2011 Dodge Durango
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    $38,090
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    2011 Dodge Durango Expert Review:Autoblog

    Finding Redemption Through Repetition, Groundhog Day Style

    2012 Dodge Durango

    2011 Dodge Durango - Click above for high-res image gallery

    Two years ago, on a lark, my girlfriend and I clambered aboard a new Dodge Durango Hybrid and motored from Detroit to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to take in the kitschy phenomenon known as Groundhog Day. The idea was to do a combined road trip story and vehicle review, but Chrysler didn't even wait for us to return home before it killed off production of the gas-electric SUV. In fact, it wasn't much more than two months after its initial announcement that production was cancelled at the truck's Delaware plant.

    Blame Chrysler's then-dire financial condition, but the hybrid Durango barely made a dent on the Pentastar's production charts, lasting one model year and moving just 224 copies. Hold your belated "Who Killed the Electric SUV?" shrieks, though. Despite a nearly 25-percent increase in claimed fuel efficiency, the Durango Hybrid wasn't a particularly good vehicle. This wasn't wasn't really its fault, of course, as the already aging second-generation Durango upon which it was based wasn't a terribly refined piece to begin with.

    Fast-forward to 2011, and we've commandeered an example of Dodge's all-new third-generation Durango to make our second-ever pilgrimage to see Punxy Phil. More importantly, we're using the trip as an opportunity to see if Chrysler has finally gotten around to building a better Durango.

    Continue reading Review: 2011 Dodge Durango...



    Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL



    In a bit of real life imitates Hollywood art, hitting the rewind button on our Durango-to-Punxsy trip echoes the journey of Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day. In the 1993 Harold Ramis cult classic, a self-absorbed meteorologist played by Bill Murray is trapped in the Pennsylvania hamlet on February 2, doomed to relive the same small town celebration over and over again until he gets it right. In his journey of self-discovery, Connors goes through periods of seemingly consequence-free indulgence, intense learning and suicidal depressions before making a concerted effort to better himself.

    Coincidentally, Chrysler itself has also been locked in its own Groundhog Day-like boom/bust cycle of product development for decades, perpetually embarking on periods of inspired design and innovation, only to relapse into the familiar, easy malaise of building bland and technologically moribund vehicles until it's once again near death. The Pentastar has made something of an art out of producing its best work on the brink of financial Armageddon, a pattern it has been repeating since the original Chrysler minivan. In what is hopefully its final bout of rope-a-dope automaking, Chrysler has rebounded from bankruptcy in 2009 to deliver this new Durango and the excellent Jeep Grand Cherokee, along with the promising new 300 and Charger sedans.

    2011 Dodge Durango side view2011 Dodge Durango front view2011 Dodge Durango rear view

    Like its post-bankruptcy parents at Chrysler, the 2011 Durango has emerged a significantly different and altogether leaner and meaner mid-size proposition than its predecessor. Its sleek new sheetmetal now clothes a unibody architecture derived from the same cloth as the Grand Cherokee, only this time out, the whole works has been stretched to accommodate a third row. At least on the surface, losing its body-on-frame construction should help refine the Durango's ride and handling portfolio while improving its fuel economy through the virtues of lower weight. The proof, however, will be in the driving.

    But back to the exterior for a moment. While the original Durango started off as a visually inspired bit of truckishness, its masculine, drop-shoulder look inspired by the 1994 Ram pickup, subsequent generations chipped away at its 'all of a piece' organic quality. The 2011 model earns much of this back with a conservative yet imposing bluff-faced look that's dominated by a massive crosshair grille and a clear-eyed stare from its twin-element headlamps. The profile reveals a standard two-box shape, with blacked-out B-pillars imparting visual lightness. If we've got an aesthetic nit to pick, it's in the rear, which looks a shade too derivative for our tastes. With its horizontally oriented taillamps bridged by a thick chrome garnish, the design borrows rather heavily from the Grand Cherokee, but because the Durango snugs closer to the ground, the rear ends up strangely rather minivannish. All-in, though, it's a handsome piece that's unlikely to scare off SUV traditionalists.

    2011 Dodge Durango headlight2011 Dodge Durango taillight

    Just as Phil Connors was waylaid in Punxsutawney by a massive snowstorm in Groundhog Day, we set out from Motown with seemingly every forecaster wringing their hands about the impending 'Storm of 2011' and 'Blizzard of the Century' that was conveniently expected to march in lockstep with our own journey. With only all-season Michelin footwear and Pennsylvania's mountainous and indifferently plowed roads ahead, we brazenly (and perhaps stupidly) set out in search of a 125-year old land beaver.

    Our Inferno Red travel companion? A modestly spec'd Durango Express, mercifully optioned with all-wheel drive. Chrysler has adopted a rather contrived and baffling trim scheme with the new Durango, and "Express" is Pentastar-ese for "base model." No matter, with an as-tested price of just $32,340, even a cursory glance at our tester's spec sheet reveals real value. Of course, if you've got a bit more dosh in your pocket, the other available trim levels in ascending pocketbook damage are Heat, Crew, R/T, CrewLux and the range-topping Citadel, which offers more bells and whistles than a slot machine factory.

    2011 Dodge Durango engine

    Chrysler has been dropping its 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 into anything with wheels on it as of late, and with good reason – it's a fine engine. As plumbed into the Durango, the new powerplant delivers 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Backed by a mandatory five-speed automatic, it offers plenty of power, albeit located a bit high up in the revband (peak torque arrives at 4,800 rpm). Thankfully, over the course of our journey, we would come to find that the drivetrain combination is perfectly agreeable – the Pentastar is a smooth operator and the transmission doesn't hunt between cogs unnecessarily. Admittedly, the manual shift facility on the gearlever is occasionally casual in its responses, but most drivers piloting this three-row kinschlepper probably will never knock it out of 'D' anyhow.

