The Chevrolet TrailBlazer and its many sibs are extinct. The Ford Explorer nameplate survives, but it’s now attached to a car-based crossover. Only one family of domestic midsize conventional SUVs remains—and, quite ironically, it’s based on a Mercedes platform. We’ve examined the five-seat Jeep Grand Cherokee before. For those more focused on people hauling than rock crawling Chrysler more recently introduced the seven-seat Dodge Durango. Is the all-new 2011 Durango only for people who need the dependable towing capacity of a conventional SUV? Or can it compete with the transverse-engined competition on their own terms?
As in its first two generations, the 2011 Dodge Durango combines the width of a midsize SUV with the length of a full-size SUV. The third-generation’s clean, well-proportioned exterior is a huge improvement over the perpetually pregnant previous one. If there is any fault with the new SUV’s handsome styling it’s that little aside from a crosshair grille distinguishes it as a Dodge. Also, it could easily be from a decade ago. But there’s also much to be said for timeless designs. The new Durango might not be au courant, but it also won’t look dated tomorrow.
The 2011 Durango’s interior is similarly almost too tasteful for its own good. The design could hardly be simpler, and some areas like the center console appear plain. With no racy curves and no fancy graphics, there’s nothing in here to surprise and delight—unless you’re surprised and delighted to find first-rate materials in a Dodge. Chrysler has upgraded nearly all of its interiors for the 2011 model year, and those in the Durango and the related Jeep Grand Cherokee are the best of the bunch. Not only does the top-of-the-line Citadel’s tan leather with black stitching feel as good as it looks (black leather is also available), but just about everything feels solid enough to go the distance. In terms of interior materials and workmanship, the more highly styled Ford Explorer is a step or two behind and GM’s large crossovers are hopelessly outclassed.
The Durango’s touchscreen controls don’t look as slick as those in the Explorer’s MyFord Touch system, but they’re easier to operate. One exception: the Garmin-powered navigation screens don’t only appear crudely rendered, but they don’t display many street names, so it’s often hard to tell where you are at a glance. The main instruments are similar to those in other 2011 Dodges. Their red perimeters, a Dodge brand cue, don’t fit the upscale, un-Dodge character of the rest of the interior.
Getting into the Durango highlights its first serious deficiency: the floor is considerably higher than in a car-based crossover, so it’s not as easy to step up onto. Once you’re up in the seat, though, the driving position is very good. The instrument panel and the pillars flanking the windshield are far less massive than those in the Ford. The Dodge’s windshield is comfortably raked and is neither too close nor too distant. Then there’s the width of the interior. With 58.5 inches of shoulder room up front, the Durango is about three inches narrower inside than the Explorer and GM’s large crossovers. There’s less headroom in the Dodge as well. So people seeking the roomiest possible vehicle won’t find it in the Durango. But, for others, the Durango’s cozier interior together with its driving position make it easy to drive for a vehicle that’s nearly 200 inches long and nearly 5,400 pounds.
The front seats are firm, perhaps too firm for some people. My main problem with them: I had to struggle to position the four-way-adjustable lumbar support so that it didn’t prod me uncomfortably. It’s a great feature very badly executed. On the other hand, the headrests have some fore-aft adjustment, a rarity these days.
The second row is comfortably high off the floor. The third isn’t, but this is typical, and the new Durango’s way back is considerably roomier than in the past and competitive with the car-based competition. And, if the kids back there get out of line, there’s a button on the dash to whack them on the back of the head with the headrest. This also serves to lower the headrests to improve rearward visibility, which is limited regardless. The rearview monitor proves very helpful.
Partly because so much space has been allocated to the third-row seat, there’s less cargo space behind it than in the Explorer or larger GM crossovers. Good enough for sizable grocery runs, but on family trips all of the luggage isn’t likely to fit without folding a seat or putting some up on the roof. Fold both rows—very easily done, as unlike in the Explorer the headrests flop forward automatically—and there’s still much less cargo volume than in the GM crossovers (84.5 vs. 116.9 cubic feet), but a few cubes more than in the Explorer. The Dodge does have an ace up its sleeve: unlike in these competitors, its front passenger seat also folds flat, to form a very long load floor (except in the Citadel, where the front passenger seat power reclines).
