If you have a trailer to tow or a big family of nearly-grown kids to haul, a full-size SUV seems like the obvious choice. But along with their abilities come several drawbacks: lousy gas mileage, clumsy handling and the constant search for giant-size parking spots. The Dodge Durango offers a refreshing compromise: The capacity and capability of a full-size SUV with the day-to-day practicality of a large crossover.
|1. Engines remain unchanged with a 3.6L V6 making 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque while a 5.7L V8 makes 360 hp and 390 lb-ft.
2. A new 8-speed automatic transmission helps improve fuel economy, ranging from a best of 18/25 MPG to a low of 14/22 MPG.
3. The Durango rides on a stretched version of the same platform used for both the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Mercedes M-Class.
4. Pricing starts at $30,790 while the high-trim Citadel model costs $41,990.
SUV OR CROSSOVER?
Like the crossovers, the Durango uses unibody construction to save weight; V8 4×4 models are 450 lbs. lighter than a Ford Expedition and 700 lbs. lighter than a Toyota Sequoia. But they also use a truck-like powertrain layout, with primary drive to the rear wheels, optional low-range four-wheel-drive for V8 models and towing capacity of up to 7,400 lbs.
SAME ENGINES, MORE GEARS
The Durango in its current iteration dates from 2011, and for 2014 it gets what is known in the industry as a mid-cycle refresh — a vehicular celebration of middle age that includes updated styling and upgrades for the interior and mechanical bits.
In the case of the Durango, the big mechanical change comes in the form of a new 8-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the 5- and 6-speed units in last year’s Durango and offers the promise of improved performance and fuel economy.
Engine choices for the Durango remain the same, consisting of the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (290-295 horsepower depending on trim level and 260 lb-ft of torque) and 5.7 liter Hemi V8 (360 hp, 390 lb-ft). Despite the wide spread in the numbers, the difference in real-world driving is not as significant as you might expect. The V8 certainly sounds better, but its stronger acceleration is hampered by an extra 300 lbs of weight. Coupled to the new 8-speed automatic, the V6 hustles along just fine.
The fuel economy benefits of the V6 are significant: 18 MPG city/25 MPG highway with rear-wheel-drive and 17/24 with all-wheel-drive, compared to 14/23 and 14/22 respectively for the V8. And the new transmission does aid fuel economy: compared to last year’s Durango, combined EPA estimates are up by 4 MPG in the V6 all-wheel-drive model and 1 MPG in other configurations.
What’s best about the 8-speed transmission is that it always seems to be in the right gear. Many of these new mega-speed transmissions have to hunt around to find just the right ratio, but the Durango’s 8-speed is much more intuitive. It’s quick to downshift when power is demanded and just as quick to upshift for a quiet, efficient highway ride.
And yes, you can tow with the V6. We hauled a single-axle Airstream with a six-cylinder Durango, and while the pace was leisurely, the V6 had no problem getting us up to highway speed and staying there. The rig felt stable and secure, aided no doubt by the Durango’s extended wheelbase. (The Durango is, at its heart, a stretched Jeep Grand Cherokee.)
According to Dodge, the Durango’s styling improvements are every bit as important as the new transmission. The car industry is in a literal search for the fountain of youth, and the average age of Dodge buyers is dropping like an iron girder — ten years younger than the rest of the industry and falling.
In an effort to keep the momentum up — er, down — Dodge has brought the “racetrack” loop taillight from the Charger and Dart to the Durango. They’ve also designed a faired-in cover for the tow hitch receiver, a bit surprising as towing capacity is one of the Durango’s unique selling points.
Changes to the nose are more subtle; the bumpers are new and each trim level gets a unique grille pattern. There’s also a new Rallye Group package, which brings the racy look of the V8-powered R/T model, including 20-inch “Hyper Black” wheels and monochrome body trim to the SXT base model.
Inside, the Durango gets Chrysler’s Uconnect touch-screen stereo (5-inch display on the base model, 8.4-inch on others) and a new 7-inch LCD screen on the dash in place of an analog speedometer. The twin-screen rear-seat entertainment system now features a BluRay player and HDMI inputs. With the 115 volt power outlet and optional WiFi hot spot setup, you can bring along your PS3 or Xbox and turn the Durango into a mobile gaming system.
For all the improvements they’ve made, Dodge is holding the line on pricing, at least on the base model: $30,790 (including destination) for the Durango SXT, same as last year. One of the things that impressed us about the SXT (the silver one in our photos) is that it doesn’t look like the cheapest model. With its 18-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights, and chrome trim, it’s nearly as snazzy as the $41,990 Citadel (shown here in red, optioned up to $52,970).
DRIVES LIKE A (YOU GUESSED IT) CAR
What impressed us most is the way the Durango drives. If we had a dime for every time a Dodge staffer reminded us that the Durango is based on the same platform as the Mercedes GL, we’d have… well, about sixty cents, actually. But the Durango’s German roots are obvious in the smooth ride and surprisingly precise handling.
“Car-like” has to be the most overused cliché in the history of automotive journalism, but it’s appropriate — the Durango hustles through corners in a way that makes the Honda Pilot and Chevy Traverse seem awkward and the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition feel downright clumsy.
MOVING PEOPLE AND THINGS
That’s especially notable because the Durango doesn’t give up much on space; it’s comparable to the Pilot and Traverse and roomier than mid-size seven-seaters like the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer. The Durango’s second row has plenty of room and the third row can be occupied by adults, provided they have reasonably flexible limbs and are not overly prone to complaining.
Cargo space is 17.2 cubic feet with the third row seats in place, plenty of room for groceries or small suitcases. Dropping the third-row seats (easy to do thanks to well-placed straps and levers) opens up a family-vacation-friendly 47.7 cubic feet of space. But shorter buyers might want to consider the optional power tailgate, as it’s a long reach up when the hatch is open and Dodge hasn’t thought to install an assist strap.
It’s nice to see a vehicle that delivers on its promises. The 2014 Dodge Durango offers space for seven and the brawn to tow a decent-sized boat or camper, and while the fuel economy isn’t as good as a mid-size crossover, it’s certainly better than a full-size SUV — provided you opt for the V6 engine, that is.