    While it's easy to be dazzled by the laundry list of features that comes on the big baller Citadel, the measure of any interior's excellence is invariably its base specification. Strip away the frosting on this crossover and you'll find an honest and well-appointed cabin that just plain works. Switchgear falls readily to hand, materials are surprisingly rich and there's even passel of surprise-and-delight items lurking in the standard equipment column (three-zone climate control, remote start, trailer sway control, ambient lighting and Sirius and Bluetooth audio, for starters). Most importantly, Dodge has nailed the basics, with pleasing soft-touch materials, comfortable seats and generally good workmanship all-around. Like the exterior, the Durango's center stack won't overwhelm with the unrelenting modernity of its arch rival, the Ford Explorer, but other than perhaps having some initial difficulty getting the Bluetooth audio sync'd up, operating everything was easy-peasy (which the Blue Oval often isn't). The cabin is also unerringly quiet, with engine, wind and road noise all nicely muted.

    2011 Dodge Durango interior2011 Dodge Durango front seats2011 Dodge Durango rear seats2011 Dodge Durango rear cargo area

    Whiling away the miles on Interstate 80 and then getting into the bendy stuff in PA before the storm hit gave us ample time to appreciate the Durango's well-sorted ride and handling. The combination of a long wheelbase (119.8 inches), 50/50 weight distribution and a matching torque split yields reassuringly predictable handling. Even without the added poke of the available 5.7-liter Hemi V8 and the first of many flakes beginning to fall, we found ourselves pushing deeper into corners with surprising surety and conviction. Like most everything else in this class, the Dodge's rack-and-pinion steering veers toward light and feel-free, but good accuracy and nicely linear braking from the four-wheel discs (13-inchers all around) bred confidence, and the stability control programming doesn't allow you to get too far out of shape to save the big boy. The new Durango's modest ground clearance may not do much for its off-road capability, but its lowered center of gravity definitely improves handling.

    The movie portrays an idyllic small town, but the truth is a bit grittier than that.
    With surprisingly few delays, it wasn't long before we had run up around 350 miles on the odometer as we pulled into the sleepy hamlet of Punxsutawney. For those who have seen Groundhog Day, a little reality check is in order here. The movie portrays an idyllic small town, but the truth is a bit grittier than that. Like any number of small towns in the region, Punxy is a bit scruffy around the edges, athough not without its charms. Unsurprisingly, the actual filming for the movie took place not in Phil's backyard, but in the town of Woodstock, Illinois.

    Because Punxsutawney is so small (about 6,000 inhabitants) and the mountain communities around it are small, too, hotels are hard to come by. The ones in town gouge $600-800/night for the privilege of being local on February 2, and nearly all lodging within an hour of town is booked months in advance. Thus, we pointed the Durango toward our lodging about 20 miles away – the Clarion Hotel in DuBois (pronounce it like you're W.E.B., not a wannabe Francophile). Conveniently, this happened just as the weather turned from bad to worse, graduating from heavy snowfall into a bona-fide ice storm that coated the roads and surrounding forests with an inch of the beautiful but deadly stuff.

    2011 Dodge Durango rear view

    Take it as a measure of our confidence in the Durango's foul-weather prowess that we didn't just hole-up for the night. Instead, we scored a last-minute seating at the beautiful Gateway Lodge Bed and Breakfast in Cooksburg, nearly 40 miles away down Route 36. What followed was nearly 90 minutes of picking our way along super-slick, utterly dark and deserted forest roads. We arrived late but none the worse for the wear, and after tearing all sorts of ligaments trying to negotiate the skating rink parking lot, we enjoyed a nice meal by the fire in the tavern, which was utterly empty aside from a couple from New York (in their defense, they were smart enough to spend the night there, unlike some people). The return drive to our hotel was even sketchier, but we made it back in time to score a few hours of sleep before heading out pre-dawn to witness Phil's annual coming out party.

    The movie would have you believe that Gobbler's Knob, epicenter of the whole Groundhog Day phenomenon, is in the town square, and that the party really gets cranking at daybreak. This, like so many things from Tinseltown, is a slice of well-meaning fiction. The Knob is located atop a hill nearly two miles outside of town, and if you want to have any chance at seeing the prophetic rodent up close for yourself, you'll have to make the journey there at Oh-Dark-Thirty either by hiking or shuttle bus, as the roads are closed off to traffic. (Unless you manage to secure media credentials, which allowed our civilian Dodge to nestle incongruently adjacent the television satellite trucks).

    One thing that the movie underplays is how big Groundhog Day has become – perhaps because attendance has skyrocketed since the film was released. Even in a down year, many thousands turn out (this year's celebration took place on a Wednesday during horrible weather in the week leading up to the Steelers in the Super Bowl), from drunken college revelers to entire families, with many folks carrying signs, donning GHD t-shirts and wearing amusing Phil-inspired headgear.

