Dodge Durango — Very well done

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman 

The full-sized Dodge Durango sport utility departed the scene a couple of years ago, a member of the body-on-frame SUV segment that was immensely popular in the ’90s and the early years of the 21st Century.
Those traditional SUVs live on with such names as Tahoe, Suburban and Expedition.
But they have been steadily replaced — and in many cases downsized — by unibody-platform vehicles that carry less weight, offer improved fuel economy, and display vastly improved handling traits.

Even as the unibody platform gains in popularity, there’s still a place for the larger more rugged SUV as pointed out by sales figures from the first half of 2011. For example, the new car-based Ford Explorer sold more than 65,000 units in the first six months of 2011, more than doubling its 2010 total. The completely revised and car-based Jeep Grand Cherokee sold more than 54,000 units through June; again more than doubling the number the old truck-based vehicle sold the year before.
The Durango returns after a complete makeover. It’s just as big as the former model — stretching out nearly 200 inches and with a wheelbase just shy of 120 inches — but now rides on a car-based platform shared with the Grand Cherokee, both of which were derived from the Mercedes M-Class.  
It comes with a vastly improved ride, more interior space for passengers, and improved fuel economy compared to the outgoing Durango, which was last sold as a 2009 model.
It still comes with rear-wheel drive and a V-8 option. For the most part the big engines have been replaced by V-6s in virtually all other new sport utilities — including the Explorer — and most are driven by the front wheels when not equipped with all-wheel drive.
We liked the Durango at first glance. It looks as if it’s sculpted out of a chunk of granite, a solid connected mass, a bit macho, with good proportions. The standard crosshair grille tells people this is indeed a Dodge. The rear may be mistaken for the new Grand Cherokee, but that’s not a bad thing.
Like other restyled Chrysler products for 2011, the cabin has been vastly improved. The new interior styling blows away most of the competition with elegant touches, a well-styled dashboard layout, first-class materials and excellent fit and finish.
But it’s in the driving that the Durango shines brightest. 
The Durango drives smaller than it is with a confident feel, well controlled in all driving circumstances. The steering is well-weighted with good on-center feel and the big SUV handles the twists and turns with aplomb, none of the rocking and rolling of a typical body-on-frame truck.
Perhaps even more noteworthy is its tight turning radius of 37.1 feet. That’s in mid-sized sedan territory and makes parking lot maneuvering easier than with virtually any other SUV its size.
Our biggest disappointment with the Durango is with the performance from the award-winning 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, which makes 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. On paper you would think that’s plenty of grunt for sprightly performance, but the engine is tasked to pull nearly 5,000 pounds through a five-speed automatic.
We don’t want to give the wrong impression. The Durango, at least in our rear-wheel drive test vehicle, had plenty of forward momentum to handle all tasks. It’s just that with that kind of horsepower and torque we expected even more.
By the numbers, the Durango will complete a 0-to-60 run in 8.2 seconds and a quarter mile in 16.4 seconds at 88 mph. And our test vehicle came with a 5,000-pound towing capacity. With the proper package it can be raised to 6,200 pounds.
Gas mileage with the V-6 is rated at a decent 16 city/23 mpg highway with two-wheel drive. That drops slightly to 16/22 with all-wheel drive.
If you need horsepower bragging rights, the Dodge boys will be happy to sell you the very healthy 5.7-liter V-8 making 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Figure 0-to-60 in 7.3 seconds, towing capacity of 7,200 pounds and gas mileage of 13/20. Also figure about $2,200 difference between the top-line V-6 model and the R/T V-8 model.
Speaking of price, the Durango comes in three oddly named — go figure — V-6 trim levels starting at $30,045 for the Express, $31,370 for the Heat, and $34,270 for the Crew. Figure about $2,000 to add all-wheel drive.
The V-8-equipped R/T with AWD begins at $36,540 and the top-line Citadel carries a base price of $43,050.
The Durango’s front-seats are spacious, outside road and wind noises are well muted, and the ride — slightly on the firm side — is  comfortable.
We found the gauges easy to read and the switchgear generally easy to use. Although the radio is embedded in the navigation screen, with just one trip around the block it becomes intuitive including establishing a myriad of pre-sets.
Adequate legroom is provided for second-row passengers and the seats are comfortable with firm support. The second-row folds and flops forward, with the aid of a power switch, to leave a large entrance to the third row. The rear-most seats are a bit hard, but they sit passengers up higher to help overcome the feeling of claustrophobia. 
A pleasant surprise — there is adequate legroom back there for adults.
Although the Durango trails some competitors in cargo space, we found the storage area adequate and it would serve our needs. There are 17 cubic feet behind the third seat, 48 cubic feet with the third row folded and 85 cubic feet with both rows folded. The folded seatbacks create a flat load floor.
Our test vehicle was the very well done upscale Crew with rear-wheel drive carrying a bottom line of $34,045. The in-dash Garmin navigation system, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel and rain sensing windshield wipers were a bargain at $695. Our vehicle also had an optional moonroof at $850 bringing the bottom line to $35,590.
Base price: $30,045; as driven, $35,590
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 290 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 pound-feet @ 4,800 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 119.8 inches
Length: 199.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,756 pounds
Turning circle: 37.1 feet
Towing capacity: maximum 6,200 pounds
Cargo capacity: 85 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 24.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 23 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 8.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Tahoe
The Good:
• Excellent driving dynamics
• User friendly third-row seat
• Large towing capacity
The Bad:
• Cargo space not as generous as many competitors
The Ugly:
• V-6 performance not up to competition