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by David Zatz in October 2015
The Dodge Durango is an SUV that’s larger than the Ford Explorer and smaller than the Chevy Suburban, combining torque, high towing capacity, and good handling with a civilized interior and ride.
The Dodge Durango is essentially a lengthened Jeep Grand Cherokee with an extra row of seats, a retuned suspension, and different looks, inside and out. Likewise, the changes from the 2011-2013 Dodge Durangos are mostly under the skin — an eight-speed automatic replacing a six-speed, new electronics, and a completely new gauge cluster with some interior changes. On the outside, the back has Dodge Charger-like lighting, with light-pipe-directed LEDs.
Driving the Durango was more fun than riding in it; the steering was tight and precise, and the suspension let the big SUV be whipped around sharp curves at speed despite its weight. It felt in touch with the pavement, by luxury-SUV standards, but, like the 2013, the Durango was comfortable on both smooth and rough roads.
I found myself taking turns unnecessarily quickly (and on a tighter trajectory), partly due to the tight electric steering; fortunately, the driver and passenger seats are both bolstered. The 2015 Dodge Durango can be driven for long distances without fatigue, without the tiring feeling of battling a car that’s either too responsive or too insulated — though it would be nice if we could add just a little slop into the tight power steering for long journeys.
For city driving, Durango has a tight turning radius, making U-turns far easier. The V6/eight-speed combination works well in both cases, providing a high ratio with fast kickdowns on the highway, and instant response from a stop in the city. It was almost invariably in the right gear; but it was good to use the steering wheel mounted shifting flaps to take advantage of engine braking.
Our test car had all wheel drive; rear wheel drive is standard. We drove the Durango through days of rain and storm, and the big SUV kept its composure, even when half the car was driven through a deep highway puddle. On the Citadel, at least, Dodge did not stint on the tires.
Our test car had all wheel drive, rather than the standard rear wheel drive. We drove the Durango through days of rain and storm, and it was good to have all the wheels powered; the big SUV kept its composure, even when half the car was driven through a deep highway puddle. Acceleration was easy despite the low first gear, without chirping.
The V6/eight-speed combination works well in both cases, providing a high ratio with fast kickdowns on the highway, and instant response from a stop in the city. It was almost invariably in the right gear; but it was good to use the steering wheel mounted shifting flaps to take advantage of engine braking.
The powertrain was usually smooth and predictable, with often-imperceptible downshifts; highways were usually taken in eighth gear, going down to seventh and, rarely, sixth on hills. Under sudden acceleration, the engine starts you going, then the transmission kicks down, the V6 gets into its power zone, and you have passing power. Now and then, the transmission software got confused and gave us a lurch, usually when upshifting from hard acceleration to steadying out, but sometimes out of the blue. (This happens on my own car as well — which has the same transmission, but made by ZF itself.)
The V6 engine was smooth at all speeds, from idle to near the redline. When we floored the pedal on the highway, at speeds from 55 mph up, we found it instantly went from 7 or 8 down to 4, then waited a moment, and kicked down even further, to 3, if needed (and if possible without going over the redline). The instant multiple-gear kickdown was surprising and amazing. That first multi-gear downshift seemed to have less of an effect than the second, as well. (This is all based on the gear display, assuming it is accurate and timely).
Hemi owners also get the eight-speed automatic (actually, they get one built by ZF, while V6 owners get one made by Chrysler — both in the US). The speed difference between the V6 and V8 is narrowed by the transmission, which makes the V6 much faster in straight acceleration, and more responsive as well; but both get a boost.
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.
Gas mileage is up by 1 mpg, both city and highway (2 mpg highway on V8s). V6 mileage beats competitors, though it’s below the larger Dodge Caravan by 1 mpg (the price one pays for towing and rear wheel drive?). Explorer has slightly lower 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.
The computer automatically cuts fuel while decelerating, which takes some getting used to. For 2016, Durango gets V6 stop-start systems and an upgraded engine.
The V6 also has a “case free” oil filter to avoid problems with aftermarket filter casings.
Can a V6 power a full-size, tow-capable SUV? Yes, but you’ll probably find gas mileage deficits as the engine has to rev higher — not as bad as with a turbocharged Explorer, though. For those who only tow now and then, the V6 is enough, especially with the tight, efficient eight-speed. Chrysler is still conservative with its tow ratings, so we suspect you won’t get stuck going 35 mph up a long grade.
We drove for a long time with the eco mode on, and for a time with it off, and didn’t see much of a difference. The engine sometimes feels as though it’s dragging when it isn’t. The eight-speed appears to be programmed to stay in gear when possible, to avoid “hunting,” which may reduce efficiency somewhat.