    2011 Dodge Durango front 3/4 view


    Even combatting sub-zero temps, it's still a hugely enjoyable spectacle – particularly for lovers of campy humor. Local high-school girls do dance routines to a deejay's beats, there's a potato gun shooting t-shirts and stuffed groundhogs, along with a fireworks display and a court-jester like emcee. The best part of the whole crazy scene might just be the Inner Circle, the good-natured tuxedo'd and top-hatted league of otherwise ordinary gentlemen who are charged with organizing the festivities and being Phil's keeper for the other 364 days of the year. (Pennsylvania's most photographed resident resides year-round in a nicely appointed alcove in the town's library with a lady friend). The Inner Circle members get their pictures plastered on newspaper and website pages worldwide like red carpet A-listers, yet to a man, they're all jovial, hard-working small town guys that just happen to get their 15 Minutes every year. In the context of the wholly surreal scene, there's something reassuringly down-to-earth about an event that can make this sort of thing possible. Our Dodge seems right at home at this bucolic ball, looking crisply tailored while simultaneously evincing a rugged and unassuming honesty. Despite the Durango being a brand-new model, nobody looks twice at our ride except an approving Harlem Globetrotter whose teenaged handlers have parked next to us in the reserve lot (seriously).

    We're not sure we could've picked a better chariot for our pilgrimage to Punxsutawney.
    Not long after the bleary-eyed masses have shuffled off The Knob to find warmth and perhaps an early morning beverage, we stop to slake the Durango's thirst. Despite the weather and the winding Appalachian roads, at 19.6 miles per gallon, our fuel economy is still within range of the EPA's estimates for our V6 AWD model (16 mpg city/22 mpg highway). Those numbers aren't likely to warm Ed Begley Junior's cockles, but we can't think of any three-row CUV that would manage that unlikely feat, anyway. Thanks in part to its lighter unibody construction, those efficiency figures aren't far off that of the short-lived Durango Hybrid's 20/22 rating.

    Even still, fuel economy is a key area where the Durango takes a backseat to its cross-town Blue Oval competition. Despite the new V6, the Dodge's drivetrain simply isn't as advanced or as adept at sipping fuel as the 17/23-mpg Explorer 4WD (and a more efficient turbo four-cylinder model from Ford arrives later this year). An eight-speed ZF transmission for the Durango is said to be just around the corner, and might be worth waiting for.

    2011 Dodge Durango rear 3/4 view

    That said, even though we didn't stuff our Durango to the gills with seven people or max out the V6's 6,200-pound tow rating with a trailer full of Groundhog Day merchandise, we're not sure we could've picked a better chariot for our pilgrimage to Punxsutawney. The Dodge's refined ride and handling, fuss-free technology and endlessly impressive foul-weather handling made it a first-rate travel companion, full stop.

    In the end, Bill Deeley, President of the Inner Circle, raps on Phil's tree stump, and the Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators is coaxed out of his quarters with much fanfare to a barrage of flashbulbs and cheers. Despite the bright lights, our furry friend somehow eludes seeing his shadow, signaling an early spring to the jubilant crowd.

    All of which seems rather fitting. If the excellent new Dodge Durango is any sort of bellwether for Chrysler's future product, Auburn Hills' long winter of discontent may end in celebration sooner than anyone could have reasonably expected.

    Let's just hope they're smart enough not to get caught up in their own vicious cycle again this time.



    Photos copyright ©2011 Chris Paukert / AOL
    Event photos: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

    A Dinosaur Dodges Extinction

    2011 Dodge Durango

    2011 Dodge Durango - Click above for high-res image gallery

    Geologically speaking, dinosaurs ruled the earth for a brief period. In automotive terms, the same holds true for the traditional sport utility vehicle. But while dinosaurs will never return, SUVs are attempting a comeback.

    Autoblog readers all know the history of the American SUV; it started with the Suburban in 1936 when Chevrolet dropped a station wagon body over a truck chassis. Natural selection favored utilitarian characteristics, so the Suburban grew. Other forces were active in the land of Jeep. Their Wagoneer (1963) survived for decades thanks to genes that combined plushness with off-road capabilities. Another variation on the SUV was the unibody Jeep Cherokee XJ (1984), a new phylum that somehow mutated from body-on-frame parents.

    Environmental influencers such as cheap gas and low lease rates caused an SUV Cambrian Explosion throughout the 1980s and 90s. Spontaneous parallel genesis occurred at other manufacturers yielding dozens of Darwinian finch-like variations. Then disaster struck. The entire range of SUVs nearly went extinct with the meteoric impact of 2008's financial collapse and a spike in fuel prices. Does the 2011 Dodge Durango represent the rear-wheel drive SUV's last gasp or its reemergence?

    Continue reading...



    Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL



    Your author first laid eyes on the present Durango at a Hail Mary press conference held in December 2008 as a precursor to the 2009 Detroit Auto Show. Those were dark days for Chrysler. The press conference was meant to show that even though then-owner Cerberus was incapable of successfully managing Chrysler, there was still energy and passion at the Auburn Hills HQ.

    Then head of design, Ralph Gilles, stoically put on one heck of a show as to what the future held for Chrysler. Alongside an early 2011 300 and Dodge Charger, the red Durango styling buck looked rough. The solid body had blacked out windows and wavy body panels. But the proportions were modern compared to the already archaic 2008 Dakota, an SUV whose best days had passed years earlier.

    Gilles is now President and CEO of the Dodge Brand and the Senior VP in charge of Design at Chrysler Group LLC. As evidenced in the fully renewed 2011 Chrysler LLC model line, Gilles earned every bit of both titles.

    The all-new 2011 Durango shares nothing with the old model. Therefore, forget everything you know about the antiquated truck-based predecessor. In scientific circles, the jump between these two generations would be recognized as macroevolution as opposed to micro.

