By on December 16, 2010

I knew Mercedes GL.
Mercedes GL was almost a friend of mine.
And you, Dodge Durango, are no Mercedes GL.
Thank God.

It’s true. I signed a lease on a new GL320 Bluetec a year and a half ago, backing out when the dealer “discovered” that they’d “mis-written” the options on the truck and that the payment would be $150 a month higher as a result. I’ve driven the GL a fair amount. It’s a solid-feeling but rather charmless vehicle that barely makes a case for itself as a $499-a-month race-car tow rig.

Several of my compatriots in the press have noticed that — OMG! — the new Durango shares some basic platform engineering with the GL, and that — whoa! — it’s about the same size. It must be the GL to the Grand Cherokee’s ML! One intrepid fellow even claimed that his finely-calibrated posterior even detected extremely similar suspension motions during a test drive of the Durango R/T.

Hogwash. I happened to drive the same example R/T, which was a last-minute addition to the model lineup driven, one suspects, by Ralph Gilles’ desire to have a bitchin’ tow rig of his own. It may share a common genetic background with the Mercedes GL, but I remind the reader that Jessica and Ashlee Simpson are also related. In this case, the HEMI-powered Durango is the spotlight-stealing, voluptuous blonde while the clunky, cheap-feeling, deliberately ponderous GL is lip-syncing on Saturday Night Live while making an odd kicking motion.

In a resurgent seven-passenger SUV marketplace, the Durango poses an interesting question, namely: Can a longitudinal-engined truck compete effectively against transverse-engined cars? The Ford Flex is fundamentally a Taurus wagon, while the Traverse is a car design buffed and bloated up to two-and-a-half-ton size. Against those competitors, the previous Durango fell short in four major areas: third-row space, ride quality, fuel economy, and interior quality.

A switch to independent rear suspension addresses the first two problems, giving the Durango usable rear room and ride quality that, if not quite up to Flex standards, is competitive with the GM Lambdas. Fuel economy is no longer a problem: the new Pentastar V-6 outpowers GM and Ford while delivering 16/23 for RWD trucks and 16/22 for AWD. (The Flex and Traverse both score 17/24 for FWD, with the Traverse AWD at 16/23 and the Flex AWD at 16/22.) The five-speed transmission is short a gear to the competition but one might argue that the payoff in long-term durability is worth it.

The interior is best summed-up in a single detail: the USB port for attaching iPods and the like to the very solid stereo system is located in the armrest, and it is backlit by fiber optics so it can be easily found at night. The same obsessive attention to quality and customer satisfaction is evident throughout the Durango. The metal trim is real; the plastic trim is superb; the leather is clearly the product of bovine suffering instead of polyvinyl processing. With this generation of interior design, Chrysler has leapt from the remedial class to the National Honor Society. No excuses are necessary.

If only the same could be said for the uConnect system, which continues to resemble a Chinese knockoff of SYNC. There are four different “media centers” available, but none of them are as good as what the Flex had last year, and they are miles behind the myFordTouch system that is arriving with the new Explorer. On the positive side, the new instrument-panel display is both informative and easy to look at.

Dodge hopes that the Pentastar V-6 will be the volume engine in this vehicle; in order for the Durango to have long-term success in the market, it can’t exist in customer perception as a big, heavy, HEMI-powered monster. That didn’t stop your humble reviewer from stomping my feet and holding my breath until I was given the sole “R/T HEMI RWD” for my 106-mile test drive. With tickets in hand for a blues show that evening and the prospect of some fascinating companionship, I was thoroughly motivated to hustle back to the hotel.

I’ve sung the on-road praises of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee before. The Durango is longer and heavier, but in R/T form it’s also far more road-biased. The result is a very quick truck indeed. I used to drive a six-speed Cayenne GTS on a semi-daily basis, and although the Durango doesn’t have quite that level of pace, it’s just as willing to hustle down a curving road. In the modern context, curb weights in the 4700-pound range no longer seem outrageous, and the HEMI gives the R/T a better power-to-weight ratio than an ’86 Corvette.

If the Grand Cherokee relies on off-road prowess to stand out from the SUV crowd, the Durango depends on towing. A 7400-pound capacity for RWD V-8 models is significantly ahead of the competition, but even the AWD V-6 can pull five thousand pounds, and it’s likely to do it better than any transverse-engined crossover. Dodge doesn’t have a direct competitor to the Tahoe, but most buyers will find that the Durango can tow just as well while offering a more pleasant, manageable daily drive.