The backup camera was helpful and generally clear, with fine night-time brightness. Visibility was somewhat hindred by extra-thick front pillars and huge rear pillars with small windows, making the three-quarter view poor. The blind spot protection pays for itself here, especially since you can shut off the audio alerts. Dodge tried to make matters better by adding a button that flips the headrests down, and moving the rear TV from the roof (where it blocked the view) to flip-up screens on the back of the front seat headrests. These are protected when not in use, and can be fed by individual HDMI inputs (in the side of the front seats), RCA plugs, or the front DVD player, if equipped.
The middle seats are as comfortable as the front seats, and equally adorned, right down to the well-dressed doors. The middle row has a center console with power.
To lower the rear seats, open the hatch, then pull up the handle on the seatback; the headrest flips down, then the latch releases and the seat folds flat. There’s also a panel under the cargo floor; it’s handy for things you really don’t want to slide around, but the lid doesn’t come off and there’s no easy way to prop it open.
The rear seats can be accessed by flipping the middle seat forward using either a side handle or a red pull-strap in back (or both). Space is somewhat tight but an adult can easily fit there — I’m 5’11” and had both legroom and headroom to spare, but the seats are not as well bolstered as the front or middle rows, nor as high off the ground (though they are finished in the same leather and just as well padded. In short, you can use them for adults, just not for a two hour trip.
Each row gets its own overhead focused reading lights.
Cost-cutting seems to have disappeared. Most controls are backlit; there are audio controls on the back of the steering wheel, with adaptive cruise, voice control, gauge control, and cruise control buttons on the front; compartments have anti-rattle, anti-skid rubber; touchable surfaces have 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.
I do have to wonder about the single stalk, which controls front and rear wipers and washers, as well as the turn signals and “flash to pass.” That’s a lot for one stalk. There is no second stalk.
The gauges are now customizable (see old and now ones below), with a physical tachometer, fuel gauge, and thermometer. If you use the digital speedometer, shown below, the speed appears above whatever display you have programmed — or shows up full-size in the middle. If you have the analog speedometer, chosen information, if any (stereo, mileage, etc) shows up in the middle of the speedometer dial.
One advantage of the new system is the wide variety of gauges that are made possible (albeit on separate screens) — oil temperature and pressure, tire pressure for each tire, coolant temperature, voltage, transmission fluid temperature are all there.
The old speedometer went up to a nutty 140 mph, and the new digital one... goes up to a nutty 140 mph. They could let the owner choose (e.g. 80, 100, 120, or 140), but they don’t. Indeed, the programmable gauge cluster has the fewest choices yet. Unlike the last car we tried, too, there is no color-change indication on the speedometer when you’ve locked in a speed.
Being a Dodge, the Durango’s analog speedometer and other gauges have a red outline. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same as that in the 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
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. It would be nice if the steering wheel heater, seat heaters, and such were still activated with physical buttons, but now they’re in the UConnect system.
The Dodge Durango gives the impression of luxury, with chrome accents, wood trim accents on some models (not the Citadel, oddly — perhaps the black inserts on the doors are wood stained to look like plastic, á la Lexus?), contrasting stitches on the leather seats and door panels (even in the rearmost setas), and such. Reversing Mercedes policy, most windows are oversized, increasing the sense of space.
The Citadel has luxury-tinted perforated Nappa leather seating, emboidered seatbacks in the first and second rows, heated and cooled front seats, and other touches.
Every Dodge Durango has nice features, including an overhead console with the soft-touch sunglass holder, sunroof controls, garage door opener, and power rear hatch opener (the latter also on the keys and a button just inside the hatch; one could also open or close it manually).
Our test car had a remote starter and the keyless system, now common; it worked as expected.
The stereo would have been excellent but for the over-emphasized bass from the subwoofer. By lowering the bass and boosting midrange and treble, we were able to get some balance, but not enough; if was too easy to go too far that way. If we owned the Durango, or if it was easier to reach, we would have unplugged the subwoofer.
The new center console is much nicer than in the 2011-2013s; there are physical knobs for volume and tuning/selection, with buttons inside. All interface elements are larger than they used to be, taking advantage of the large screen, but street names on the map are absurdly tiny and hard to read, which is a real pain. Prepare to buy bifocal sunglasses.
The navigation system was fast, and adapting quickly when we ignored its advice. All the usual geegaws were present, including a traffic display (needing a subscription). 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 fan had numerous positions, with light detents; windows were full express, up and down; and the wiper’s “fast” speed was fast indeed. Soft lighting was used in numerous positions, including the door pulls, pockets, and cupholders.
The remote starter could turn on the driver’s heated seat and heat or air conditioner. Voice control worked fairly well from the start, and now allows voice training. Built in “hill start assist” keeps the Durango from slipping back on steep hills when you first let your foot off the brake; it holds the brakes for a moderate time, until you hit the gas or the brakes again.
An unusual feature on Chrysler stereos, though used for many years by other automakers, is surround sound — set up with just two options, “on” and “off.” Other automakers provide for optimization with a single driver or just front passengers, etc.
