by David Zatz in August 2013 (4)
Dodge Durango, like Ford Explorer, is a modern unit-body SUV with a name taken from an older body-on-frame, truck-based vehicle. Durango is larger than Explorer and smaller than the body-on-frame Chevy Suburban; it combines a surprisingly high towing capacity with a civilized interior and good handling.
The Durango was based on the same basic chassis as Jeep Grand Cherokee, with a longer body, extra row of seats, and retuned suspension. Its cornering was quite good, and driving the Durango either on city streets or bendy highways was remarkably rewarding, given its size. The Durango is still quite good at filtering out bumps and bad pavement, even as it can be whipped around sharp curves at speed; yet felt in touch with the pavement, at least by luxury-SUV standards. That's not to say it was harsh or stiff; the Durango remained comfortable, with ruts and bumps “averaged out” and without any subsonic booming. The ride was neither floaty or overly cushioned; and the steering was tight and fast.
We found that the 2013 Dodge Durango can be driven for long distances without fatigue, at least based on a pair of two-hour drives, which left us without any feelings of battling a car that was too responsive or too insulated. For city driving, Durango has the added benefit of an absurdly tight turning radius, making U-turns far easier.
Since our 2011 test drive, Durango's V6 powertrain seems to have been retuned; the transmission was more responsive, downshifting more quickly and easily, and takeoffs were faster. In routine driving, the powertrain was smooth and predictable, though downshifts (sometimes two of them) were needed when going uphill. Under sudden acceleration, the engine starts you going, then the transmission kicks down, the V6 gets into its power zone, and you have your passing power. There were times, not common, when downshifts failed to arrive, but it's possible that the adaptive transmission would eventually fix that; if not, the driver could get used to using the AutoStick (more on that later).
You do have some torque before kickdown, so in routine driving you don't need to wait for the downshift. Only in rare cases did we have to wait longer than a moment or two for a kickdown. With the new eight-speed automatic in the 2014 models, shifts are faster, and the gaps between gears are shorter.
The V6 continues to use the Mercedes five-speed car automatic (WA580), while the Hemi uses Chrysler's own six-speed truck automatic (65RFE). With all wheel drive, V8 buyers get a two-speed transfer case with a 2.72:1 low range and variable torque split, while V6 buyers get a single-speed case with a 50/50 split. The downside of the V8 is three miles per gallon knocked off both city and highway mileage.
Gas mileage with the V6 matches the best of its competitors, but remains below a typical minivan (18/25), which would be a better buy for most non-towing buyers, other than image. The Hemi exacts a gas mileage toll of 3 miles per gallon. Explorer has similar gas mileage with the base engine, but it's smaller, with a cramped third row and cargo area, and can tow 1,200 pounds less.
Helping both engines to save fuel is a routine that cuts fuel while decelerating (“iDFSO”). At 70 mph, the engine runs at around 2,100 rpm; with the 2014 model's eight speed, one can cruise at around 1,400 rpm at the same speed, cutting fuel costs and reducing road noise until the next long or steep hill. Overall, the 2014s have 1 mpg better mileage with the V6, coupled with greater acceleration.
You can extract a lot of power from the six, and the Durango reacts quickly, rapidly accelerating up to redline. Yet, the V6 engine was smooth at all speeds, from idle to near the redline. The exhaust was tuned so that the V6 sounded more like a big, heavy V8 on the outside — quiet as it was inside. (0-60 comes in around nine seconds with the V6, and in around 7 1/2 seconds with the V8).
Drivers can manually override the shifting just by moving the shifter to the left, to downshift; to get back into Drive, hold the shifter to the right. It doesn't take long to get the hang of the system, and it's very handy to be able to downshift manually when starting on a steep hill or preparing to pass; and shifts are fast but smooth. In addition to giving us extra responsiveness when we had a moment to plan ahead, downshifting on demand saved some fuel on hilly roads. The system eventually downshifted on its own, but sometimes the driver does know better (after all, we can see what's ahead of us — and while the computer theoretically can, through the forward sensors, it doesn't yet use that information to control shifting. Hint, hint, Chrysler.)
