by David Zatz in December 2011 (4)
While based on the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the runaway success that alerted the world to another Chrysler Renaissance, the Dodge Durango has quite a different feel. Grand Cherokee is a luxury car first, and a Jeep second; its feel is luxury, not off-road-versatile, and everything is cushioned, damped, and quieted. The Durango remains quiet, but is less thoroughly damped and cushioned; the driver is more connected to the road, and the feel of the original Grand Cherokees is oddly present in the Dodge rather than the Jeep.
With the V6, the muscular appearance of the Durango is a tad misleading; from a standing start, it takes a few moments for even the capable Pentastar engine to get all that weight moving. Then it winds up, and off you go. That's not to say that the Durango V6 is weak or slow, because it isn't. In routine driving the powertrain is smooth and predictable. Under sudden acceleration, the engine starts you going, then the transmission eventually decides to shift, the V6 gets into its power zone, and you have your passing power. You do have some torque before it gets to those revs, so in routine driving you don't need to wait for the downshift, and there is surprisingly good gradeability; you can go uphill without having to push down on the gas much, and it digs in pretty well.
Gas mileage (with the V6) matches the best of its competitors, but is still far below a typical minivan (roughly 17/25) — which is the vehicle most buyers of cars in this class would be equally well served by, if not for the dictates of style. The Hemi exacts a gas mileage toll, as one might expect, of around 2-3 miles per gallon; this might change in 2012 when the Durango's due to get a six speed automatic. Explorer had somewhat better gas mileage (1 mpg), but is smaller, with a cramped third row and cargo area, and can tow 1,200 pounds less (V6 to V6).
The V6 excels on the highway, where its broad torque curve can keep engine revolutions down while still providing good cruising power, but it's good around town as well. Helping both engines to save fuel is a routine that cuts fuel while decelerating ("iDFSO"); with the V6, when active, and apparently when under light throttle as well, an "ECO" indicator lights up.
You can extract a lot of power — more than the 4.7 liter V8 used to have — and the Durango will react quickly, rapidly accelerating up to redline. Yet, the V6 engine was smooth at all speeds, from idle to near the redline. The exhaust was, however, tuned so that the V6 sounded more like a big, heavy V8 on the outside — near silent as it was inside. (0-60 comes in around nine seconds with the V6, and in around 7 1/2 seconds with the V8).
The drivetrain was more responsive than many competing vehicles. The Durango V6 doesn't have the "instant on" responsiveness of the original, but it's not frustrating in normal driving, and you don't get the impression of having to wind up a rubber band before getting any action.
The transmission was sometimes slow to downshift, but it was still better than some recent vehicles we drove, where the engines simply had insufficient torque to do anything until the transmission had completed its shift, and then had time to climb up. In this case, the engine revs, the car starts to move forward, then the transmission catches up.
Drivers can manually override the shifting, through an odd, Mercedes-influenced system that has no separate manumatic mode, and to get back into Drive, one has to push multiple times to the right. On the lighter side, it reacts quickly, and is not often needed.
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.
Much has been written of the Durango's (and competitor Explorer's) move to unit-body construction. While Grand Cherokee has always been built on a modified unit-body basis, Durango used to be based off the Dodge Dakota pickup chassis, using a frame (and different suspension). In the end, Durango can still tow reasonable trailers, and very few customers will notice any shortfall from its predecessor. The normally rear wheel drive Durango is still available with all four wheels powered, in this case all wheel drive rather than the earlier 4x4 system; this is probably better adapted for the average Durango's use as an on-road vehicle, or on dirt or gravel trails. It is also probably one of the reasons for the increase in gas mileage.
Especially given the size of the Dodge, cornering was quite good; for a fairly hefty all wheel drive vehicle, the Durango was remarkably rewarding on-road. Since the road connection has not been drummed out in the name of refinement and luxury, the big Dodge is more enjoyable than most luxury SUVs, which tend to have so much sound and vibration reduction installed that they have a "dead" feel. Some bumps may be more noticeable (though not overly harsh or annoying, the Durango can roll and pitch), but sharp turns are remarkably easy to take.
As we drove over ruts in the road, we felt them but their effects were "averaged out," and there were no sudden shocks or "subsonic booms." The ride was certainly not floaty or overly cushioned; and the steering was tight and fast.
Brakes had a somewhat odd feel that the driver has to get used to, but worked well enough.
The 2011 Dodge Durango seemed to be the kind of car you could drive for long distances without feeling tired, and without feeling as though you were battling a car that was either too responsive, or too wrapped up in insulation. The original Grand Cherokees, culminating in the 1999-2005 version, went farther — driving them for long distances left one feeling quite refreshed — and we wonder if the Durango will prove to be similar.
One neat touch, not mentioned on the price sheet, is the 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 very helpful for letting out the heat if you're on the other side of the parking lot, inside the house looking at the driveway, or in a small office building about to leave work for the day. In the latter situation, this remote-window capacity makes all the difference in the world — cars get hot after eight or nine hours in the summer sun.
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.
The rear seats, which have marginal legroom but are still inhabitable, can be accessed by flipping the middle seat forward (Dodge now makes the strap red, when makes it far easier to locate than the past upholstery-colored straps). 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 actually 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.
Aside from the functionality, which never particularly suffered under Daimler, the Durango is well styled. Sergio Marchionne personally told engineers to do whatever needed to make sure their vehicles were best in class, and it shows. Much of the interior is shared with the highly regarded Jeep Grand Cherokee, which makes sense from a cost perspective — and why would they change it? The Durango and Grand Cherokee have enough obvious (and subtle) differences that changing more wasn't needed, though the Dodge does have a bolder, less elegant gauge background (see the pictures for contrasting views).
