The Car Connection Dodge Durango Overview
Like Dodge Durango itself, its closest competitors, Ford's Explorer, the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan's Pathfinder, have all gone to a crossover setup. Shoppers might also compare the Durango to the GMC Acadia and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Those with towing and hauling needs, however, will be hard-pressed to find an alternative to Durango's rear-wheel-drive in this class. Bonus? There's an optional 5.7-liter HEMI V-8.
The Durango is a mid- to large-size SUV with seating for seven across three rows. In 2011, the Durango ditched its truck-derived architecture for unibody crossover underpinnings related to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and to a lesser extent, the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class SUV—one of the last ties to the old Daimler-Chrysler "merger."
MORE: Read our 2016 Dodge Durango review
The Durango was originally introduced in 1998. Those first-generation models were relatively simple, truck-based SUVs with underpinnings and styling borrowed directly from the Dakota pickup, and they didn’t make much effort to hide their truck roots. Models with V-8s under the hood—either the 5.2-liter or 5.9-liter—were more popular than those with 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 they offered a pretty pleasant ride considering their truck underpinnings—but these models had somewhat clumsy handling and roadholding. In an early drive of this Durango we noted that Dodge had promoted the model 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. Arriving at a time when Americans were just starting to fizzle out on the most monstrous of SUVs, this Durango’s timing 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 a Watts linkage—which greatly improved handling over rough surfaces, even though it was larger and heavier than its predecessor.
When introduced, this generation of Durangos was offered with a 210-hp, 3.7-liter V-6 or a choice of V-8s: a 4.7-liter worth 230 hp and a 5.7-liter HEMI that made 330 hp; six-cylinder models used a four-speed automatic transmission, while the V-8 models received a five-speed. There was also a choice of rear-drive, four-wheel drive with a low-range, and an automatic 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—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, and eventually fell victim to Chrysler's bankruptcy.
The new Dodge Durango
After a one-year hiatus for the badge, the current-generation version of the Durango was introduced for 2011. Even though it’s not all that much smaller than the version it replaces, it’s worlds 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 include 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 to allow a third row of seating. The current Mercedes M- and GL-Class SUVs are built on the same architecture as the Grand Cherokee and Durango.
Dodge made just a few but significant changes to the Durango lineup for 2013. Second-row captain's chair availability was opened up to all models and leather upholstery became standard across the board as well. A new Rallye appearance package borrowed the R/T's looks for V-6 models. Safety tech got a boost with the addition of a blind-spot monitoring system and cross-path detection that gets activated when the vehicle is reversing—great for parking lots.
For the 2014 model year, the Durango adopted a version of the new ZF eight-speed automatic now found in the Ram 1500 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. On the outside, the Durango got projector-beam headlamps plus hockey-stick-shaped LED running lamps on all but the base SXT. Top R/T and Citadel models got HID headlamps, while projector fog lamps and the slimmer new textured crosshair grille, in combination with a sculpted hood and lower front fascia, made the Durango look brawnier. New wheel designs, including a Hyper Black finish, helped punctuate the look, but it's in back where the Durango's look changed most. LED racetrack lighting, as seen on the Dodge Dart, formed a ribbon of light across the tail, with 192 individual lamps in all.
Inside, the instrument panel was reshaped and redesigned, so as to fit right in alongside the recently refreshed Dodge Charger, and new five-inch or 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreens are housed in the center stack; the Durango also got a new SD card slot, USB outlet, and aux input, with a redesigned media storage bin. As in the Dodge Dart, the Durango added a seven-inch configurable digital gauge to customize info displays.
For 2015, the Durango got wider availability of the Rally and Blacktop appearance packages, newly available red Nappa leather seating, and a Beats by Dre sound system as a new option.
The Durango nameplate is expected to go away at the end of this generation, once Jeep launches a new three-row SUV based on the same underpinnings. The Dodge brand has been tasked with producing the exciting vehicles within Chrysler in the most recent reorganization, which would shift the large crossover out of the car brand and into the one famous for SUVs. The Durango-turned-Jeep would also serve as a follow-up to the Jeep Commander SUV and likely will be called Grand Wagoneer, resurrecting a storied nameplate for the SUV brand.