    2011 Dodge Durango side view2011 Dodge Durango front view2011 Dodge Durango rear view

    Those looking to trace genes will note a similarity in unibody construction, chassis layout and powertrains between the Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee. "The Durango and Grand Cherokee were both actually started when Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz were still together. The ML, Grand Cherokee, Durango and next-generation GL all share a common starting point," explains Jack Dolan, Durango's model-responsible engineer.

    "While the Dodge and the Jeep were developed together and share much of the same body structure forward of the C-pillar, their characters are much different. At every major juncture, engineers took the Jeep in the direction that maximized off-road capabilities. We optimized the Dodge for the street and meeting the demands of today's SUV buyer," said Dolan. And what does that buyer want? They want the capabilities of a truck-based SUV in terms of towing and cargo hauling in a package that delivers the car-like driving capabilities of a modern crossover.
    The result is a three-row, seven-passenger unibody SUV riding on a 119.8-inch wheelbase with four-wheel independent suspension powered by Chrysler's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 or the 5.7-liter Hemi V8. (For those looking for a modern comparison point, the new Jeep GC's wheelbase is smaller by five inches and is 10 inches shorter overall.) Properly equipped, the 290-horsepower V6 tows 6,200 pounds and the 360-hp Hemi, 7,400 pounds. Rear-wheel drive is standard, while full-time all-wheel drive an option.

    2011 Dodge Durango headlight2011 Dodge Durango grille2011 Dodge Durango wheel detail2011 Dodge Durango taillight

    The general package is wrapped in a modern shape that appears athletic, strong and modern. The body sits low over the wheels, and the greenhouse-to-body ratio lowers the roofline further. Gilles and team have refined Dodge's signature crossbar grille to give the new Durango an aggressive look akin to the 2011 Charger. This should come as no surprise once you know that the two vehicles were in the styling studio at the same time. The look is integrated and doesn't appear to be a genetic anomaly.

    Inside, the changes are more pronounced. Tired of taking heat for kid-friendly all-plastic interiors (pre-2011 Grand Caravan and Journey), Dodge stylists upped their interior design goals to eclipse even their own well-regarded Ram 1500. The change is dramatic. While not the equal of industry leaders like Audi, the 2011 Durango features large swaths of seamless soft-touch trim panels and cushy surfaces everywhere you're likely to lay a finger.

    Attention to detail is especially evident in the gauge cluster and door panels. Glints of chrome highlight the easy-to-read twin-pod gauges. The sweeping shapes on the door panel are accented (depending on model) by various contrasting inserts and deftly molded-in details. We especially appreciated the remote release for the spring-loaded third-row headrests, as the press of that button dramatically improves rear visibility.

    2011 Dodge Durango interior2011 Dodge Durango front seats2011 Dodge Durango gauges2011 Dodge Durango multimedia system

    These nuances enhance the fact that the Durango's interior can reportedly be reconfigured 28 ways. We didn't confirm the number, but as you scan our photo gallery, you'll see we tried plenty of different arrangements. With both rear rows stowed, there's room to haul a six-foot sofa with the tailgate closed. Folding all three rows of seats on the passenger-side of the Durango (yes, the right-front seat also folds flat) makes carrying 10-foot 2x4s possible. Maximum cargo room is 84.5 cubic feet – about equal to a Ford Flex, but smaller than a Chevrolet Traverse's 116.4 cubes.

    The large rear doors make for easy access to both rear rows. One-touch action on the second-row seat opens a path to the third-row where there's room for a sub-six-foot adult. That adult wouldn't want to spend all day back there, but a neighborhood jaunt won't require chiropractic care.

    2011 Dodge Durango rear seats2011 Dodge Durango third row2011 Dodge Durango rear cargo area2011 Dodge Durango rear cargo area

    If you're familiar with the 2011 Grand Cherokee, you've got a good idea of what's under the Durango's hood. The base engine is the 3.6-liter V6, Chrysler's new it-goes-in-nearly-everything-we-build engine. Fortunately, it's a pretty good mill. While not rated at over 300+ horsepower like GM's 3.6-liter or Ford's 3.7-liter V6, it delivers 290 horsepower just fine. Like Chrysler's marketing people might have asked themselves, we're wondering why engineers didn't dig a little deeper. Peak torque is 260 pound-feet and fuel economy is 16/23 miles per gallon in RWD spec and 16/22 when driving all four wheels. These numbers will all improve if Fiat's MultiAir heads are fitted to this engine, though engineers remain mum on the prospects.

    The V6's mileage figures would have also been better if Chrysler had a RWD transmission with more gears. Strapped for development dollars (a modern transmission requires hundreds of millions to develop), the all-new Durango soldiers on with the old W5A580 five-speed automatic. It could be worse; the 2011 base Avenger still has a four-speed. Chrysler is working on an eight-speed transmission, however, that will debut in some models as early as 2013.

    2011 Dodge Durango engine

    V6 Durango models are available in both RWD and AWD configurations. AWD units get a permanent one-ratio transfer case that begins with an initial torque split of 50:50.

    Meanwhile, the legendary Hemi V8 with cylinder deactivation is optional. It cranks out 360 hp and 390 lb-ft torque and is backed by the heavier-duty 545RFE five-speed automatic. RWD and AWD are also both available, but the Hemi's AWD has a low 2.72:1 reduction ratio low range. Additionally, in low, the front and rear prop shafts are locks, helping deliver better power for light off-roading. The Hemi's AWD also includes a Neutral position, enabling flat towing. Mileage is 14/20 for the RWD, and 13/20 for the AWD version.

