- Feels sophisticated and refined
- Strong HEMI performance
- Great steering feel for a ute
- Ride is refined
- A good-looking SUV
- Third-row access isn't easy
- A bit of head toss
- Gas mileage lags the class
- Where's the SRT8?
Call it the anti-crossover: the Dodge Durango does SUV dirty work, but carries itself like a civilized family wagon.
The big Dodge Durango SUV has some Mercedes-Benz GL-Class genetics baked into its rugged form. It's significantly less expensive, of course, and for those that still need the big towing and seating of a more traditional sport-ute, it's one of the best choices available. For 2012 it returns with just a few changes, competing with the likes of the Chevy Traverse and Ford Explorer as well as Toyota's 4Runner and its sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
A little less distinctive-looking than it's been in the past, the Durango's still a handsome vehicle. The big Dodge crosshair grille sets up a tall SUV stance that smooths out down the sides. The shape reminds us more of a Toyota Sequoia than the old, flare-fendered Durango this ute replaced, but it's still a fairly muscular shape. It's inside where the Durango feels more authoritative. A big rectangular binnacle of gauges and a wide center stack of controls are wrapped in tightly grained finishes accented with touches of bright metallic trim. The major controls have big, simple knob controls, and the gauges have big red needles. It's a major upgrade from drab Durango cabins in the past, and even in the R/T, the extra dose of red detailing and white-trimmed instruments comes off as bold, but tasteful.
Dodge offers a choice of two drivetrains in the Durango, both with refined performance and available all-wheel drive with a low range, but with different missions. The 3.6-liter V-6 is for lighter-duty users. Its 290 horsepower pull the Durango strongly enough for passenger duty, and in the Durango there's less of the exhaust boom we've noticed with the same engine in the Grand Cherokee. The five-speed automatic's also smoother in shifting than the new six-speeds in Chrysler's revamped car lineup, while refinements this year have added a mile per gallon to its highway fuel economy--still mid-pack at best, at 23 mpg. Drivers who tow or regularly carry a full load of cargo and people should opt for the strong, snarly HEMI 5.7-liter V-8. Its six-speed automatic is updated this year for better performance, but while it's terrific at stoplight launches and interstate cruising, its fuel economy is disappointing, as low as 12/20 mpg. Towing is rated as high as 7400 pounds.
The Durango's independent suspension, hefty but precise steering feel, and big brakes mean it's never felt better to drive. Aside from some side-to-side head toss, the Durango has a very well-damped ride, even without the air suspension fitted to its Mercedes cousins. The steering unwinds with real feedback, and doesn't go numb on versions fitted with 20-inch wheels.
The newly passenger-friendly Durango isn't quite as large as a Tahoe or Suburban, but has interior space about the size of a Ford Flex or Chevy Traverse. Close to the Benz GL in wheelbase, width, and in its 84.5 cubic feet of cargo room, the Durango has an excellent driving position and wide front seats with good give and ample side bolsters. In the second row, it's possible for three adults to sit comfortably. It's less easy for full-size people to get into the third-row seats, which seem a little more difficult to access than in the GL. Nonetheless, some of the features of the fold-down rear seats are identical, like the way the third-row headrests flip out of sight.
The Durango earns the IIHS' Top Safety Pick award, and has standard curtain airbags and stability control, while blind-spot monitors, a rearview camera, and adaptive cruise control are options.
Other standard features for the sub-$30,000 Durango include power windows, locks and mirrors; a CD player; cruise control; and air conditioning. Stepping into higher trim levels adds Bluetooth; 20-inch wheels; a music hard drive; and leather upholstery. For more than $42,000, the Citadel edition gets those features plus a navigation system; a sunroof; and a heated steering wheel. Sirius Backseat TV is an option, as is a towing package.