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Dodge’s new Durango SUV offers powerful, smooth ride

The 2011 Dodge Durango shows how far the SUV has come from the stone ax-simple pickup truck-derived model that debuted in 1998.
Image: Durango
The 2011 Dodge Durango shows how far the SUV has come from the stone ax-simple pickup truck-derived model that debuted in 1998.Chrysler
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“You get what you pay for” — the aphorism normally holds true, but not always. Sometimes it’s possible to get more than you pay for.

The Dodge Durango is a case in point. It shares a substantial portion of its underlying hardware with the Mercedes GL-Class SUV, and that shared heritage shows in the Durango’s refined ride and handling.

The bottom line for the two-wheel-drive V-6 entry-model Durango I tested recently was $34,740, including shipping and options such as GPS navigation, satellite radio, Smartbeam automatic high beam headlights and automatic windshield wipers.

The Durango’s “Crew” trim level includes goodies such as keyless start, power seats, Bluetooth connectivity, remote start, 500-watt stereo and a rear back-up camera. It has cloth seats to remind drivers that they could have upgraded to a higher trim level, but in terms of value, the Durango Crew is hard to beat. Plus, there’s leather on the steering wheel.

How far the Durango has come from the stone ax-simple pickup truck-derived model that debuted in 1998. The new Durango boasts the smoothest ride in the three-row crossover class, while the old truck felt better suited for hauling lumber.

But that isn’t to say this Mercedes-derived crossover won’t do any hard work. When outfitted with the optional 360-hp Hemi V-8 rather than the tested 290-hp Pentastar V-6, the Durango can tow 7,400 pounds, which the company notes is the same weight as a 24-foot boat and its trailer.

Most unibody crossovers are front-wheel drive, with a V-6 as their largest engine, so the rear-drive layout and available V-8 give the Durango a solid advantage for doing actual work rather than just serving as a minivan alternative for suburban families.

And the new design is 25 percent stiffer than the old one, giving it a stronger foundation that avoids the squeaks and groans of a twisting, flexing body-on-frame vehicle. Combined with a 14 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag and the corresponding cut in the resulting wind noise, the atmosphere inside the Durango is placid at speed.

Another plus on the practicality side is roof rails that contain crossbars that fold inside the rails, stowing the crossbars out of sight (and out of the wind), but keeping them handy for rooftop cargo during that trip to grandma’s or the home improvement warehouse.

Inside, the Durango features a spaciousness unimaginable inside any body-on-frame midsize SUV, thanks to the greater space efficiency of its unibody construction. Flip-forward second-row seats provide decent access to the reasonably spacious third row, though the kids who are typically sent back there might have difficulty operating the flip mechanism and tend to just scramble over the seat.

This would be fine if they didn’t leave mud or snow behind on the second-row seat in the process. Fortunately, Dodge has thought to include kid-whackers in the third row for reminding them to be more careful next time, or to stop squabbling with each other. OK, they aren’t technically called “kid-whackers.” Dodge calls them “remote headrest fold-downs,” but there is a handy button on the dashboard that causes the third-row head rests to flop down, smacking unruly kids in the process. (The only trouble comes when they start giggling and demand that you do it again.)

Jim Frenak

Of course, Dodge insists the kid whackers are really intended to make it easier to see out the back when the third row is unoccupied, which is probably most of the time. That, along with back-up sensors and a rear-view camera that is part of the Crew trim package, makes it easier to parallel park the 16-1/2-foot Durango.

The cabin appointments are typical for the new Fiat-backed Chrysler, which is to say that the blight of abominably hard, cheap, shiny plastic has been lifted, with plush matte-finished, soft-touch materials used in its place.

Similarly, the seats now offer sufficient support and adjustability to achieve suitable comfort for long drives and the instruments are thoroughly contemporary in appearance. The in-dash navigation system is programmed by Garmin, so its operation will be familiar to Garmin customers. But familiar or not, the clunky Garmin graphics and operation are a step (or two) behind the better nav systems available in competitive models, so this is an area for Dodge to improve.

Otherwise the touch screen controls for the entertainment system are simple and obvious to use with none of the hassles of the various BMW iDrive wannabe systems or of Ford’s poorly executed new MyFordTouch touch screen interface.

The Durango rides on a wheelbase that stretches seven inches longer than that of the new Ford Explorer, contributing superior legroom and ride comfort. This usually comes at the cost of inhibited maneuverability, making long-wheelbase cars hard to park because they need so much space to turn. But the Durango’s turning circle is only 37 feet, making it easy to slot into parking spaces, especially compared to other vehicles of similar size. That is foot tighter turn than the Toyota Highlander, which is nearly a foot shorter in overall length.

Consumers typically rank difficulty of parking as one of the top turn-offs for largish crossovers and SUVs, so the Durango’s unexpected agility should give parents a bit more confidence that they can dock this kid-hauling barge in the local Whole Foods parking lot without calling ahead for a harbor pilot or tug boat.

Of course, execrable fuel economy is the No. 1 reason for consumer aversion to such big vehicles, and even with its all-new V-6 engine or the Hemi that can run on four cylinders to save gas, the Durango remains thirsty.

The two-wheel drive V-6 model I tested is rated at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, but in cold-weather around-town driving with gas containing 10 percent ethanol (which contains less energy per volume than gas), using the remote starter for warm-ups and seat heaters we saw 15 mpg on the trip computer. That’s better than the old Durango, to be sure, and better than some of its competitors, but that fuel economy hurts when gas is north of $3 a gallon.

Still, if fill-ups are financially painful, it’s likely the only area where Durango ownership doesn’t seem like a great fiscal value, thanks to solid construction, lavish appointments and a Mercedes-based platform.

Sometimes it is nice to not get what you pay for.