I drink Espolon tequila. It's not a matter of taste, smoothness or snobbery. Veteran drinkers– like car buyers– know it's always better to buy top shelf hooch to minimize the inevitable after-effects. Get drunk on the cheap and you pay the price (the old "I have to get better so I can die" routine). By the same token, buy a Dodge Durango and it will burn all the way down to the pit of your automotive soul, leaving you with a hangover that will last years. Where's the fun in that?
The Dodge Boys freshened the Durango for the 2008 model year. The SUV displays Chrysler's new "corporate look," shared with the Journey and Caravan. The snout loses the pronounced grills that towered over the Durango's headlights. Instead, the designers injected a shot of botox into the SUVs eyebrows, giving the Durango a slightly surprised look from the front. Meanwhile, the bumper got a shot of collagen, adding droopy-lipped, Angelina Jolie-wannabe flair.
The rest of the Durango's sheetmetal is androgynous, blending in perfectly with the growing "no there there" sub-developments strewn across the U.S. The only interesting bit comes at the rear, where the Durango's taillights look like a quad-pair of B-1 Bomber afterburners. It's a cool touch on an otherwise completely forgettable exterior.
Grab the oversized chrome door handles, feel them jiggle a bit and yank. The Durango's door pops open like an old can of Pringles, complete with stale sour cream and onion smell. Hard shiny plastic assaults your vision in every direction. The center stack is covered in a shiny "wood" that looks more ersatz than Contact brand shelf paper. The salesman said Chrysler had to use craptastic plastic to keep the costs down, so Chrysler could continue to build the Durango in the U.S. Let me say this about that: they're closing the plant in 2009.
The Durango's chairs are strangely narrow for its target market. The Limited's window sticker claims they're covered in "real leather." Who knew? Thank Lord Xenu for the designers putting micro-fiber suede inserts into the seats to keep the erstwhile cow hide from consuming everything like kudzu.
On the positive side, I discovered several clever and useful details. Flip the cheap second row of seats forward to reveal the cheap-but-useful-for-two-adults third row. The climate control proved extremely powerful, despite the fact that the salesman needed five minutes to figure it out.
The Durango Limited comes with a 335hp, 5.7-liter HEMI engine. Mashing the gas brings to mind the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Thanks to a rubbery suspension, the 4900lbs. truck bucks like an enraged bovine. And then there's the screaming, as the panicked Durango driver saws at an anesthetized helm trying to avoid solid objects.
Still, once you acclimatize yourself to the feather-light helm, interstate merging and two-lane blacktop overtaking are a breeze. The five-speed automatic always seems to find the right ratio, and lets the HEMI power away, with only a hint of road noise and cooling fan roar penetrating the stout door seals.
It would be nice to dismiss the Durango's horrific ride quality as a byproduct of the SUVs' massive towing ability (8500lbs). But I can't. The Durango's heavy-duty shocks and dampers recall the 1970's era Wagoneer; the more recent Chrysler product creaks, groans, and shimmies over nearly everything save smooth Chrysler Proving Ground roads.
Abrupt maneuvers upset the chassis more than Simon Cowell on American Idol. Piloting a Durango in anything other than a straight line, you're always aware of that the vehicle's mass has a mind of its own. That's provided there isn't any aerodynamic disturbance; during crosswinds, the Durango's nose wanders across lanes without much warning.
Sensibly enough (considering America's litigious nature), Dodge built the Durango with full-on safety equipment. All Durangos possess more airbags than a stuntman convention, Electronic Stability Protection (ESP), anti-lock brakes and dual-note electric horns (to remind small cars to get out of the way). The dealer told me ESP senses when the Durango is rolling, and then locks-up a wheel to slam the truck back on the pavement. Film at 11.
Driving the Dodge Durango is enough to drive an American car/truck lover to drink. To see such a mediocre and pitiful product coming from a company that's built some of the most quintessentially American cars breaks my heart and tears at my soul. With a fresher exterior re-freshening, a better interior, some chassis development and a smidgen of steering feel, the Durango could have become a great truck– instead of a dodgy, uninspired, characterless hulk.
Clearly, the beancounters at Chrysler don't have the time, inclination or cash to refine the Durango into a top shelf product. And so it remains the six buck bottle of Cuervo of SUVs.