It’s a shame about the 2014 Dodge Durango. Every car eventually gets wound down, but the Durango will be going out in its prime. If the way a vehicle drives is a high priority for you, it’s hard not to adore the Durango’s comportment. More tragic, the Durango has been the quiet way to get Grand Cherokee goodness with some bonus wheelbase and space for exceptionally-aggressive Dodge pricing. That’s going to be over soon.
If the Durango is so good, and Chrysler even bothered to update it this year, why is it going away? The answer: Because it’s a Dodge.
But the Durango won’t be gone for long.
Soon, the vehicle we know as the Dodge Durango will go back from whence it came. It’s being re-absorbed into the Jeep line, which has aggressive volume targets and can command higher prices. Back in the mid-aughties, Jeep tried a three-row range topper. The Commander did not do well, but it’s where this generation of Durango came from. The story is brought to you by the letters W, X and K, but here’s the short version: When Jeep cleaned up the Grand Cherokee for the 2011 model year, the Dodge Durango took over as the three-row version of that WK2 architecture.
At one time, the Durango was booking nearly 200,000 sales per year for Dodge, but that’s ancient history. Those hot numbers happened back when the Durango was the latest masterstroke from Bob Lutz. Most recently, the Durango has been racking up the critical affection while actual sales seem asbestos-lined, with no heat going on. Despite the Durango’s roots, it’s a lot harder to demand premium pricing without the power of deep Jeep love. Dodge has to be a lot more aggressive about putting cash on the hood to move iron. If you want to feel smarter than the average bear, act now to get the best deal on what’s probably the best vehicle in this segment.
You’re giving up a few things for the sake of the deal, chief among them is brand cachet. That might not be important to you, but it matters for resale. While the Grand Cherokee enjoys strong resale and sniffs of approval from the other twit parents at soccer practice, the Durango’s residual value drops farther, faster. Also, the Durango isn’t as space-efficient as other three-row family crossovers, and it can feel a little more trucky than the car-based competition. Fuel economy is also a challenge, though the new 8-speed automatic takes smaller sips.
Still, the positives of the Durango outweigh the negatives. There’s huge rear seat legroom, extra cargo space, a human-sized third row and composed highway ride thanks to the significantly longer wheelbase. Inside, there’s good materials, luxury touches like laminated side glass, universally-praised UConnect infotainment, now with an 8.8” screen and deeper functionality, and surprising quiet. I drove a V6 Durango dressed up like an R/T, but lacking the Hemi. I also had some time with a full-boat Durango Citadel that topped out over $52,000, but I spent the most time with this mid-$30,000s Durango with AWD, V6, 8-speed automatic with spiffy rotary shifter and utility-focused cloth upholstery. Unlike most models facing their sunset, the Durango is to-the-minute current in its level of competitiveness. You can be sure that when this vehicle is wearing Jeep emblems it will have a thicker bottom line and thinner incentives.
It’s counter-intuitive, but the fact that Jeep is pulling a Godfather 3 on the three-row is an acknowledgement of its fundamental goodness. Coming back into the fold will give Jeep a comprehensive model range from Patriot/Compass, through to Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, and on up. In spite of the looming change, because the Durango and Grand Cherokee are built together, it’s less expensive to give the outgoing model the same mechanical changes as the Jeep. Variations on the assembly line cost money. What the spec sheets can’t tell you is how well all the facts and features come together out on the road. Despite the unitized construction, the attitude of the Durango is more SUV than mall-trawler crossover. You feel it in the ride, which carries the feeling of weighty authority as it smothers bad pavement into submission. You’re up higher in the Durango, and while it’s smooth and quiet, she’s a big girl that’s clearly got some Ram in her family. There’s more rugged resistance than carlike compliance, but the structure is solid and the machinery feels refined.
Saddled with 4,700 lbs, the Pentastar engine does a lot better than you’d expect a 290 hp, 3.6 liter V6 could manage. That’s partly due to the new 8-speed transmission, but there are times where it feels like it shoulda had a V8. Of course, you can get one of the best V8s on the market, the 360 hp 5.7 liter Hemi. The V8’s fat torque is still blunted by the big-time curb weight, but it does enable quicker getaways and significant bump in towing capability to 7400 lbs. The table stakes for the Hemi are higher, with fuel economy taking a significant hit, even with MDS cylinder deactivation.
The fuel economy numbers to pay attention to for the Durango are the city and combined EPA ratings. Family crossovers often do a lot of in-town driving, and that kind of use with a Hemi Durango Citadel had me staring at 14.5 MPG. The red Durango in the photos, a Pentastar-powered all-wheel driver with the 8-speed automatic returned a 19.5 MPG average with a heavy emphasis on secondary roads. That’s pretty good, though lots of stop and go will drive it down further. Either way, the claim of 25 MPG highway seems like fantasy.
Another issue is visibility. The mirrors are large and forward visibility is good, plus the elevated ride height doesn’t hurt. But the back window is small and far away. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the constrained view to the rear has sunk more than one potential sale during the test drive. At 8.1”, ground clearance for the Durango is higher than in other competitors like the GM Lambda triplets (7.1”), the Nissan Pathfinder (6.5) or Ford Explorer (7.6”), so it’s not as easy to get in and out of as those vehicles, and you’ll also be perfecting your clean-and-jerk to load stuff in the back of the Durango versus the lower lift-over heights of the competition.
With all these gotchas, it might sound like the Durango isn’t as good as those Crossovers that came from cars. The opposite is true. The ride is supple with disciplined control, and the whole vehicle feels solid. On smooth roads or the surface-of-the-moon byways that seem to cover 90 percent of the nation, the Durango chassis is always graceful. The steering, an electro-hydraulic rack and pinion, is precise and confident with good weighting but not a whole lot of feel.
The Durango is well screwed together, and it feels as good as the Grand Cherokee from behind the wheel. The Durangos which came before are really the issue here. The original sold really well, a bit of parts-bin genius, but it looked tougher than it proved to be. The second-generation Durango is best left out of this conversation, unless you’re trolling CraigsList for a bargain on a loaded-up truck-based SUV that looks Chinese. That leaves this one as the last, and best Durango. Hold on to your wallets, it’s gonna make one hell of a Jeep.