    2011 Dodge Durango engine badge2011 Dodge Durango engine badge

    Everything that makes up the 2011 Durango finds itself packaged into four models with new designations; the Express, the Crew, the R/T and the Citadel. Unlike in years past, there is no "base" model. At $29,195, the entry-level Durango Express includes tri-zone automatic climate control, LED ambient lighting, hill-start assist and trailer sway control as standard equipment.

    The Crew, at $33,195, is expected to be the volume model. It packages most of the content most buyers want into an easy-to-buy model that adds dozens of features including a power liftgate, proximity key system, power front seats, rear-view camera and an Alpine premium audio system with full media connectivity. The Citadel is the fully-loaded Durango, and at $41,795, it has leather and power everything. Sirius Backseat television, AWD, skid plates, trailer towing equipment and the HEMI V8 are the Citadel's only options.

    This leaves us to describe the 2011 Durango R/T. This $32,170 SUV wears a unique front fascia with a deeper front spoiler and a monochromatic look. The R/T specific wheels measure 20-inches and wear P265/50R20 Kumho Solus tires. The body rides 20mm lower, and the rear suspension includes ZF Sachs Nivomat air springs to make sure the Durango can still haul stuff when it's not hauling ass.

    2011 Dodge Durango front fascia2011 Dodge Durango wheel

    We spent all of our allotted time behind the wheel of an R/T blasting around California's Napa Valley. The performance-oriented SUV is immediately comfortable and easy to drive. The interior is quiet, the seats supportive and all major controls work as designed.

    Another characteristic that made itself immediately known was this vehicle's weight. At 5,331 pounds, the AWD R/T feels heavy because it is. The Hemi had to work hard to make the R/T hustle, making us think that driving a V6 Durango might try our patience. (A complete road test will fill in the blanks as soon as these vehicles become available.)

    2011 Dodge Durango rear 3/4 view

    Surprisingly, when the roads got twisty, the Durango's new fully-independent suspension somehow masked at least a thousand pounds. The R/T carved a sharp line through corners. Unlike V6 Durangos that use an electro-hydraulic power steering system, the HEMI R/T uses a standard hydraulic steering rack-and-pinion unit. The feedback and information delivery through the wheel was surprisingly helpful and full of life. This made the R/T genuinely entertaining on roads better suited to a Lotus Elise. The four-wheel disc brakes also kept pace just fine, but we did smell the pads after a particularly long and curvy downhill where we were pushing on.

    A previous-generation Durango would have been miserable on the same roads. As would its driver and passengers. The 2011 Durango, however, is no old-school dinosaur, but a new-and-improved breed that Dodge hopes will be the most extinct-proof model to date.



    Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

    Modern SUV offers V8, rear-wheel drive.

    Introduction

    The 2011 Dodge Durango is substantially overhauled from previous iterations, keeping only its name, optional Hemi engine and perhaps a couple of hidden electronic pieces. It's a big change likely to win its share of 'most improved' awards. 

    A Durango is for those with varied needs: plenty of seats, cargo hauling flexibility, towing, or four-wheel drive. To that end it can accommodate seven, even seven adults. It can be configured to carry big boxes or four people AND a 10-foot long-board inside. It can tow a minimum 3500 pounds fully loaded and up to 7200 in a lightly loaded V8, considerably more than most of the crossover competition that's based on front-wheel-drive platforms. And you can get low-range 4WD with the V8, though it's not as tough underneath as the old truck-based Durango. 

    The standard setup is rear-wheel drive, yielding even weight distribution, a compliant bump-soaking ride, nice quiet cruising and good response to driver commands. 

    An all-new 3.6-liter V6 brings 290 horsepower and is paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission, but they are saddled with 4900 pounds to haul around. On the plus side, the V6 gets 23 mpg on the highway and has a big fuel tank, so those 400-mile scenic routes won't have you worrying where the next gas station is located. Those less concerned with mileage will opt for the Hemi, not because of its 70 added horsepower but for the extra 130 lb-ft of torque and the V8 soundtrack. 

    Durango's interior now seats seven (except the Heat model) but it feels larger than before and looks better. Materials and fit-and-finish are miles ahead of its predecessor and remain wholly appropriate for the SUV mission. 

    Pricing runs from about $30,000 to about $46,000. The base Durango Express model is far from basic and a loaded Durango Citadel has everything you need and a lot more. Options, especially compared to some imports, are reasonably priced; our Durango Crew model had just $1,550 in options on it and left us wanting for naught. 

    The only Big 3 vehicle that's undergone wholesale change like this is Ford's Explorer, but it no longer offers rear-wheel drive, a V8, or similar towing capacity, and dare we say isn't as much improved as the Durango. By class benchmarks the Durango has a refined ride and cabin; by previous Durango standards it's beyond comparison. 

    Durango competes in a fairly crowded market, against the GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Veracruz, Kia Sorento, Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX-9, and Honda Pilot. Top-drawer Durango models could also compete with the Acura MDX and Volvo XC90, yet Nissan's Pathfinder is the only seven-seat, rear-wheel-drive competition to offer a V8 in this price range. 

    If you do no towing and don't need the V8, we would suggest the Dodge Grand Caravan. With the same V6, a 6-speed automatic and less weight to cart around it is quicker, gets better mileage, handles as well, has more people room, and as much cargo space behind the second row as the Durango does behind the front seats. 

    Lineup

    The 2011 Dodge Durango is offered in six trim levels, all with a 5-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive (2WD) is standard. V6 models offer full-time all-wheel drive (AWD) that splits power 50/50 while V8 models use a two-speed transfer case (4WD) with low-range gearing, automatic mode for on-highway use, and a Neutral position that allows it to be towed on its wheels, as behind a motorhome. 