The new Durango is available with two engines, a DOHC 290-horsepower 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V6 and a cam-in-block 360-horsepower 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8. I’ve sampled the former in the related Jeep Grand Cherokee, and found it sluggish up to 35 mph or so. A new transmission with more than five-speeds of the Mercedes-supplied unit would help, but one isn’t available yet. Until one is, the V8 is the obvious choice for anyone who cares about low-speed performance. Because of the Hemi-powered Durango’s curb weight and the tall initial gearing of its Chrysler-engineered five-speed automatic (where the ratios are based on what was doable rather than what was desirable), even the V8 feels a little soft up to 4,500 rpm. Bottom line: with the 2011 Durango you need the V8 to match the low-speed performance of the V6s in competitors. 360 horsepower isn’t what it used to be.
In which case you won’t be matching their fuel economy. While the Durango V6 AWD earns competitive EPA ratings of 16/22, the Hemi AWD manages only 13/20 despite the ability to run on four cylinders while cruising. Even the old-school Chevrolet Tahoe achieves 15/21. In the real world the trip computer reported 13.5 to 16.5 in suburban driving but only about 18 on the highway.
In the V8’s defense, you can tow 7,200 pounds with it (7,400 with RWD), which is over a ton more than with car-based competitors. And the official specs might understate the difference. The longitudinal transmission in the Durango was designed with a high towing capacity in mind, and has been used in Dodge trucks for years. The transverse automatic in the Explorer and GM crossovers is inherently more fragile, and was designed primarily for use in cars. So if you need to tow a few tons the Dodge has a clear advantage.
If only the Durango’s brakes felt as strong as its powertrain. While they might be up to the task when pressed (with no mountains nearby and nothing to tow, I didn’t work them hard), they require an unusual amount of effort. Press down with a typical amount of force and it seems like the Durango doesn’t want to stop.
Partly because you sit so high, the Durango feels less agile than the Explorer and large GM crossovers. A VW Touareg feels even more car-like, aided by more compact dimensions and firmer suspension tuning. But the Durango’s handling is stable, balanced, and thoroughly predictable, with better body control than you’ll find in large conventional SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition. It also feels less massive and bulky than the platform donor Mercedes GL-Class, or the Infiniti QX56, for that matter. The Dodge’s all-wheel-drive system effectively limits the potential for fun. With it the attitude of the chassis is always dull but safe moderate understeer. I drove a rear-wheel-drive Durango earlier, when there was snow on the roads, and found it much more entertaining, with progressive, easily controllable oversteer when powering out of turns. I didn’t feel the need for all-wheel-drive, though the great majority of snow belt residents will no doubt insist upon it. The stability control system works very well, smoothly intervening only as much as is necessary.
While some bobbling is unavoidable with such a tall vehicle, the Durango generally rides very smoothly and quietly. Above all, it feels solid and precisely controlled the way premium European vehicles tend to. In comparison the large GM SUVs and, to an even greater extent, the large Ford SUVs feel unrefined and dated. Even the car-based crossover’s from these manufacturers can’t quite match the Dodge in this regard. Between its ride and its interior the Durango oozes quality.
The 2011 Durango has the look and feel of a premium car, but not necessarily a premium price. The tested vehicle’s $48,530 sticker might seem steep, but this is the top-of-the-line Citadel with every available option except the towing package. (A Durango Crew with V6, AWD, and leather lists for $37,565.) A similarly loaded 2011 Ford Explorer lists for $400 more. Adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool give’s the Ford a $1,775 advantage, but removing the $1,895 Hemi from the equation would more than cancel this out. Compared to the GMC Acadia, the Dodge with the Hemi is about $500 less before adjusting for feature differences and about $2,250 less afterwards. Remove the Hemi and the Dodge is significantly less expensive than the GMC. And compared to the Mercedes-Benz GL450 that provided its platform? Over $32,000 less before adjusting for feature differences, and nearly $29,000 less afterwards. From this perspective the Dodge could be a bargain.
Ultimately, the 2011 Dodge Dodge competes strongly with the Ford Explorer and large GM crossovers on their own terms. It does have a higher step-in and tighter interior, but handles nearly as well, rides better, and looks and feels considerably more expensive—without actually being more expensive. For heavy towing, GM and Ford offer only large conventional SUVs, and these feel unrefined and dated in comparison. The Durango’s weakest area: its transmissions. Fuel economy lags with the V8, while the V6 needs a transmission with a larger number of better ratios to provide competitive low-speed performance. Granted, most people drive in a relaxed fashion and so will find nothing wrong with the current powertrain. For the others, a new transmission is on the way.
Dodge provided the Durango Citadel, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
The Durango Crew was provided by Michael Williams at Southfield Dodge in Southfield, MI (248) 354-2950.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.