The Pentastar V6 also has a special “case free” oil filter which not only reduces landfill use (the filter can be incinerated), but also avoids some problems of increasingly cheaply and poorly made aftermarket filters.
Can a V6 power a full-size, tow-capable SUV? Well, yes, but if you tow, you'll probably find some serious gas mileage deficits as the engine has to rev higher. The Durango will still probably do better than the base-V6 Ford Explorer (which has a lower tow rating and lower gas mileage rating, along with less space), but those who are going to be pushing the upper limits of the V6's tow rating may find that the Hemi is a more practical engine. For those who only tow now and then, and not up steep hills with heavy loads, the V6 is enough. Chrysler is still fairly conservative with its tow ratings, so we suspect you won't get stuck going 35 mph up a long grade.
In 2011, we wrote about the neat remote windows-down feature: press unlock on the remote, release, then hold down your finger on unlock, and the two front windows go all the way down. That's gone now, from both Durango and 300C. Alas.
The Durango has fine functionality for a crossover, starting with the clever button that flips the headrests down so the driver can see out the windows more easily. To lower the rearmost seat, you open the hatch, then pull up the handle on the seatback; halfway through the headrest flips down, and if you keep going, the latch releases and the seat folds flat. There's also an easily accessed panel underneath the cargo floor, which also contains the jack; it's handy for things you really don't want to slide around, like paint cans, but the lid doesn't come off and there's no easy way to prop it open.
The rear seats, which have less than ideal legroom but are inhabitable, can be accessed by flipping the middle seat forward. It's easier for a kid to get back there than an adult; what's easier still is getting into the back of a minivan through the sliding doors. An adult can fit into the back seat, and while the chair is lower to the floor than usual, it's not so low as to be unusable, and there is foot room underneath the middle-row seats. Each row gets its own overhead dome light which, now, has lenses as well, for focused reading lights.
Sergio Marchionne personally told engineers to do whatever needed to make sure their vehicles were best in class, and it shows. Controls are backlit; all levels get the audio controls on the steering wheel; compartments have anti-rattle, anti-skid rubber; and in most cases the rubber can be removed for cleaning. Any surface gripped by a normal person has a pleasant material, and chrome abounds, in rings around the gauges, rings around buttons and controls, and strips across the doors and dashboard. Even the hard-looking plastic on the upper door panels is soft-touch.
Fit and fitment is precise and accurate, with tighter tolerances than in the past. It is hard to find fault with anything except, perhaps, the firmness of the seats. While more comfortable than in the previous generation, they could have more padding. That said, the middle-row seats are as comfortable as the front row, and, again, our long drives were painless. The seats in the Durango seem more comfortable than those in the 300C.
It's hard to argue with the quality of the leather or the heat/ventilation features, easily activated from buttons on the climate control panel. The steering wheel heater, seat heaters, and heat ventilators are in the row of “miscellaneous” buttons, next to the hazard flashers and AC outlet shutoff, which is nicer than the newer cars' use of soft buttons in the UConnect system.
One clever addition we've wanted for a long time is the headrest dropper — press it, and the headrests on both rows of rear seats immediately plop down to dramatically improve rearward visibility, which remains somewhat impeded by the thick rear pillars.
The Dodge Durango gives the impression of luxury, with chrome accents in many places, wood trim accents (extending to the rear doors), contrasting stitches on the leather seats and door panels (even in back), and and two-tone, textured surfaces throughout the car. The door sills are relatively low, affording excellent visibility, brightening the cabin, and increasing the sense of space; the windshield is likewise mounted for a large field of view.
The rear vents could be adjusted side-to-side or up-and-down. Note the continuation of the wood and chrome onto the middle-row seats, a detail all too often overlooked by automakers seeking a dollar here, a dollar there.
