2014 Dodge Durango: First Drive

Three-row crossovers have largely displaced the three-row SUV. Dodge's Durango splits the difference, offering SUV capability — and optional Hemi V-8 — with a ride and interior more akin to the crossover set. It hasn't sold nearly as well as the competition's crossovers, but the 2014 version is more competitive — especially when it comes to price and mileage.

The Durango's 2014 midcycle refresh is the first large update for the three-row SUV since its redesign in 2011. We covered the changes before, including the addition of a new eight-speed automatic transmission, which is standard across all trim levels.

Changes also include styling updates and plenty of added technology. The added features for the new model year come with a price increase of exactly zero dollars. The new Durango starts at the same price as last year's model: $30,790 for the base SXT trim (destination included).

We spent a day piloting the 2014 Durango in and around the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. The most significant mechanical update is a new eight-speed automatic transmission, which is shared with several other vehicles across Chrysler's product line, from the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee to the Ram 1500 half-ton pickup truck. Thankfully, its application in the Durango is spot-on.

On the highway, downshifts happened without much hesitation and the transmission grabbed the right gear quickly, which gave a sense of confidence to passing maneuvers — especially combined with the powerful 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 under the hood of our tester. There were a few instances where we really mashed the "go" pedal and the transmission did grab at an extra gear before settling on the correct one, but that was the exception rather than the norm. The new transmission also pays dividends in the areas of noise and comfort; when cruising along at highway speeds, the high gears kept the rpms low and the cabin quiet. One word came to mind while driving the Durango on the highway: smooth.

The second portion of our drive took us down the Mulholland Highway, one of the best canyon roads Southern California has an offer, not to be confused with the more famous Mulholland Drive. It seemed to be a strange place at first to test the merits of an SUV, but we ended up pleasantly surprised by how the Durango handled the twists and turns. While you'll never confuse the Durango for a sport sedan, it more than held its own for a nearly 5,000-pound SUV.

The new transmission also offers fuel-economy benefits. The Pentastar V-6 now gets up to 25 mpg on the highway and the Hemi V-8 models return 23 mpg highway, gains of 10% and 15% respectively. Also new for 2014 is an Eco mode that can be turned on and off with a button located in the center console. Dodge engineers informed us that activating the Eco mode does not change the throttle mapping but instead only changes the transmission timing to hold on to the higher gears longer. Staying in Eco mode is worth an added 1.5 mpg in the city, according to Dodge, but at highway cruising speeds there is not noticeable gain to having it activated.

V-6 mileage for the Durango is also 1 mpg better in city, highway and combined ratings than the V-6 version of the Chevy Traverse, and 1 mpg better in city and highway ratings than the V-6 version of the Ford Explorer.

There are also changes to the entire exterior, but the most significant is the addition of "racetrack" LED taillights, which can also be found on Dodge's Dart and Charger sedans. The Durango's have a unique look achieved by utilizing white reflectors and lenses to diffuse the light from the 192 LED bulbs. So instead of seeing individual bulbs in the taillights, they appear as a seamless tube of light. It makes the Durango instantly recognizable, especially at night, and gives the rear some much needed visual flair.

Dodge has improved its interiors over the past several years in models like the Dart and Charger, and the new Durango is no exception, with excellent fit-and-finish and high-quality materials. The 2014 refresh adds new technology as well, including an 8.4-inch touch-screen display for the audio and navigation systems (when equipped), and the rotary shifter and 7-inch configurable display in the instrument panel found in the Ram 1500.

Uconnect is one of our staff's favorite multimedia systems thanks to its responsiveness and ease of use, and those two traits remain true in the Durango. Also impressive was the optional rear entertainment system, which comes with two screens mounted on the back of the front seats. The 9-inch screens fold up from the seatback, which allows for bigger screens than if they were mounted in the headrests. It accepts Blu-ray and DVD discs, as well as RCA and HDMI inputs to keep the kids occupied.

The updates inside and out and under the hood are welcome and make the Durango an intriguing option for three-row SUV shoppers.

Cars.com photos by Evan Sears

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