The third generation Dodge Durango bears little resemblance to its predecessors. Thanks to some Mercedes genes, it is a very capable highway hauler that is much more adroit in the turns than previous efforts and most competitors.
Big and thirsty, it is also capable of carrying seven adults and towing up to almost 3300 kg (7,200 lb).
The Durango, all-new from road to roof in 2011, shares its platform with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee. That same platform also underpins the current Mercedes-Benz ML, as it was developed during the period when the German company owned Chrysler.
There are other obvious benefits from the DaimlerChrysler period. The new Durango is not only a more competent and rewarding vehicle in terms of driving dynamics, it is a much more refined vehicle, as if it had been sent to finishing school.
It's big, and thirsty
The Durango is a big vehicle... make that a very big vehicle. The common platform has been lengthened to accommodate a third row of seats and it tips the scales at more than 2500 kg (5,500 lb) with nobody aboard.
That mass requires appreciable power to motivate and the current Durango has it. The standard engine is Chrysler’s new 290-horsepower 3.6-litre Pentastar V-6 with the potent 5.7 Hemi as the alternative offering.
My test vehicle had the mighty Hemi but five hours at the wheel of a V-6-engined rental the day after I returned it, provided an ideal opportunity for comparison.
The V-6 proved adequate with four adults and luggage aboard, but had little left in reserve for passing or climbing steep grades, let alone towing.
The Hemi on the other hand seemingly laughs at any effort to burden it with additional weight. The big eight has plenty of low-end torque for getting off the line whether loaded with people and their stuff or towing large trailers.
There is a downside. The big brute is thirsty... mighty thirsty. I managed a rather nasty 14.1 litres/100 km. over more than 700 kilometres of driving, the majority of it on the highway.
One refill of regular fuel hit $120! That's the price you pay for all that capability.
Chrysler boasts the Durango has a range of more than 800-km on a tank of fuel. But that comes with the V-6 and a big tank, not the Hemi.
When fitted with the Hemi, the Durango gets a new automatic transmission for 2012, with six speeds instead the five-speed used previously.
The added gear allows a wider ratio spread and the lower first gear results in an impressive launch off the line. A taller high gear brings more relaxed highway engine speed in the hopes of better economy.
The Hemi also boasts cylinder deactivation, which allows it to run on six or four cylinders under very light throttle loads. These systems work well in instrumented laboratory tests.
Unfortunately, they don't work that well under normal conditions unless the road is extremely flat, traffic is constant and your pressure on the right-hand pedal is restrained.
On the other side of the ledger is the ability to tow and carry all those folks. If you do both with regularity the fuel costs won’t seem so exorbitant.
As mentioned previously, the new Durango is a significant improvement over the old in terms of civility on the road. The independent rear suspension and careful selection of things like spring rate and bushings allow plenty of compliance over rough surfaces without allowing excessive lean in the corners.
Four trim levels
The Durango comes in SXT, Crew, sporty R/T and luxurious Citadel trim evels.
Two of these features are worthy of note: The automatic dimming headlights worked especially well preventing the powerful HID lights from blinding vehicles coming in the other direction. The only foible was a tendency to mistake red lights on cell and other towers for brake lights, causing the headlights to dim.
The adaptive cruise control was very adept at matching speed with the vehicle ahead, so much so that you can find yourself going considerably slower than dialed into the cruise control because the vehicle you are following is at a different speed.
Room for six... or seven
The Durango offers plenty of room for six adults, seven if the three in the middle row don't mind becoming familiar.
The third-row seat offers headroom for adults and legroom as well, if second-row occupants co-operate and pull their adjustable seats forward slightly. Access to that third row is reasonably easy thanks to a folding and sliding second row.
There 487 litres of storage space behind the third row, 1351 with it folded, and a whopping 2393 with both second- and third-row seats folded down. You can carry a 3-metret-long object with the front passenger seat-back folded and there is a further 130 litres of storage space beneath the cargo floor.
The new Durango is a worthy competitor to the best big seven-passenger SUVs on the market, not something that could be said of its predecessor.
Standard equipment on the top-of-the-line Citadel includes auto-dimming HID headlights, heated, power-folding auto-dimming mirrors, tri-zone automatic temperature control, power tailgate, power sunroof, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, radio-seat-mirror-wheel memory system, power perforated heated and cooled leather seats, rear-view camera and adaptive cruise control.