SAN FRANCISCO -- No other state allows for reinvention like California.
The land of milk and money, golden hills and silicon valleys, California has it all: Open spaces and crowded cities, mountain roads and sand dunes. It's a land without a memory, and the perfect landscape to test the 2011 Dodge Durango, a modern SUV with the guts of a truck and the ride of a car.
Sound hypocritical? Did I mention I was in California?
There is a split personality to the all-new Durango, which adopts the SUV's name Dodge killed two years ago. And it shares the 7-passenger bigness of that vehicle. But that's really where the similarities end.
The new Durango has as much in common with the old Durango as San Diego has in common with Hornbrook, respectively the first and the last stop on the 800 miles of Interstate 5 in the Golden State.
I drove the new Durango for more than half of that highway and enjoyed every mile cruising the vast emptiness between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where there are two cities, a million cows and a grapeless vine (though everyone swears there are grapes somewhere along the Tejon Pass).
The new Durango lets the miles fly by. My Durango Crew (there are four Durangos ranging from the base Express to the R/T to the top-of-the-line Citadel) included Dodge's 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, a modern mechanical masterpiece with old-school power.
This engine remains one of the best V-8s built by anyone. It delivers 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque — big rig power. The Hemi under the hood means this Durango can do grown-up work that baby crossovers could never conceive, such as towing 7,400 pounds. The mileage numbers for this kind of power aren't bad either, hitting 14 mpg in city driving and 20 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA sticker. I averaged 18 mpg on the long haul, though in fairness, I was following the age-old California tradition along I-5: Speeding like Sea Biscuit.
The real painful lesson arrived later, when I learned that filling the 24.6 gallon tank costs a lot more in California than in Detroit.
But for an SUV, the Durango felt surprisingly nimble, even above recommended speeds.
The ride is never harsh, extremely quiet and smooth. Dodge wiped out all of the bad truck qualities that turned people to crossovers in the first place. The Durango, with its uni-body construction instead of body-on-frame build, feels like a high-riding car.
The steering feels firm, acceleration is quick and that Hemi provides just the right burble to get California hybrids to move out of the way. But very little outside noise seeps into this tightly fitted cabin, which features laminated glass and a slew of other sound deadening improvements.
The base crew comes with Dodge's new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, which still creates plenty of power at 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It can still tow up to 6,200 pounds and hit 16 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.
Additionally, in short test drives of the V-6 Durango, the vehicle still felt like it had more than enough power to get up and go, though, I prefer the V-8.
More importantly, the Durango comes with an all-new interior, which, compared to the previous Durango, is absolutely stunning. Even compared to other SUVs on the road, it's still stunning.
In Los Angeles, every person I gave a ride to was thoroughly impressed. The single piece dash eliminates all of those ungodly seams and cracks. Vents now come with nicely trimmed chrome edges and the door panels are fantastic with nicely appointed inserts and soft arm rests.
Even more importantly, the leather seats are comfortable. There have been a few generations of Dodge vehicles that have had seats that felt like leather-wrapped plywood. Thankfully, no more.
The Durango, in fact, includes 28 different seating configurations throughout the cabin, allowing the driver to carry lots of people or lots of things. Fold down the second and third rows and you have 85 cubic feet of space. Dodge boasts that you can fit a 6-foot couch in the back.
The third row, which sits slightly higher also includes collapsible headrests that can be dropped with a touch of a button on the dash. This means if no one is back there, the driver will have a much better view out the back. It can also be used to whack any wisecrackers in the third row. Thankfully, this contraption wasn't around when I was growing up.
There are also some nicely designed cubbies and storage spaces throughout the cabin, including a two tier center console. Everything just feels well put together throughout the cabin. From the colorful and stylish instrument panel to the choice and high-grade materials on every surface, the Durango's interior feels like a daily reward for climbing into the cab.
Unfortunately, the Durango still includes Chrysler Group LLC's previous-generation UConnect system. There are some worthwhile features, such as the Bluetooth phone connection and Sirius satellite radio. But the layout is clumsy and navigating the system can become tedious. It's just not very good and good infotainment systems are becoming more important to customers. It's one feature no one should skimp on. The Durango skimps.
Crisp, clean exterior
What everyone will notice right away, however, is how crisp and clean the exterior looks.
The lines were redrawn to give the Durango a steep windshield and a big front end. It's not embarrassed to be a truck; in fact, this exterior celebrates it. The crosshair grille plants the exclamation point on the new Dodge face, though it can come in a couple of variations from chrome to body color.
The long hood gives the Durango a much sportier look and the big wheels pushed out to the corners help give this SUV those big vehicle proportions.
Call it a crossover, call it a uni-body constructed vehicle or call it an SUV. Just don't underestimate it.
The Durango can tow, haul and carry the heavy loads. It plays as hard as it works and that's always been the secret of California.
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Overall: *** 1/2
Exterior: Good: Keeps its truck-like looks but more aggressive and sophisticated.
Interior: Excellent: Comfortable, well laid out and excellent choice of materials throughout the cabin.
Performance: Excellent: Nice road manners, good engine choices and quiet ride.
Pros: Lots of space, versatility and capabilities.
Cons: Too big for many consumers and low overall gas mileage.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor