After driving the 2011 Dodge Durango for just a couple of blocks, I found myself experiencing a severe case of déjà vu.
It didn’t remind me of the last Durango that I was in – the truck-based SUV that went out of production in 2009, a victim of Chrysler’s dip into bankruptcy. Rather, it brought me back to my most recent stint behind the wheel of a $60,000 Mercedes-Benz GL.
Strange? Not really. Like the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango is a legacy of the old DaimlerChrysler days and shares a fair amount of that which is not seen with MB’s big people carriers. Granted, with a starting price of just $30,045, the Detroit-made Durango isn’t quite as sophisticated as its old kissin’ cousin from Alabama (yep, that’s where Mercedes builds 'em), but it still feels as solid as a bank vault filled with reinforced concrete.
A crossover at heart, the Durango does its best to impersonate a truck with a face as blunt as a bulldozer and a long, strong body with just a bit of sweetness in its curves as to not scare off potential buyers of the dainty sort. Unlike its direct competitors -- the Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Explorer – the Durango is rear-wheel-drive and the difference is tangible. The Dodge cruises around with a swagger befitting a high school quarterback. This also likely hurts fuel economy a bit – which is 23 mph highway, compared to 24 mph for the Traverse and 25 mpg for the Explorer – but what’s $120 or so annually at the pump between friends? (More gears in the five-speed automatic might help here, too.)
That’s for six-cylinder models, which feature a 290 horsepower, 3.6-liter version of Chrysler’s new Pentastar family of engines. Slightly overmatched by this heavyweight, the V6 is still capable of towing 6,200 pounds and does so with a throaty burble that further enhances the Durango’s bad-boy image.
Need more? The rear-wheel-drive chassis means that the Durango’s engine bay can be stuffed full of tasty HEMI V8. In this case it’s a 360 hp 5.7-liter that can tow up to 7, 400 pounds -- compared to the Explorer at 5,000 lbs and the Traverse at 5,200 lbs, neither of which offer an 8-cylinder engine option. For most buyers, this won’t matter much, as people don’t typically use this type of vehicle for heavy hauling. But for those who do, it’s a big deal. A load-leveling rear suspension is available if you’re really serious about it.
Six different trim levels of Durango currently exist and include a variety of five- and seven-passenger models, all of which can be had with all-wheel drive. I spent a week in a nicely equipped V6 all-wheel drive CrewLux with three rows of seats. Standard equipment includes rear-zone climate controls, a 506-watt stereo with Sirius satellite radio, keyless entry and a power liftgate. Ticks on the options lists added adaptive cruise control, a blind spot warning system, rear seat heaters and Dodge’s familiar in-dash Garmin navigation system that’s starting to look a little dated and is nearly impossible to see when the sun is out, even in indirect light. It would seem that there is a vampire on the engineering staff who likes to play tricks on us mortals. (Ethan Hawke’s bloodlusting character in the movie “Daybreakers” did drive a Chrysler 300, you know.)
After years of serious neglect, all of the Chrysler brands have been intent on improving the quality of their car’s interiors and the Durango is no exception. While there’s nothing particularly special about it, all of the materials used are top notch, the seats are outstanding and it’s as quiet as a bank vault full of reinforced concrete should be.
Tip: Black suits the dashboard better than brown.
It’s very roomy up front, but the second row is somehow unimpressive for such a large vehicle, even if it’s no smaller than most others. Sliding seats would help. They do recline, of course, and fold flat along with the third to expand cargo room, but I couldn’t do it with the driver’s seat positioned to fit my 6-foot-1-inch frame. A small shuffle forward was necessary to get them to clear the back of it.
Aside from a flashlight tucked into the cargo area, the Durango is a little short on doodads and gizmos, too, at least by the standards of Dodge minivans and Ram pickup trucks. No worries, that just means that there are fewer things to distract you from the pleasure of driving it.
The steering is weighty, like a firm handshake. Perhaps too much so for parking lot duty, but perfect on the road, enhancing that luxury feel I referenced earlier. The all-wheel-drive system makes no claims to off-road fame. It’s there for inclement weather and the occasional gravel road -- Moab, Utah, is not on its agenda. But combined with a near 50/50 weight distribution and an independent rear suspension, it imbues the Durango with the kind of balanced, sure-footed handling that the old one could only dream of as it wallowed its way from one jughandle to another.
I spent a fair amount of time in the Durango. Much of it hunkered down for the long haul, one hand on top of the wheel the brim of my imaginary cowboy hat pulled down low over my eyes. If this is the new paradigm for the big American family car, then I need to find myself a few more mouths to feed.
2011 Dodge Durango CrewLux
Base Price: $35,530
As Tested: $41,320
Type: 7-passenger, all-wheel-drive crossover
Engine: 3.6L V6
Power: 290 hp, 260 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 16 city/22 hwy