Trim levels range from the under-$30,000 “Express” through the most-people-will-pick “Crew” and top out with R/T and “Citadel”. For “Citadel”, read “Denali with a side of Aspen”. If you’re planning on buying a Pilot, Highlander, or Traverse, the Durango offers additional capability at virtually no penalty in efficiency or space. Most Durango buyers would actually be better-served with a minivan or mid-sized sedan, but until the day that every comrade in the union is issued a Harvest Beige Toyota Prius, some folks are going to exercise their freedom to choose an SUV.

Once again, Chrysler has delivered a vehicle that competes on both tangible and intangible qualities. As long as the consumer frogs continue to boil slowly in the gasoline-price pan, Durangos should fly off the lots. It’s no Mercedes GL, and that’s a good thing, since it costs less, looks better, and is very probably better-built. Nor is it a “crossover”, CUV, or cute-ute. It’s simply a real SUV, priced realistically, that happens to be real(ly) good.

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51 Comments on “Review: 2011 Dodge Durango R/T...”


  • avatar

    Ha ! A Toyota dealer in NYC tried to pull that crap on my mom.  She had just bought an MR2 (mom’s baby ferrari) as her first post divorce car.  She gets her payment book, which is oddly $50 per month higher than the agreed prices and deal. She calls, and is told “don’t worry, make a payment and we’ll work it out”. (Attornment is the legal doctrine that you ratify a contract by your action. Making a payment would mean she agreed to the higher prices)

    Never have I enjoyed a phone call, as I was a newly admitted attorney, and advised them that we had a contract, and if there is any issue, that they could go to Court and start an action to reform the contract, and that we were NOT going to “just make a payment and work it out”.  I even gave them my NYC office address for service of process.  I advised that I’d enjoy fighting this case as far as need be, and at the end, suggested they go back down the stack and find a softer target. I called Toyota Finance, who did not want to get involved in this scam. We got a “corrected” payment book by overnight mail.

    Never heard from the dealer again. There was of course no error in the transaction paperwork.

    The Mercedes Dealer clearly had a waiting list of “over sticker” folks for that Blutec……

  • avatar
    william442

    You are luckier than you realize. Our 2007 ML320, non bluetec, was a maintenance disaster. Most of the problems were electrical, and the trailer wiring never worked properly.
    Two months with a new Toureg (sic) auger well so far.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Nice review, Jack, of what appears to be a quite good SUV. We’re considering updating our cars this year, and I will put this on the shopping list…drive it right after the new Grand Cherokee.

    Now, on to the blues concert.

    Who was it? How was it? Would you recommend it should the artist(s) come to our town(s).

    And for some flavor, was the female companionship indeed…fascinating?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      The artist was “Sista Monica” and she put on a good show. Her guest player was Theodis Ealey. Mr. Ealey interested me because he was playing a ’99 Godin LGX-SA. I happen to have the same guitar. He was getting a very Stratocaster-esque tone out of the split-coil humbucker in front. I wanted to ask him a question about his signal chain but he disappeared before the gig was even over.

      As fate would have it, I ended up hanging out with a male friend from high school. Having been burned by an absolutely frothing-crazy girljourno, I have decided to stick close to Vodka McBigbra at all times.

    • 0 avatar
      Nick

      ‘Having been burned by an absolutely frothing-crazy girljourno’
       
      Ah yes, I remember dating so fondly…the lies, the lies, and the…lies.

    • 0 avatar
      H Man

      “I have decided to stick close to Vodka McBigbra at all times.”
      She needs to write an article on you sometime, Jack.  ;)
      BTW, John McLaughlin plays Godins now.  They look like toys in those huge hands…

    • 0 avatar

      Small world: I’ve worked with Sista Monica, and her booking manager still works with me – an entirely different realm here, though. We used to be blessed by Monica’s pipes at our group meetings, she can really belt out the blues. Neat lady.

      Oh, and great review, Jack. Looks like something we’ll have to look at when we replace our JGC.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    The GL does absolutely nothing for me. It may feel solid, but it looks like an ML that was stretched lengthwise but looks very narrow, fragile, and lacking in visual confidence. If I had the scratch, I’d spend a little more for the timeless G-wagen, even if there’s no diesel option. It at least has some heritage and character.

    • 0 avatar
      Ken_C

      Mercedes has cut the cajonnes (sp? with apologies for my bad spanish) off of the Gelaendewagens. It has heritage only in terms of its past — it’s no longer worthy of it.
      I’ve owned a couple of them: the later one, a (1998) G300 was rated to tow 6,600 lbs with a straight six (and shortly afterward, with the then new V6 that I didn’t have), and it still was a formidable off-roader; although my earlier one (1984, grey-market) 280GE had a more anemic six but was unbeatable offroad.
      Now, although it has a 5.5 liter V8, it’s only rated for a measely 3,500 (or maybe just 3,000) lbs towing, and it’s so low-slung that any off-roading is out of the question. I think it even lost its two-speed transfer case (although not certain about that).
      The “looks” is all it has left of its once impressive heritage! There’s no character whatsoever, and only worthy of Paris Hilton driving it down Sunset Boulevard. Is that what you say you’d spend a little more for?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Good Grief! Chrysler trusted Jack with this??? What did the Durango look like, and, more importantly, how did it run when it was returned? I’m sure there’s a sordid story buried in the midst of the review somewhere that’ll come out at a later time!

    Seriously, though, a very well-written review for what appears to be a pretty nice vehicle. It looks as if I’ll have lots of vehicles to check out at the auto show in February!

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Jack, if you have everything in writing you may as well share the story at TTAC.
    There is an old Japanese saying, “Humiliation is worse than death.” Nowhere would it be more true than when a ‘prestigious’ brand has direct associations with a known thief.
     
     

  • avatar
    PaulieWalnut

    Jack,

    Have you driven the new Explorer as well? Would love to hear a comparison between those two.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    So where’s the diesel Durango?

  • avatar
    dculberson

    If it’s really improved a lot, I’m not sure they should have stuck with the Durango name.  It’s fairly synonymous with lousy reliability and build quality and horrendous depreciation.
     
    This one sounds much, much better.  But it might keep the heavy depreciation if the general consumers aren’t wise to the major changes.  Depending on the buyers to be educated about a sudden increase in quality seems risky.

    • 0 avatar
      Silvy_nonsense

      “[the Durango nameplate] is fairly synonymous with lousy reliability and build quality and horrendous depreciation.”

      You’ve just described Hyundai as it was at one point, but look where they are today, and they’re still using the same name.

      Putting time and energy into making the product good is a much more effective strategy for changing perception than any decision made by the marketing department. Yeah, they could have changed the name but don’t really need to because it seems like Chrylser has put together a product that might actually be a winner. If the Durango proves to be reliable, it will be a smash hit.
       

  • avatar
    brettc

    The Diesel Durango will be available when the Diesel Exploder and Shitburban are available (aka “Never”).

  • avatar
    pb35

    While I’ve enjoyed both the T&C and now this Durango review, I am still waiting patiently for your Charger review Jack! Looking forward to it.

    I grew up in a Mopar family, it might be time to consider a Chrysler product again.

  • avatar
    Autojunkie


    My parents (retired) have two vehicles. Mom’s minivan and Dad’s Grand Cherokee. The GC was purchased (used) as a tow vehicle for their camper. It doesn’t get used during the winter months. They primarily drive the minivan because of the three rows of seating when they go out with friends, and the (better than the GC) gas mileage. Both vehicles are 2001 models and starting to show/act their age.

    They have become smitten with the new Durango and see it as an opportunity to own just one car. The V6 gets the mileage they look for, while still being very capable of towing their travel trailer.

    I’m telling you all this becasue I think that Dodge may have just created a nice niche for itself here that no other automaker will truly be able to compete with over the next few years. Its attributes appeal to so many.

    • 0 avatar
      aspade

      A large three row vehicle with moderate towing and 22-23 highway isn’t much of a niche.  The Lambdas have done that for 4 years and 700,000 units.

    • 0 avatar
      muthaiga

      I’ve got a similar situation – owner of 99 GC ES AWD since new that does all the day-to-day and a 72 Chevy truck for car trailer hauling. Both the JGC and the Durango are in my cross hairs as a primary vehicle that can do most of what the minivan can and still tow.  If I’m a niche, then they’ve found me.

  • avatar

    After this review I’m looking forward to driving one of these myself.

    Good to hear that the handling is less ponderous than a Mercedes GL’s. But don’t the engines struggle with the curb weight at least as much as they do in the Grand Cherokee? A HEMI never felt so un-quick (“slow” would be going too far).

    Also looking forward to providing some reliability stats, to see if Chrysler has really gotten its act together. We might have an initial result for the new GC as soon as February, but May is more likely.

    Know someone with a 2011 Chrysler, Dodge, or Jeep? We could especially use their help with the car reliability survey:

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

    • 0 avatar
      aspade

      I can’t imagine that they don’t, both motors are held back by the same ridiculously tall gearing as in the Jeep and the Durango is even heavier.
       
      A 5,000 lb truck with a smallish, high revving 6 and pretensions of heavy towing really doesn’t need 1st gear to run to 55 mph.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Michael, I think you and I probably measure a vehicle’s speed differently. I don’t really care much about acceleration beneath 50 or 60 mph; it’s the 60-120 range where I want to see engine response and both the Grand Cherokee and Durango are outstanding for their class there.

      Off the line, neither will trouble a 2010 GC SRT-8 :)

    • 0 avatar

      I’m more anxious to get into a 2011 300C or SRT8.
      From what I remember of the new Jeep, the interior quality is definitely better. Unfortunately the computer systems pale in comparison to Ford’s SYNC.
      Then again, every computer system pales in comparison to Ford’s Sync. Until apple or google put a system in these cars, they’ll continue to be less than they could be.

  • avatar
    moneyandwheels

    For someone who rarely likes something Chrysler puts out, I got to say this Durango sounds damn appealing. I can’t wait to demo a used one when they come on the market (oh wait, my boss got rid of demos..)

    Oh and regarding GL320 Blutech, the same boss who abolished demos bought himself an 08 with 85,000 km on it.. power steering issues galore (calling it Karma)

  • avatar

    The only thing about the new Durango I don’t like is how similar the rear end looks to the Grand Cherokee.  Other than that, it looks like a winner.

  • avatar
    jimbob6879

    Jack Baruth, you are a poet: “product of bovine suffering instead of polyvinyl processing”

  • avatar
    Nick

    What the hell is it with Mercedes and their crooked frickin’ dealers?  I swear, every time I went to mine I ended up fighting with them about something.
    Anyway, be glad that they gave you an opening to get out of that deal.  The ML is a notorious dog and has been since it was first inflicted on the public.
    As for the Durango…yay for Chrysler.  If I still had a semblance of a life I’d consider it.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    We have a 2000 Durango SLT with the 318 with over 150k miles.  We had a problem with the A/C evaporator because someone left some moisture in the system (most likely during assembly but we bought it used with 57k so who knows) and a plugged heater core now.  When moving from CA to WI I got 13.5MPG with a loaded truck towing the Cobra which I didn’t think is too bad really.  A set of ceramic composite pads and it is a reasonable machine to hustle on the back roads compared to it’s contemporaries.  The problem is that my wife and I don’t want to go bigger (gen2 or a Tahoe) and don’t really like/can’t afford anything else on the market that can tow the car and trailer in it’s size range and seating for at least six.

    Looks like maybe a test drive is in order here.  Finally.  Now if they can come up with a decent mid-sized sedan I would be happy.  I like the Challenger but really couldn’t justify it and it would be tough to get a car seat in the back.  I like the 300 but don’t need the extra room since we have the Durango.  My wife likes the new Subarus after test driving one but the milage isn’t all that great with those.  I test drove an SRT-4 but the seats felt like I was riding in the lap of one of the Sopranos and they needed something from me and they are a bit small but I would give up size for fun.  The Mazda3 grin is a deal killer for me.

    This coming from a guy who has owned all Mopars other than the Cobra, an early properly cooled 911 and marrying into a 1998 Cavalier that we sold with 167k miles on it. Heres hoping Mopar will fix/replace/bury the Avenger.  Unless I can get the Stormtrooper edition.

  • avatar
    InstantKarma

    I agree wholeheartedly with the UConnect; I have a brand new Grand Cherokee Overland with the Hemi and love it, with the exception of the Media Center.  The interface to use the hard drive for music is pretty poor, and you can’t search for music effectively.  If you search by artist, you’re presented with all that artist’s songs in alphabetical order, not by album.  If you search by album, they are all sroted alphabetically by album title, leaving no indication who the artist is.  That being said, the iPod interface works great, and the rest of it is terrific. 

    Great to see the Durango get so much right.

