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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Dodge Durango

Dodge's Durango is a mid- to large-sized sport-utility vehicle, offering seating for up to seven passengers. No longer the truck-based vehicle it once was, the Durango is now loosely related to the Mercedes-Benz GL Class, improving its passenger comfort and ride quality. Safety, technology, and overall refinement have also improved in the current third-generation Durango--and it looks fantastic.

Over the years, the Durango's competition has included the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, and Nissan Pathfinder, as well as the defunct Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. Currently, it's most closely matched with the GMC Acadia, the Explorer, the Pathfinder, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Durango was originally introduced in 1998. While the 1998 to 2003 Durango models attempted to cast the widest net to the mass market, it seemed, these first-generation models were relatively simple, truck-based SUVs with underpinnings borrowed from the Dakota pickups, and they didn’t make much effort to hid their truck roots. Models with V-8s under the hood—either the 5.2-liter or 5.9-liter—were more popular than the wheezy, slow-revving base engine, a 3.9-liter V-6. A 4.7-liter V-8 later joined the lineup and offered somewhat better gas mileage.

Overall, these first-generation versions of the Durango could be quite luxuriously equipped—and their ride wasn’t bad for a model with truck underpinnings—but these models offered somewhat clumsy handling and roadholding. In an early drive of this Durango we noted that Dodge had promoted the Durango as “Not too big, not too little, but just right,” and we pronounced that “despite the same story line, the 1998 Durango is no fairy tale.”

In 2004, Dodge delivered what the market might have been hungrier for had it come out in 1998: a true full-size SUV. At a time when Americans were just starting to fizzle out on the most monstrous of SUVs, this Durango’s arrival was unfortunate. The 2004 Durango, as the new Dakota that came out around that time, had much more in common with the larger Ram and rode on a new coil-spring rear suspension with Watt linkage—which greatly improved this vehicles handling over rough surfaces, even though it was larger and heavier than its predecessor. Initially the Durango was offered with a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6; a 230-hp, 4.7-liter V-8, or a 330-hp, 5.7-liter ‘Hemi’ V-8. V-6 models got four-speed automatic transmission, while V-8 models got a five-speed, and the Durango now offered rear-wheel drive; four-wheel drive with a low range; or an all-wheel-drive system.

For 2007, the Durango got a slight refresh, then for 2008, both V-8 engines in the Durango got more power—to 303 hp for the 4.7-liter and 376 hp for the 5.7-liter. And that was much-welcomed; for all of these second-generation model years, we found the 5,000-plus-pound Durango to feel heavy and a bit sluggish—even with its V-8 engines. But tow ratings we impressive (up to 8,500 pounds), and toward the end of its run (around 2008) Dodge introduced more tech and entertainment features—such as the MyGig infotainment system, which was pretty advanced for its time. EPA ratings for some of these models landed in the low teens, and we saw single-digit mpg figures in a couple of drives of the earlier Hemi versions. A few 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid models are out there—reviews noted reasonably improved performance and much-improved fuel economy—but the model was costly and a hard sell.

After a one-year hiatus, the current-generation version of the Durango was introduced for 2011, and even though it’s not all that much smaller than the version it replaces, it’s a world apart. With a newfound focus toward on-the-road performance—as well as fantastic refinement and a warm, top-notch interior including conveniences like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, push-button start, a heated steering wheel, and Sirius Backseat TV—the 2011 Durango took after German luxury SUVs without completely turning its back on ruggedness and towing. Powertrains included a V-6 that shoppers no longer need shy away from—a 290-hp version of Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6—along with a snarly 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.

Sharing its underpinnings with the Jeep Grand Cherokee and owing some of its engineering influence to former Chrysler owner Daimler (you can see it in some of the details, and interior packaging), the latest Durango shares its mechanicals with the Jeep Grand Cherokee but is longer so as to allow a third row of seating. The current Durango, as you'll see in our video review, has a much smoother, more modern look and competes head-on with models like the Chevrolet Traverse and new Ford Explorer, as well as teasing a lower price than the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class.

The Durango received very few changes for 2013, although Dodge made leather seating standard and made second-row captain's chairs available on all models; also a new Rallye Appearance Package essentially brought the R/T appearance for a more affordable price. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-path detection upper the Durango's status on safety-minded shopping lists as well. Over the past couple of years, Dodge and Mopar have teased the Durango's potential, in models like the Durango Tow Hook Concept from the 2011 SEMA Show. And late in 2012, the automaker made a Special Services edition of the Durango available to first responders and agencies. 

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