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First Drive: 2014 Dodge Durango [Review]

by Nat Shirley

Dodge\'s three-row crossover just became a lot more fuel efficient.

When it launched back in 2010, there wasn't much wrong with the Dodge Durango, a capable three-row rig that smoothly blended the muscle of a traditional SUV with the daily driving ease of a crossover.

However, time waits for no truck, and by last year the Durango was beginning to lag behind the competition in terms of efficiency and technology. Moreover, Durango was never quite the hit with consumers Dodge expected.

To keep the tweener fresh, Dodge has performed a nip-and-tuck, fitted a new eight-speed automatic and added loads of new gadgets for 2014 - but are the changes enough?

Looking the part

A lengthened version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee/Mercedes M-Class unibody, rear or four-wheel-drive platform remains the basis of the Durango, but it now wears sharper sheetmetal than before.

Touches like a taller front bumper and shortened grille provide a more focused look, as do reworked projector headlamps that are complimented by LED running lights on everything except the base model. Classy mesh grille inserts with a different design for each trim level are new, and there are revamped 18- and 20-inch wheel designs throughout the range.

Perhaps the most notable design element is located at the rear end, where stylists have integrated Dodge's racetrack taillight treatment - familiar from the Charger and Dart - with a new "blended” effect that makes its 192 LED lights appear as one. It's a sight to behold at night.

A choice of 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 (290 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque) or 5.7-liter HEMI V8 (360 horsepower, 390 lb-ft) powertrains remains, though both are now teamed with a ZF-developed eight-speed automatic that's controlled through a center console-mounted version of the Ram 1500 pickup's rotary gearshifter.

In our HEMI-equipped tester, we found that the octa-cog gearbox held revs particularly low during cruising situations, while also adroitly keeping the potent engine in the meat of its power band when we blitzed the backroads. On the rare occasion that it ran into trouble finding the appropriate ratio, standard-equipment paddle shifters let us make the situation right.

With the help of a new Eco drive mode that provides earlier upshifts and muted throttle response, the eight-speed increases RWD V6 mileage from 16/23 city/highway mpg to 18/25 mpg, while the RWD V8 is rated at 14/23 mpg - a gain of three highway mpgs. Eco is the default mode at startup, but it can be switched off at the cost of an estimated 1.5-mpg reduction in the city.

Tow ratings are unchanged at a maximum of 6,200 lbs. for the V6 and 7,400 lbs for the V8. Adding AWD doesn't appreciably alter those figures, and it also brings some light off-roading or slippery-situation boat towing ability to the HEMI model courtesy of low-range gearing.

Special on the inside

Previously, the Durango's cabin was a functional space with generally unimpeachable materials, but it lacked the design flair to truly set it apart. That's no longer the case, with a sleek new steering wheel and a reconfigurable instrument panel doing wonders to spice things up. The latter can be customized more than 100 different ways to display information ranging from navigation instructions to tire pressure.

Bringing extra capability and a more modern appearance to the center stack is Chrysler's user-friendly Uconnect Access infotainment system, which is available with either a 5.0- or 8.4-inch touchscreen and accompanied by redesigned redundant controls. The Durango is one of the first models with an expanded "Via Mobile” version of Uconnect that lets users access internet radio programs, dictate text messages and search Yelp; in the event of a crash, it also utilizes an embedded high-speed data connection to reach local emergency services.

To help ensure that the latter feature never needs to be used, a forward collision warning system has been added to the family hauler's list of optional safety tech, joining the previously available blind spot warning system with rear cross traffic alert.

For long road trips, an adaptive cruise control system with stop and go can now be spec'd to reduce driver fatigue, and a new dual-screen Blu-Ray rear-seat entertainment system performs the same function a different way by keeping the youngsters occupied.

Though we didn't have the chance to test the Durango with rugrats in back, we did get to put it through its paces on a mix of curvy canyon roads and mellow coastal routes. It was understandably more at home in the latter situation, where a compliant ride and quiet cabin made it a pleasant cruising companion, although its remarkably sporty platform didn't exactly embarrass itself in the twisties.

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT owners probably won't feel compelled to rush over to their local Dodge dealership, but in a segment where anodyne driving experiences are the norm, the Durango's rear-biased dynamics and bellicose HEMI provide a welcome infusion of character.

Leftlane's bottom line

With Dodge aiming to refocus and streamline its lineup over the next few years, it's looking increasingly likely that the Durango won't be around for the long term.

That's really too bad, because the Durango is one of the more unique and versatile three-row ‘utes on the market, and its new gearbox and tech accouterments only make it all the more attractive.

2014 Dodge Durango base price range, $29,795 to $40,995.

Photos courtesy Dodge.

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