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Born out of engineering work shared with Mercedes-Benz, the Dodge Durango is all-new for 2011—along with the closely-related 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee—and is a much more refined, mature, and modern take on the SUV formula. While it takes on the likes of the Chevrolet Traverse and the new Ford Explorer, to a degree, the Durango is a bit more trucklike—a traditional ute with a sheen of sophistication.
At first glance, the Durango's new wagon body is less distinctive, and less muscular, than the old truck-based version—blandly, benignly handsome is a good way to sum. The cockpit brings more 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 Like the Grand Cherokee, the new Durango sends outdated, hard-edge plastics to the recycling bin.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. With leather upholstery, woven red inserts and red stitching, and white trim rings on the dials, even the R/T feels bold yet very tastefully done.
With an engine lineup whittled to only a 3.6-liter V-6 or the HEMI 5.7-liter V-8, the Durango gets focused on superior powertrain performance, and wins the battles for acceleration, responsiveness and towing capacity. The Durango mates better with the essentially carryover five-speed automatic in the Durango than it does with Chrysler's new six-speed gearboxes. The gears are spaced well enough, and the V-6's 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet or torque spin out predictable mid-range acceleration in the 8-second range—and with a little less of the exhaust boom we found in the Grand Cherokee. Step up to the Hemi, and you still get the five-speed—and while that likely brings a fuel economy penalty, the V-8's mammoth, accessible power and torque (360 hp, 360 lb-ft) brings excellent performance. Accompanying the drive are fantastic HEMI drivetrain noises. With the six, it's good enough, but with the V-8 the Durango is great—and it's rugged enough to tow up to 7400 pounds.
With its new everything underneath—independent suspension, big brakes, meaty steering feel—the Durango's never felt better to drive, and it's nothing trucky like the vehicle it replaces. There's some head toss to deal with, the kind that comes from lateral stiffness induced to create more carlike driving feel, but the steering winds and unwinds with more precision than in a Caliber hatchback, and ride quality's tremendously good even with the optional 20-inch wheels and tires. There's none of the bounding you'd find in a Grand Caravan, which also seats seven—the Durango's heft mutes it out, even without the optional, advanced air suspension of the Grand Cherokee and the GL-Class.
Even from its side profile, the 2011 Dodge Durango looks a lot more passenger-friendly than the version it replaces. Though the new Durango isn't as large as full-size SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban, it's about the same size as some of the larger crossovers like the Ford Flex or GMC Acadia. With a 119.8-inch wheelbase, the Durango is 75.8 inches wide, and has 84.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the front seats. Those dimensions are also very close to those of the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, with which it's related.
Inside, the Durango is notably comfortable and refined—especially for a vehicle without a luxury badge. The driving position in the Durango is excellent, with a nice, upright vantage point, and the seats are supportive and comfortable. The second rows boast adult-size space and comfort, while the third row is, as in most vehicles, tight and rather difficult to get to—even though it could be pressed into duty for small adults. The seating arrangements, down to the flip-fold features of the third-row headrests, are strikingly similar to those in the Mercedes.
The base Durango Express is priced just below $30,000 and includes a pretty impressive feature set; but Bluetooth is an option and upgrades like power seats, seat heating, push-button start and a power telescoping steering wheel are not offered. With the R/T comes much more, like 20-inch wheels; Bluetooth; a hard drive for music storage; and the HEMI V-8. A top Citadel model; for about $42,000, bundles almost every option and feature including a sunroof; blind-spot monitors; adaptive cruise control; a Garmin navigation system; and a heated steering wheel. The HEMI V-8 is an option on Crew and Citadel models; so is Sirius Backseat TV and a more rugged towing package.