Every Dodge Durango is outfitted with features that are usually optional. They have a convenient overhead console with the soft-touch, slow-drop, sunglass holder, along with (where applicable) sunroof controls, universal garage door opener controls, and power rear hatch controls. The optional power rear hatch option was controlled from the key, the overhead console, or simply by lifting up the handle; one could also close it manually.
Our test car had a remote starter and the keyless system; both driver and passenger doors had sensors (touching the handle unlocks the doors if the person has the keys in their pocket or handbag), and they worked when the person had gloves on. Likewise, both sides had physical chrome buttons inset on the handles for locking the doors, and the driver's side had a physical key in case the system failed or the battery died (the physical key is hidden within the fob).
The stereo on our test car had good sound quality, within limits. Clarity of midrange and treble sounds was excellent; clarity of bass notes was terrible. When delivered, with bass, midrange, and treble all in the middle of their ranges, music had over-emphasized deep bass, sounding like a next-door nightclub; the messages from the navigation system were completely undecipherable. By minimizing the bass and boosting midrange and treble, we were able to get some balance; if we owned the vehicle, we would have unplugged the subwoofer. As adjusted, the sound was quite good.
The hard-drive stereo quickly and easily records from CDs and USB thumb drives; the system can recognize iPods, which is handy for audiobook fans (iPods can read Audible.com formats and the stereo cannot), but only through the optional extra port in the center console. The system seemed to prefer the remote port to the one on the stereo for recording and playing from USB, too.
Recording music from USB was quite fast, involving as it did simply transferring files from the thumb drive to the hard drive. Recording from CD and DVD was, as one might expect, much slower. It does take a while for the system to recognize a large (30 GB) drive; using multiple 8GB or 16 GB drives may work better. We were a little surprised to see that the system can read SD cards through USB card readers.
Controls are a mixed bag; the only knob is for volume, and while we appreciated the relatively low-distraction “hard buttons” to change mode, there are some relatively small soft buttons that have major functions (like the hard drive navigation button, a magnifying glass over a music note, which at least is all the way in the corner — the ideal place for a frequently used button). Hard drive categories include artists, songs, albums, genres, folders, and favorites; when choosing by artist, album play order was lost.
The optional Garmin navigation system was fast, and adapting quickly when we ignored its advice. All the usual geegaws and features were in place, including a handy traffic display system (this requires a subscription). Words were large and easy to read, and most parts of the screen were “clickable” — putting our finger on the current speed, for example, gave us a full distance to destination in miles and minutes, along with the compass heading, elevation, maximum speed, etc.
The large status screen between the speedometer and odometer was informative and easy to read, with light-gray on black lettering and the ability to form reasonably high resolution words. It provided the compass heading and outside temperature in most modes (not in reverse, with the backup alarm active), along with the odometer. The system could provide information about the car (e.g. gas mileage), instructions (e.g. how to start), showed the speed when cruise was locked in (along with the distance when the radar-based, distance-sensitive cruise was on), and allowed the driver to set numerous behaviors and preferences.
The fan had numerous positions, with pleasantly light detents; windows were full express, up and down; and the wiper' “fast” speed was very fast indeed, as one would hope. Light blueish-white backlighting was uniformly used across the dashboard; soft lighting was used in numerous positions, including the door pulls, pockets, cupholders, and the gearshift lever (projected from the ceiling).
The remote starter had a convenient option to turn on the driver's heated seat and heat; it worked as expected, and was a pleasant convenience. The voice control worked fairly well from the start, and allows for voice training to make it more effective.
Thanks to the tech package, backing up was aided by the reverse camera, a color display, surprisingly bright at night, with a dashed line showing the center and two parallel red-yellow-and-green lines on the edges, presumably to show how far off objects were. The beeping noise of the reverse alert system corresponded with the colors; there was no separate display for the reverse alert, but the audible beeps were enough, increasing in frequency as we got close to objects.
The standard Hill Start Assist is moderately handy both on and off road; it simply keeps the brakes applied for a moment when the car is on a steep hill, so that the driver can move from brake to gas without slipping back.
