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The Dodge Durango is the gateway to true SUVs. With its custom architecture that is neither car nor truck, available all-wheel drive and the ability to two up to 7,400 pounds while carrying up to eight passengers, it's 95 percent of the way there. Other big utility vehicles have drifted into crossover territory, but the Durango keeps itself anchored to the right of center, somewhere between infotainment nirvana and rock-crawling bliss.The Durango gets few changes for the 2013 model year, mostly in the form of some rejiggered equipment and trim lines. It's still a segment splitter, hovering somewhere between the truly big Suburban and Expedition, and the largest crossovers--vehicles like the Ford Flex, Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, and the GM crossovers (Enclave, Traverse, Acadia).
Handsome but maybe a little less distinctive than in the past, the Durango wears its most SUV-like cue right on its face. The tall grille and its crosshair are pure sport-ute, but from there, the Durango smooths out and calms down, and ends up reminding us of the Toyota Sequoia more than it does of the old flared-up ute that it replaced. More lithe than muscular, the Durango shows off inside, with authoritative touches like a big bin of gauges with big red needles, large round knobs for major controls, and a wide stack of controls at the center of the dash, all clad in tightly grained materials and highlighted by glints of metallic trim. Those drab Durango cabins of the past needed to be erased from memory, and here they are--even in the R/T, where the dollop of red stitching and white-trimmed instruments comes off tastefully bold.
Either of the Durango's drivetrains will satisfy, so long as you have the right mission in mind, but fuel economy's still an Achilles heel. The 3.6-liter V-6 suits light-duty tasks, with 290 horsepower that makes it strong enough for a full boat of passengers but not much more. It's teamed to an older five-speed automatic, which is fine and smooth, but can't deliver the high fuel economy of the new eight-speed automatic you'll get in the Ram pickup with the same engine. Anyone who tows or totes lots of people and cargo on a regular basis should pick the snarly HEMI 5.7-liter V-8. It's terrific at stoplight launches and interstate cruising, but its fuel economy is disappointing, as low as 13/20 mpg--it too misses out on Chrysler's new eight-speed automatic, said to be coming sometime in 2013. Towing is rated as high as 7,400 pounds, and any Durango can be outfitted with all-wheel drive with a true low range, good for those outsized outdoor activities, if not those mega-tasks better left to something like a Suburban or Expedition.
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; there's a two-seat option with a center console divide, too. 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 earned the IIHS' Top Safety Pick award for 2012, but the latest scores aren't in, though the NHTSA gives it four stars overall. It 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 $40,000, the Citadel edition gets those features plus a navigation system; a sunroof; and a heated steering wheel.