The Dodge Durango includes three auxiliary jacks for the stereo: standard audio, USB, and SecureDigital (SD). There was also a CD/DVD/BluRay drive taking up most of the space in the center console. All inputs are in the center stack.
The SecureDigital (SD) system reliably takes cards up to 32GB; those with larger music libraries can use more cards, both SD and USB drives, or just use a USB card. Indexing and slow-down bugs we found in the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee have been fixed.
In the past, one shut off the stereo by pushing a button in the volume knob. Now, you are not shutting off the stereo, just muting it; so when you turn your car back on, the stereo blasts back out again.
Mac users using SD or USB cards need to use Terminal commands or a utility such as MacPilot to delete hidden files and folders before using cards in the Jeep, or have files that look like songs, but will take a moment to skip over. Chrysler could program UConnect to ignore these files, and Apple could add a system preference not to write them to FAT32 media, but they don’t.
The stereo organizes your music by artist or title (using Gracenote, backed up by your folders and titles), and lets you shuffle or browse; if you browse, you can either use the touch screen or the tuning knob. The system can read most AAC and MP3 files but not audible.com books, unless an iPod is hooked up.
The stereo has knobs for volume and tune/scroll, and steering wheel buttons for volume, tune, and mode. There is no easy way to change the bass/treble and balance without the touch screen (we don’t know why there’s still no “press to get audio controls” feature on the Tune/Select knob. You can use that knob and button to browse and select radio stations or stored songs, which is often far easier than using the touch screen; it should be “mode changed” to handle equalization, too, as it was 20 years ago in other manufacturers’ stereos.)
The cruise control is on the steering wheel, along with trip computer controls, audio controls, and such.
The navigation system can provide turn by turn directions in the gauge cluster, as well as on the big screen. The map could be set to show up in the center of the music screen, as well as taking up the full screen by itself.
The UConnect screen also allows drivers to set numerous preferences, tuning features including the blind spot and cross path detection, automatic locking and lights, and such. There are more preferences now than ever before.
The navigation system has been reworked; well, it works about the same way, actually, but the graphics have been redone. It looks “cooler,” now, but uses tiny fonts and low contrast, so it’s much harder to read than it was with the older version. One nice feature is the ability to tell the driver when they are going over the speed limit by a particular number of miles per hour, which you can type in; if you know the local police are okay with 15 over the limit, for example, you can program a limit for going over 14. One still cannot choose voices (e.g. male vs female, British vs American).
There is also a UConnect Via Mobile feature, with several programs one can shop for online, using your phone’s cell connection; and, separately, a moderately slow cell-to-wifi hotspot feature.
The base price of the Dodge Durango (SXT) is around $30,495; the Citadel starts at $41,990, but all wheel drive kicks it up to $44,590 (all prices include $995 in destination charges for the continental United States).
Our test car was a Citadel with a black and tan interior and the V6. Standard features included the paddle shifters, keyless entry, remote start, rain-sensitive wipers, heated front seats and steering wheel, ventilated leather front seats, eight-way power front seats with four-way lumbar adjustment, triple-zone climate control, power tilt/telescope steering column, 8.4-inch navigation screen, one year of UConnect Access and satellite radio, an AC outlet, five years of satellite “TravelLink” including traffic, weather, etc., voice controls, nine amplified speakers, a subwoofer, a power sunroof, fog lamps, a power liftgate, capless fuel fill, dual rear exhausts, and 20x8 aluminum wheels.
Safety features included HID headlights (low beam only), LED daytime running lights and tail-lights, and side-curtain airbags for all rows; front seat-mounted side airbags, and a driver knee airbag, along with a backup camera and backup assistance.
Our test car had numerous options, despite being a high-end Citadel model. These started with the technology group ($1,995), with brake assistance, forward collison warning that can also apply the brakes if needed, blind spot and cross-path detection (quite helpful, especially when backing out — it uses sensors in the rear bumper to see oncoming traffic you may not be able to see), and adaptive cruise control which can stop the car.
The rear DVD entertainment center cost $1,995. Second-row fold-and-tumble captain’s chairs aded $995; normally, the second row is a bench seat (with a 30/20 split). Finally, $300 bought a second-row console with charging ports and illuminated cup-holders.
The Dodge Durango is put together in Detroit proper, using a Mexican engine and an transmission designed in Germany and modified and built in the US; overall, 67% of the parts were made in the US and Canada, 16% in Mexico. 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, all the same as in 2011-13.
If you’re wondering, “why a 4.25 rating instead of 4.75?,” 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.
The Durango won comparison tests against the revised Explorer even before the redesign; it’s a good package. Cornering and ride are good, the interior feel is top notch, and the value proposition is strong. 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. Gas mileage even beats the lighter, less capable Explorer, base engine to base engine.
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