The rain-sensitive wipers worked as expected — well, as did the intelligently designed sun visors. The auto-dimming rearview mirror may be seen as a convenience or as a nuisance — auto-dimming mirrors are not as effective as manual day/night mirrors.
The base price of the Dodge Durango (SXT) is around $31,000, which makes it a value for its class, given its many standard features. The Citadel is the top of the line, especially since there's no SRT Durango, but buyers are likely to pick up some options anyway; it starts at around $41,000, with the all wheel drive system adding around $2,000 more.
Our test car tipped the scales at $46,925 which made it rather costly, though cheaper than the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit V8 we tested last week. The Citadel itself runs to $43,340 with all wheel drive and destination charge, fairly well equipped; that includes the side curtain airbags in all rows, front seat mounted side airbags, active head restraints, rear backup camera and alert, keyless entry/running, remote start, rain-sensitive wipers, heated/ventilated leather front seats, eight-way front driver and passenger seats, triple-zone thermostatic air conditioning, heated half-wood steering wheel, power tilt/telescope steering column, trip computer, AC outlet, satellite radio, navigation system, voice controlled phone, nav, and stereo, and eight speaker/subwoofer stereo.
On the outside, Durango Citadel includes 20x8 chrome-clad wheels, a power sunroof and liftgate, HID headlamps with automatic high beams, fog lamps, roof rails, and power mirrors with manual fold-away.
Our test car included the $1,600 technology group, which is mainly safety gadgets: forward collision warning, blind spot detection, and rear cross path detection, along with adaptive speed control. The latter tries to maintain your set speed, unless the front camera sees an obstacle (“slowpoke”) in front of you; then, unlike the early systems which applied the brakes every time, it tries to coast down to the same speed as the person in front, using the brakes as a last resort if the speed difference is too great. You can set the distance, but even the “close” distance is more than most people use when driving themselves, which says more about how people drive than shortfalls in the system (you'd want an automated system to play it safe). This whole package runs to around $1,200.
Then there's the trailer towing group, including a hitch, 220-amp alternator, wiring harnesses, load-leveling rear suspension, and full-size spare ($900), second row fold/tumble captain's chairs ($800), and second row console with armrest, storage, USB and 12V charging ports with illuminated cupholders ($300).
The Dodge Durango is assembled in Detroit, using an American-designed engine (the V6 is built in Michigan and Mexico, the V8 in Mexico), and, with the V6, an American-made transmission designed in Germany (the V8 comes with an all-American transmission). The warranty covers the powertrain for five years or 100,000 miles, and most everything else for three years or 36,000 miles. On the new, harsher safety scale, the government rated Durango with four stars — five stars for front driver and both front and rear seat side crashes; four stars for passengers in front crashes; and three for rollovers.
There's a reason why the Durango kept winning comparison tests against the revised Explorer even before the redesign; it's a winning package. The cornering is excellent, the ride is good, the feel is top notch, and the value proposition is quite good. The V6 provides more than enough power, while the Hemi is there for those with less patience or tougher projects, like towing trailers up steep hills. The gas mileage even beats the lighter, less capable Explorer, at least with its base engine.
If you're wondering, “why a 4 rating instead of 4.5?,” the answer is partly gas mileage and partly the thumpy/fuzzy stereo. Chrysler, it's about time you started letting us shut off the subwoofer. On gas mileage we might be a little unfair, since Durango is at the top of its segment, and beats the smaller, less capable Ford Explorer.
The main competition for the Durango, for those who do not need all wheel drive or towing, should be Chrysler minivans. The vans are superior in gas mileage, interior space, space, and, thanks to sliding doors, accessibility.
If you're in the market for a three-row SUV or crossover, the Durango's the value at the moment, and the 2014 just adds to that. The 2014s include $2,500 more in standard equipment, the same starting price, and standard eight-speed automatics. For some, deals on the 2013 will make them a better value than the '14s; others may want to try both and see which fits them better.
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