns out, this new Durango was worth resurrecting after all.
2011 Dodge Durango Citadel
Base price: $42,100
Price as tested: $42,100
Stability control with trailer sway control
HID headlamps with automatic high beams
Power tilt/telescoping steering column
8-way power driver and passenger seats
Nappa leather seating
Heated + cooled front seats
Heated second-row seats
Heated steering wheel
Sirius satellite radio
Blind-spot warning system
Rear cross-path detection system
20-inch chrome wheels
Adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning
Options on this vehicle: None
Key options not on vehicle:
5.7-liter V-8 engine
Rear-seat DVD player w/satellite TV
Trailer tow package
Fuel economy: 16/23/19 mpg (city/highway/combined)
Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6400 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Curb weight: 4905 lbs
20 x 8 in wheels
Goodyear Fortera HL 265/50 R20 tires
Competitors: Chevy Traverse, Chevy Tahoe, Ford Explorer, Ford Expedition, Honda Pilot, Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia
What's new? Reintroduced and redesigned for 2011