    Durango Express ($29,195) is the base model and comes only with a 290-hp 3.6-liter V6 engine. It includes cloth upholstery, three-zone climate control, power windows/locks/heated mirrors, 18-inch alloy wheels with 265/60R18 Michelins, fog lamps, 50/50-split folding third row seats, 60/40-split fold/tumble second row seats, fold-flat right front seat, and Media Center 130 AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with one-year subscription to Sirius satellite radio. Express is available with AWD ($31,195). Options include a popular equipment package ($1295) with 30GB HDD upgraded audio, Bluetooth streaming and voice, leather-wrapped steering wheel, auto-dimming inside mirror, rear park sensors and a rearview camera. A towing package includes Class IV hitch, 7 and 4-pin plugs, full-size spare tire, upgraded cooling, load-leveling rear shocks. Also available: skid plates, roof rails/cross bars ($250), engine block heater ($50), sunroof ($850). 

    Durango Heat ($30,295) is basically a 295-hp V6 version of the R/T. It adds 265/50R20 tires on painted alloy wheels, body-colored trim, auto-dimming inside mirror, sport suspension and a 5.9-cubic-foot storage well under the floor behind the second row seat. The Heat is the only five-passenger Durango, the only V6 with dual exhausts, and has no overhead rear AC controls. Options include three-season performance tires ($175) and most Express options except the roof rails and tow package. The Heat is available with AWD ($32,295). 

    Durango R/T ($35,465), for Road/Track, is the sportiest Durango and comes with a 360-hp 5.7-liter Hemi V8, revised suspension, bigger brakes, 20-inch wheels, body-color trim, digital suede red-stitched upholstery, HID low-beam headlamps, HomeLink, keyless entry, security system, remote start, leather-wrapped wheel and the Media Center 430 audio system with Bluetooth, nine speakers, and 506-watt Alpine amplification. Durango R/T 4WD ($37,865) is identically equipped. R/T extras include audio upgrades, navigation, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning. A Leather Package ($1395) for 4WD versions includes leather-trimmed seats, heated first and second-row seats, power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power front seats, auto-dimming exterior driver-side mirror, LED signal repeaters on the mirrors, and two-position memory system for seat/mirrors/wheel/radio presets. A DVD rear entertainment ($1695) system is available, usually requires sunroof. 

    Durango Crew ($33,195) and Crew AWD ($35,195) is the mainstream model, and adds to Express the 506-watt Media 430 sound system, power liftgate, power folding mirrors, remote start, driver memory system, roof rails/cross bars, power 8-way driver and 6-way passenger seats, leather wheel, HomeLink, keyless entry/run, rear camera and park sensors, and a 115-volt 150-watt outlet. Crew options include a 5.7-liter V8 ($1495), polished 20-inch wheels ($1150), an entry navigation/commuter group ($695) that includes navigation system, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, rains-sensing wipers, SmartBeam auto-dimming headlamps. Also available: rear DVD entertainment, block heater, sunroof, tow package, and blind spot warning. 

    Durango Crew Lux ($38,195) and Crew Lux AWD ($40,195) come standard with leather with four heated seats and power front passenger seat, navigation system, 20-inch polished and painted wheels, SmartBeam headlamps, rain-sensing wipers and chrome door handles and mirrors. Options are the V8, sunroof, rear DVD, tow package and Media Center 730 sound/navigation system with Sirius traffic, voice-recognition and a USB port. 

    Durango Citadel ($41,795) and Citadel AWD ($43,795) upgraded from Crew Lux with Nappa perforated leather seat trim, ventilated front seats, sunroof, Media Center 730, HID low-beams, eight-way power passenger seat (does not fold flat like all other Durango), heated steering wheel, blind spot warning, rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, R/T brakes, and 20-inch alloy wheels with chrome covers. Upgrades are limited to the V8, block heater, tow package, and Inferno red paint. 

    Safety features on all Durangos: front and front-side airbags, full side-curtain airbags, and electronic stability control with trailer-sway control. Optional safety features include blind spot warning, rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, rear camera, rear park sensors, and all-wheel drive. 

    Walkaround

    It wouldn't be a Dodge without a big cross-hair grille and the 2011 Durango doesn't disappoint. It's broad and tall enough to deliver presence, especially given its forward inclination in a class where everything slopes rearward, yet with the chrome flourishes and finer detailing it's more elegant than the macho, blunt-snouted old Durango. The hood carries out to the fenders rather than sloping off like the old one, and combined with the deep air dam and bodywork gives it a much more wagon-like proportion in side view. 

    Dodge Durango falls right in the middle of the three-row mix of SUVs for outside dimensions, and the long rear side doors look even longer because they have no fixed quarter window within. It's a fairly subtle shape with chrome down low on most models, sprinkled about more on fancy ones. Windows are neither Hummer-slit nor overly generous, and the apparent proportions vary significantly with paint color. 

    The rear end of the 2011 Durango is sloped more than the previous Durango, not as upright as the ultra-practical Pilot nor as fastback as others. Rear lighting is simple, though we found them too similar to those on the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Like the wheel-well openings, the lower edges all around the perimeter are dark plastic to avoid scuffing and rock chips. 

    A cargo hatch, powered on some models, does not open the glass separately, not such a big deal with pushbutton access. A lock button is camouflaged in the big chrome Dodge band across the back, and the manual hatch release is big enough to use with gloves. Rear wipe/wash and a small spoiler are standard on all. 

