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2011 Dodge Durango R/T: First Drive

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If the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a distant cousin to the Mercedes ML--and a proud one at that--does that make this 2011 Dodge Durango kin to the Benz GL?

And does that make its $30,000 base price even more of a screaming bargain?

Chrysler set the Grand Cherokee free earlier this year, in a first-drive press event all its own, but it pooled the Durango together with a refurbished Dodge lineup. We flew to northern California to drive the Durango and five other new or revised Dodges for the first time, and on a windy hilltop overlooking the Infineon Raceway, we slipped the keys to an R/T in our pockets and rolled through Napa to sample the V-8 and also the V-6 SUV.

At first glance, the Durango's new wagon body is less distinctive, and less muscular, than the old truck-based version. Chrysler's merged the Durango with the Grand Cherokee's unibody architecture and in the process, it's honed off the bulges and some of the character. That immense crosshair grille cants forward atop a short front overhang, but that's the last truly unique cue you can pick out as you move down the seven-seater's profile. From the rear, in particular, the Durango reads like second-generation Toyota Sequoia--blandly, benignly handsome.

The cockpit brings the real visual impact. Like the Grand Cherokee, the new Durango sends outdated, hard-edge plastics to the recycling bin. Snapped into place is a tightly fitted, attractive cabin with big red-needled gauges, simple climate-control knobs, and backpedaled touches of bright and soft metallic trim. Our R/T tester also had leather upholstery with woven red inserts and red stitching, and white trim rings on the dials, all well downplayed.

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