First Drive: 2011 Dodge Durango [Review]

The Pentastar's product revolution is on. Let's find out if the 2011 Dodge Durango can erase memories of the aardvark-like outgoing model.

Calling the 2011 Dodge Durango the best Durango ever isn't very difficult. After all, the bunt Dodge laid down for the last-generation model wasn't exactly a contender for car of the decade.

Fortunately, the new Durango - which shares little more than its three-row seating configuration with its predecessors - is worthy of praise on its own as it takes the nameplate in a new direction that straddles the line between SUV and crossover.

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Based on an extended version of the Mercedes-Benz M-Class-derived platform that underpins the impressive 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango benefits from parent company Chrysler's brief term as a Daimler subsidiary. Say what you will about Auburn Hills' German takeover, at least Chrysler wound up with two strong platforms out of the deal - even if it lost its cash and dignity. Life ain't fair.

Don't think of the Durango as just a three-row Grand Cherokee, although that's a fair starting point. Where the Grand Cherokee features off road goodies like an advanced traction control system and an available air suspension, the Durango is aimed more at suburban soccer moms and dads. Think Chevrolet Traverse or GMC Acadia and you're on the right track.

Available with either Chrysler's soon-to-be-ubiquitous 3.6-liter V6 or its muscle car-style 5.7-liter V8, the unibody Durango can be equipped with either rear or all-wheel-drive. Aside from an optional skid plate/tow hook package, its off road pretensions lie mostly in its style and rugged four corners-region name. A hybrid model, like the one offered for roughly two months back in 2008, isn't on the horizon.

A quartet of Durango styles are available, beginning with the surprisingly non-base-looking base model (Express in Dodge-speak) and moving up to the more lavish Crew that will account for most sales. Two special models are available, the vaguely sportier R/T and the to-the-hilt Citadel. Dodge hopes that the latter will satisfy luxury buyers who were smitten with the short-lived Chrysler Aspen. All six of them, we suppose. We think displaced Jeep Commander owners might also feel at home.

To even a discerning eye, Durango Express and Crew models look the same from the outside. All are stylistically Dodge-like and draw heavily from the Dodge Charger and Ram trucks. Squint at the C-pillar and you'll see a bit of the dead Dodge Magnum - that's intentional, Dodge says. The tailgate, with its full-length chrome (or body-color in R/Ts) strip and oversize lamps, is a Grand Cherokee doppelganger. The R/T we spent most of our time in has its own subtle bodykit and lots of color-matched trim.

Space and pace
From the driver's seat, the Durango feels rather like the Grand Cherokee. It features much of the same switchgear, including pleasant gauges, generic-feeling climate controls and Chrysler's popular touchscreen audio system. Materials are similarly classy, with soft materials and hand-stitched surfaces abounding. Even the handful of hard plastics are chiseled from premium milk jugs.

The second row, too, feels rather Grand Cherokee-esque. There's no shortage of leg room and an easy-fold system drops the adjustable bench for access to row three. Here's where the Durango diverges; its expansive cargo bay offers way more space than the Grand Cherokee. A 50/50-folding third row offers plenty of room for kids and includes convenient power-folding headrests at the press of a dash-mounted button. If only the seats themselves folded electronically; they're not tough to manually stow, but many rivals offer mom-friendly push-botton stowage.

Of course, most rivals also offer a driving experience about as exciting as watching "builder beige" paint dry. Yawn. Here, as well, is where the Durango forges its own path.

If you've driven the 2011 Grand Cherokee, you'll probably feel at home here. Steering is similarly linear and wonderfully weighted, while the ride is nearly perfect. Even our R/T tester, which includes 20-inch alloy wheels (18s are standard otherwise) and a lowered, buttoned-down suspension, felt remarkably compliant. At around 5,300 lbs. as-tested, an all-wheel-drive R/T isn't a lightweight, but its nimble handling certainly belies its girth. For comparison, a rear-wheel-drive Express unburdened with rugrats and Happy Meals tips the scales at around 4,750 lbs.

R/Ts will all come with Dodge's fantastic 360-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 mated to a 545RFE five-speed automatic. Available as an option on other trim levels, the V8 can tow up to 7,400 lbs. - a vast improvement over crossover rivals. Providing good grunt and a NASCAR-ready soundtrack at higher RPMs, the HEMI is every bit the engine we've come to love in the Dodge Challenger and Charger. Its biggest demerit might be a sales killer for many: 13 mpg in the city with all-wheel-drive (14 mpg with rear-wheel-drive). Highway driving, at 20 mpg, is a little easier to swallow.

For most, the automaker's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 will suffice. Rated at 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque, the V6 is mated to a Mercedes-Benz five-speed automatic and can tow 6,200 lbs. More suited to crossover-comparing shoppers, the V6 moves the Durango along reasonably well. No, it doesn't move the Durango with quite the authority of the V8, but it didn't struggle during our brief preview drives and, happily, it will return a much easier to swallow 16 mpg in town. Look for 22-23 mpg on the highway depending on drive configuration.

Leftlane's bottom line
While the outgoing Durango was more in line with '90s-buyers tastes - body-on-frame construction and thirsty powertrains - this third configuration reboots the concept with a much more 2011-friendly configuration.

Its merits are substantial and our kvetches minimal; Dodge did its homework to offer such a world-class family hauler. Suddenly, General Motors' Lambda-platform trio (Traverse, Acadia and Buick Enclave) are yesterday's news and the Honda Pilot feels old and grumpy. Suburbia, your family hauler is here - but watch out for that upcoming Ford Explorer.

2011 Dodge Durango base price range, $29,195 to $41,795

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.