    The bumper has a top cover to avoid paint damage, though the toe of your boot may scuff the hatch standing up there to load the roof: Better to stand on a tire where you won't have to lift things around the antenna. Low-profile roof rails have swivel-out crossbars built in so wind noise is only added when cargo is up there. There is a small attachment loop at each rail end. 

    Unlike the first Durangos, the 2011 Durango uses five-lug wheels, which means a wider choice for those wishing to customize. Twenty-inch tires and wheels are available (or standard) on anything above Express but we consider the 265/60TR18 Michelin Latitude Tour tires and 18x8-inch alloy wheels far and away best for multipurpose use. Spare tires are stowed underneath the back, a nuisance in the snow, but do not require unloading or dirtying the cargo area. 

    Dodge Durango has a solid, substantial, but not heavy, feel to it. Some credit for that goes back to Chrysler's two-owners-back: The Durango approximates a longer, three-row version of the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, which itself was derived from the Mercedes-Benz ML and GL classes. Dimensions are not identical, but consider this the least expensive way to get some Mercedes engineering in a seven-seat package. 

    Interior

    The 2011 Dodge Durango has a pleasant cabin that combines some of the features and flexibility of a minivan with a less upright seating, usable materials and a dash of style. Above your waistline materials are soft-touch or heavily textured, while those closer to the floor are harder plastics that are easy to clean and scratch-resistant. Trim varies by model, no surprise, and the fit and finish is good. Sporty Heat and R/T models come with black upholstery broken up by red stitching, Express and Crew in gray or black cloth upholstery that negates temperature extremes, with a lighter headliner to brighten the cabin, and the Citadel offers black or tan leather. Our primary example, a Crew V6, had gray cloth with dark brown upper dash and door panels, a light putty color for lower trim, and ash-gray woodgrain trim for doors and dash. Our only nit-pick about cabin finish is generous chrome touches that generate a lot of sun glare. 

    The front buckets are very comfortable, supportive without being confining and able to handle many miles without feeling too firm for five-minute jaunts. The majority are 8-way power for the driver (with 4-way power lumbar) and a 6-way power cushion for passenger side, which has a manual backrest because it folds flat; the Citadel's does not fold flat, so it's also 8-way power. 

    A tilt/telescoping steering column fits a range of drivers, and a power column links to the driver seat/mirror/audio preset memory system. Unlike some newer models the footwell does not feel narrow, so there is plenty of room for your left leg to relax. 

    Engine revs and speed instruments house smaller fuel and coolant temperature gauges, with the EVIC electronic vehicle information center between. EVIC displays everything from fuel economy or oil temperature to how long the lights stay on when you park, operated via the left thumb-switches on the steering wheel. All controls, the door handles, door pockets and the cupholders are illuminated an icy-blue, the gauges off-white. 

    Most controls are straightforward. Climate controls are split into three zones, or can be matched with the touch of one button; rear controls are operable if the driver approves by pressing a button. The shifter's a model of simplicity with no buttons to press, merely push left to downshift or right to upshift from the Drive position. The lone stalk on the left side of the wheel has high beams, signals, front and rear wash/wipe, so it gets a little busy; not all can be done without taking your hand off the wheel to twist it, where the impetus for stalk controls was to keep your hands on the wheel. 

    Audio systems work well, and the 500-watt 9-speaker sound system has plenty of rumble. The mid-grade 430 with navigation audio system in our Crew played everything we wanted (though the radio mutes when you load/unload a CD), and adding navigation among other things as a $695 option is relatively cheap. The navigation isn't as advanced as that in the 2011 Charger yet the only behavior we didn't like was how it occasionally reset the map scale on its own, even without us locking the truck or changing the driver memory position. The display is up high dash center, but like the climate display, is affected by polarized sunglasses. 

    Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillar is slimmed mid-way to aid front quarter vision, and the door pillars will be behind most drivers. The third row headrests don't block the view (heads might) because there is a dash switch that drops them at the touch of a button. Front wipe/wash coverage is very good, rear good, and the headlights provide satisfactory illumination; HID headlamps are available on some models, low-beam only. 

    In general the Durango's interior measurements are very competitive. You might gain an inch here or lose one there, but when your six-foot-plus correspondent can find a comfortable driving position, ride comfortably behind that in the second row, and then easily clamber in to the third row and sit without knees, toes or head scuffing anything we can't argue it's shy on space. 

    The second-row seat is split with the narrow section on the passenger side; you can keep two kids belted in the middle row while letting two more get in back. The center position has a soft cushion but the backrest isn't as soft as the outer positions because of the armrest within; a child seat won't be bothered. Both sides recline slightly, there are aim-able reading lights and vents overhead, and in the back of the center console above the 115-VAC outlet. 

    Side windows don't go all the way down but the rearmost few inches is flush because of the window shape. There are recessed coat hooks in the roof, assist handles on the back side of the door pillar, bottle stowage in the doors, overhead controls for rear air, good foot-room under the front seats, and four grocery bag/purse clips flanking the net seatback pockets. 

    Third-row access is very good. A simple strap-pull folds and tilts up the second row seat, and the walk-through floor space to reach the third row is almost twice what a Tahoe has for reaching the second row. There is more room back here than the legroom dimension implies and it offers the same adjustable reading lights and overhead vents as the second row. 

    The cargo deck is 32 inches off the ground and has one small deep bin on the left side and a broader one under the main floor. On Crew trim features include a small built-in LED flashlight, hooks and power point on the right and a pair of tie-down loops in the floor. The cargo cover may be mounted behind the second or third-row seats, the hatch has two loading or tailgating lights at the back/lower edge, and the close button is on the left side low enough for a kindergartener to reach. 