  • avatar

    I’m impressed with the new interiors in these Dodges and Jeeps.  I got to play around with them at the SF auto show, and even the Wrangler had a revamped interior.  I’m looking forward to when these hit the used markets and seeing how well they hold up in reliability and maintenance costs.  That curb weight is still disgusting though

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    The interior and drivetrain sound good. Too bad the exterior now looks Asian bland, especially the nondescript rear end treatment. When I first saw one of these I had no idea it was a Dodge and thought it might be yet another SUV addition to the ever growing Toyota fleet. This alone will probably make it sell like hot cakes. People today like vanilla bland colorless vehicles.

  • avatar
    Mandalorian

    It looks nice. I am getting a new SUV soon, I am mainly interested in the Audi Q7 and Acura MDX, but I will have to take a look at this.
    I would get the Citadel V8 Hemi AWD, does anyone know what the millage is on one of those?

  • avatar

    As an extremely happy Dodge Magnum R/T driver I find this vehicle to be complete fail.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I’m a little disappointed with the 7400lbs max towing.  That’s equal to the new Grand Cherokee, only 100lbs more than the old Commander, and way under what you could get with the Ram-based Durango.

    I was hoping for slightly over 8000lbs.
     
    But maybe I’m being unrealistic here. The Borrego, LR4, and Pathfinder don’t really manage any better.

  • avatar
    mountainman

    This is the truck I’ve been waiting for.  Great looking, great interior, and with 3-row seating (the wife requires this for some reason, and the dog likes it too).  I would love to see cargo capacity numbers though…..

    Our ’03 Sedona is near it’s end of life.  The Durango will defintely be on our list for the next family truckster.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “Pentastar V-6 outpowers GM and Ford while delivering 16/23 for RWD trucks and 16/22 for AWD.”

    For people that actually use their SUV to tow larger loads(4K or better) here is the issue. Why not just go with a larger and much more capable vehicle like a Tahoe. It offers 15/21 EPA(4WD) and a V8. Incidently once you put a load behind that V6 and start working it the fuel economy will be the same or worse than the V8. If your not towing larger loads get a minivan or car. 

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    While I’m not in the market for an SUV or Crossover as my next car will be small, like Fiat, Ford, Mazda et-al kind of small, it is nice to read of major improvements in the Chryco lineup now that Daimler is gone and Fiat is helping them out.

    I grew up in a mostly Mopar family, was brought home from the hospital as a newborn baby in a ’64 Dodge 330 station wagon w/ 225 Slant 6 that my parents bought new and we had a spate of Plymouths in the 70′s, mostly Fury’s, let’s see, a ’66 Fury that my Dad ended up trading for either a ’70 or ’71 Fury III four door when a piston collapsed in the ’66 that all I recall of it was it sat in the garage w/ the broken engine for a while before the trade took place. We also had a ’72 Gold Duster and the last Mopar was the ’75 Gran Fury, all bought second hand BTW and by the time of the Gran Fury, it was the early 80′s, I learned to drive in the Gran Fury BTW.

    My parents went through a Buick, several Hondas before buying the 1995 Chrysler Concord, which my Mom sold after my Dad died due to it being a bit too big for her needs, bought a ’97 Accord and now drives a 2004 Dodge Stratus which we both like (and I’m not a sedan kind of guy).

    So it’s nice to see this company doing what it can to turn itself around and make good on itself.

    As had already been said, hope their reliability improves for the long haul.

  • avatar

    I had a ’05 Durango limited and loved it. I never had a problem with it at all but traded it in on a’09 Ram, that I just had to have. I haven’t seen one of the new Durangos in person but the pictures sure look good. Bravo Dodge it is good to see the improvement throughout the brand.
    I can’t understand the continual calls for a diesel. I drove diesels for a lot of years in big trucks and they have their problems. I know the new diesels are better but I wouldn’t want one unless I was putting on huge highway miles. I can’t see any benefit of diesel over gas as a daily driver. If you live in the Great White North as I do cold starting can be an issue. When you add up the costs you would have to make fantastic mileage to recoup just the extra purchase price. You have to remember both take fuel. With a 5 mile per gallon increase it will take a tremendous amount of miles to get even 2 or 3 thousands dollars back. What makes it worse diesel being more expensive in most markets.Diesels usually have higher servicing costs not to mention huge engine rebuild costs if you happen to blow one. All things considered a good efficient gas vehicle make way more sense as a daily commuter. IMHO


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