If you're shopping for an SUV that can tow your boat or camper and provide room for the family, the 2011 Durango makes a pretty strong case for itself. Even if you don't have anything to tow, the Durango's cruising comfort will be prized on road trips.
The previous-generation Durango had an odd look to it from certain angles, but the 2011 model is considerably more stylish. Before the drive, Dodge designer Mark Trostle constantly brought up the word "proportion" when describing the SUV's looks. It does have nice proportions, and the design is enhanced by a vertical crosshair grille that gives the Durango an intimidating stare. The sides and rear are less memorable — and the design seems to sag slightly aft of the rear wheels — but on the whole it's attractive.
For a large three-row SUV, the Durango handles well. There's none of the tippiness of SUVs of yore — its center of gravity feels pretty low — and it's stable through corners. Like the Jeep Grand Cherokee that it shares its platform with — albeit one that's been lengthened 10 inches overall — the Durango drives as well as crossover competitors like the Chevrolet Traverse.
That said, the winding roads of Northern California I drove the Durango on did reveal a few SUV-like characteristics. It had a tendency to bob up and down on especially twisty roads, and the suspension was sensitive to pockmarked pavement; you could get a sense of the road smoothness from the cabin. Over big dips, though, the suspension tuning yields impressively controlled responses.
Buyers have a choice of a 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 or a 360-hp, 5.7-liter V-8. The all-wheel-drive Crew trim level I tested had the V-6.
The V-6 is a smooth-revving engine that delivers adequate acceleration, but there's not much chance that it'll push you back in your seat. Considering this is an all-new engine that Dodge has hyped quite a bit, I expected more. The V-6 is hauling around a lot of weight, though; the Crew AWD's curb weight is nearly 5,000 pounds. The V-6 teams with a five-speed automatic transmission. It shifts smoothly, but when you need more power for passing it sometimes pauses a second before kicking down to a lower gear.
The Durango's V-6 gas mileage estimates slightly trail those of some large crossovers that the SUV is up against. With rear-wheel drive and the standard V-6 it's rated at 16/23 mpg city/highway. Add all-wheel drive and fuel economy drops to 16/22 mpg, and with the optional V-8 it's rated at 14/20 mpg with RWD and 13/20 mpg with AWD. That compares to 17/24 mpg or 16/23 mpg for a front- or all-wheel-drive Traverse and 17/24 mpg or 16/22 mpg for a front- or all-wheel-drive Ford Flex with the base V-6. (Neither crossover is offered with a V-8.)
Of course, the Traverse and Flex can't tow as much as the Dodge; when properly equipped the V-6 Durango can tow up to 6,200 pounds while the V-8 model is rated for 7,400 pounds.
The Durango's interior styling is, not surprisingly, similar to the Grand Cherokee's. Compared to the uninspiring cabin of the previous model, it's a huge step up. It doesn't necessarily trump the redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer's cabin in terms of materials quality, though it's a little nicer than the Traverse's. The fact that it's competitive in this area is an encouraging sign.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Durango has comfortable bucket seats. The ones in our test car were finished in upscale cloth upholstery and offered good support — especially for your thighs — and weren't overly soft like the seats in the redesigned 2011 Dodge Charger. Leather upholstery is optional.
Unless you're eying a Chevrolet Suburban or Ford Expedition EL, most three-row SUVs and crossovers don't have a lot of cargo room behind the last row of seats. In the Durango, the space measures 17.2 cubic feet — a little bit more than you'd find in your average family sedan. You have to clear a tall rear bumper when loading luggage, but the third row folds easily into the floor to expand the cargo area to 47.7 cubic feet.
While it's too early to know how reliable the redesigned Durango will be, it's got a lot going for it in other areas and should put it right in the middle of the a three-row SUV — or crossover — shopping list.
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