All controls are backlit; all levels get the audio controls on the steering wheel; all compartments have anti-rattle, anti-skid rubber (except the door map pockets); 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.
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 certainly have more padding; the vertically adjustable (4-way) lumbar support helps, but when it comes down to it, these are stiff seats with relatively little padding. The 2011 Charger has far more comfortable, better cushioned seats, as does any 1995 Chrysler product. That said, the middle-row seats are as comfortable as the front row, and the rear seats are decently padded.
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 is in the row of "miscellaneous" buttons, next to the hazard flashers and AC outlet shutoff, but is easy enough to find. 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.
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 seating area seemed larger than in the past, as was certainly better decorated, with more amenities; map pockets were the long-lasting elastic type, attached to the back of the rear seats. 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 chrome trim and numerous features that are usually optional. They have a convenient overhead console with the soft-touch, slow-drop, sunglass holder which Chrysler started using back in the 1980s in minivans (lined with a more durable antiscratch material), along with (where applicable) sunroof controls, universal garage door opener controls, and power rear hatch controls (these three are all optional on Crew.)
The optional power rear hatch option was controlled from the key, the overhead console, or simply by lifting up the handle; one could also operate it manually.
Our test car had a remote starter and the keyless system; it was a better implementation of the keyless system than we've seen in some models, since 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 an actual physical key in case the system failed or the battery died. The physical key is hidden within the fob, easily removed on purpose, nearly impossible to remove by accident.
One unusual touch is a lock button on the cargo door; you can unlock or lock it without using a key or the fob, just the handle and button. That can be handy since, if you can't fumble for the fob, you can still get the hatch up.
The stereo on our vehicle was the base unit; sound quality was good, but not exceptional, failing to properly reproduce what might be our most difficult test album (Bachman & Turner). It did better with another tough album, Devo's Something for Everybody, whose heavy use of distortion and complex construction tends to befuddle less capable speakers and electronics. Generally it was pleasant and capable, with deep bass but not the kind of dull, unfocused, overly heavy bass Chrysler adopted in the mid-to-late 2000s. It is better than the average car stereo, but not as good as the base unit of the Charger R/T; in fairness the space is likely harder to fill.
The hard-drive stereo quickly and easily records from CDs and USB thumb drives. The USB port actually on the head unit did not recognize our iPods, but Durangos with the optional USB port in the center console do work with the iPod Nano. 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.
Satellite radio controls were interesting, with a programmable "game zone" that had recent scores from the teams of your choice, and the ability to view channels by category as well as to go to your favorites.
The optional Garmin navigation system was a wonder — it was the fastest nav system we've ever used, taking input as fast as we could type and adapting very quickly when we ignored its advice. All the usual geegaws were in place, though compass heading was supplied by the gauge cluster display rather than being shown on the screen, and the map always defaulted to the same zoom level regardless of where we'd set it last time.
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 Dodge Durango uses an identical system
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 optional expensive-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 Crew AWD is $36,045, which makes it a value for its class, particularly considering its standard features. These include side curtain airbags for all rows, active head restraints, stability control, rear backup camera and assist, keyless entry, hill-start assist, trailer sway damping, cruise, remote-start, dual-zone automatic, filtered climate control, driver and passenger power seats with four-way lumbar adjustment, remote headrest flip-down, vehicle information center, AC outlet, hard-drive touch-screen stereo, satellite nine-speaker stereo, Bluetooth™, USB port, leather-wrapped tilt-telescope steering wheel, garage door opener, power liftgate, fog lamps, roof rails (with stowing cross-bars), power heated signal mirrors, and, finally, those all-important floor mats.
This is one well equipped vehicle.
Our test car tipped the scales at $43,385, which seemed unnecessarily costly. The main contributor was the $5,000 Customer Preferred Package, which boosted the wheel size from 18 to 20 inches, added leather trim and heated front and second row seats, added a Garmin navigation system to the stereo, threw in rain-sensitive wipers and SmartBeam headlamps, and the classy chrome door handles.
The technology group was 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 come to think of it says more about our tendency to be the "loose nuts behind the wheel" than any shortfalls in the system. You'd want an automated system to play it safe. That said, the adaptive cruise is smooth and works well. This whole package runs to around $1,200.
Then there's the power sunroof ($850) and the fancy blackberry pearl paint ($300) and you're at $43,385.
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 an American-made transmission designed in Germany; roughly 70% of the components are from the US and Canada. The warranty covers the powertrain for five years or 100,000 miles, and most everything else for three years or 36,000 miles.
There's a reason why the Durango keeps winning comparison tests against the revised Explorer (though its sales can't come close, partly due to production constraints); it's a winning package, overall. The cornering is excellent, the ride is good, the feel is top notch, and the value proposition is hard to argue with. The V6 provides plenty of power and while you sometimes have to wait for the transmission, it always gives you something before the shift too, and it has lots of reserve, it doesn't feel weak. The Hemi is there for those with less patience or tougher projects — like regularly towing a boat up steep hills. On the downside are the firm seats, the minimal rear seat room, and, really, the excellence of minivans, which are in the same size and tend to cost less; with no serious towing or off-road capability, minivans can get considerably better gas mileage. But if you're in the market for a three-row SUV or crossover, the Durango's at the top of the class at the moment.
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