    Cargo volume is 17 cubic feet behind the third row, 48 behind the second, and 84 behind the front seats, all average measurements if GM's much longer trio (Chevrolet Traverse, GMV Acadia, Buick Enclave) is left out. A simple lever drops either third-row seat flat, and with the right seat section folded flat in each row you can secure ten-foot-long objects inside. 

    Driving Impression

    The Dodge Durango is easy to drive and delivers a comfortable, quiet ride empty or loaded. The way it responds to steering and braking inputs will please those who enjoy driving and go completely unnoticed by those who don't. Our drive time suggests the EPA ratings are not far off, though routine short trips in town on a cold engine, as many of these are used, will be lower than EPA city numbers. 

    Nearly all the vehicles in the Durango class are front or all-wheel drive, often derived from a front-wheel-drive based car or minivan. The rear-wheel-drive Durango is not, even if the gauges and V6 are similar to what you get in a Dodge Caravan. 

    If you think you need front-wheel drive for traction, think again. Most front-drive vehicles carry more weight over the front wheels, where it helps traction. The Durango carries as much weight on the back wheels as the front, and winter tires and the standard traction control will take it farther than most owners plan to go. 

    Durango's excellent balance and rear-wheel drive also mean the tires do more equal work. Front tires aren't overwhelmed pulling lots of weight and doing all the steering, and rear tires do more than hold the tailgate off the ground. This is one reason the Durango steers crisply and needs less U-turn space than its rivals. 

    We hustled the Durango along mountain roads at a better clip than most owners will, an indication it has a lot in reserve if you miscalculate your road speed. And that's easy to do given the subdued cabin and lack of wind noise thanks to laminated front windows, dual firewalls, good aerodynamics, and a solid structure. We also noted that ride quality and handling dynamics didn't really change with five adults and two kids on board, the 1,000-pound load close to maximum for most users. 

    Around town the Durango soaks up big and small bumps alike with nary a quiver. The nose drops under heavy braking and there is a little body lean in the corners, both providing visual clues without any hint of drama. 

    Durangos with the V6 offer all-wheel drive with power routed to all four wheels all the time. V8 models offer four-wheel drive with low-range gearing for steeper inclines/descents, a Neutral position for flat-towing, and can be used like the all-wheel drive on pavement for slippery conditions. 

    We'd rate the Durango's off-highway prowess about equal to its predecessor: the suspension is better and more flexible, ground clearance is about the same, but the new one has things like aluminum suspension arms that won't take abuse and grounding like the old model's truck-style steel bits. As on the winding road the Durango will go far farther afield than most owners even consider, and tires the likely culprit stopping progress in mud. So you don't want to hammer it over rugged terrain, but it has enough off-highway capability for most needs. 

    The V6 engine is smooth and generally quiet, getting mildly raucous only above 5000 rpm. Despite not making peak grunt until 4800 rpm it has enough to climb a 7-percent grade at 80 mph fully loaded in third gear. It will merge at speed provided you mash the pedal early, and expect it to downshift at least one gear for any notable speed gain. This is because the V6 is geared for highway fuel economy, and the transmission has five forward gears rather than the six-or-more of many competitors. And those competitor five-speeds often have better gearing, weigh less, or both. 

    EPA ratings for the V6 are 16/23 mpg (16/22 all-wheel drive). More expensive hybrids and diesels notwithstanding everything in the Durango's class will be within one or two mpg of Durango's EPA rating; driving style and vehicle condition yield far greater differences. 

    The V8 Dodge calls the Hemi has 360 hp but it's the 50 percent increase in torque and lower revving nature that make it feel more powerful. It also lops a few miles per gallon off the top, but if you have a 6,000-pound trailer you'll appreciate it. The V8 also has a 5-speed automatic (not the same transmission as the V6) but the engine's better grunt makes this less an issue. 

    The rear-wheel-drive architecture of the Durango means better towing. All models are rated to handle a 5,000-pound trailer; with the tow package the V6 rates 6,200 pounds and the V8 7,200 pounds. A full truck generally means 1,000-1,500 pounds off those maximums, however. Even if we never planned on towing anything we would get the tow package: It includes a full-size spare tire, load-leveling rear shocks, wiring and the hitch that comes in handy for bike or stowage racks, as a recovery point, or a place to show your allegiances. 

    Summary

    The 2011 Dodge Durango qualifies as a wholesale advance on its predecessor. It's not merely competitive, it's near the top in many of the things that SUV buyers want. Durango can carry seven people very comfortably, rack up the vacation miles in quiet punctuated only by the half-kilowatt stereo, and is full of the conveniences you never thought of before and now can't do without. That it drives so nicely and is downright fun with the addictive note of the V8 is the frosting on the cake. 

    G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Durango models in Southern California. 

    Model Lineup

    Dodge Durango Express ($29,195), Express AWD ($31,195); Durango Heat ($30,295), Heat AWD ($32,295); Durango R/T ($35,465), R/T 4WD ($37,865); Durango Crew ($33,195) Crew AWD $35,195); Crew Lux ($38,195), AWD ($40,195); Durango Citadel ($41,795), Citadel AWD ($43,795). 

    Assembled In

    Detroit, Michigan. 

    Options As Tested

    Entry navigation/commuter group ($695) includes Garmin navigation, rain-sensing wipers, SmartBeam headlamps, power tilt/telescope steering wheel; sunroof ($850). 

    Model Tested

    Dodge Durango Crew ($33,195). 

    *The data and content on this web site is subject to change without notice. Neither AOL nor any of its data or content providers shall be liable for errors in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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