This second-generation Durango is big. Its exterior dimensions place it between the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition in size, but it benefits greatly from a space-efficient design. Durango can seat up to eight passengers with the optional 60/40 folding third row seat. Folding down the seats reveals more than 100 cubic feet of cargo space. You can slide full-size sheets of plywood in back. And a properly equipped Durango with the Hemi engine is rated to tow up to 8,950 pounds.
Two V8s are available and both are superb. The popular 4.7-liter V8 and the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 are smooth and powerful. They come with a five-speed automatic that's smooth, refined, and responsive, including a Tow/Haul transmission feature we like that holds lower gears longer when towing to reduce gear searching.
The base model has been dropped for 2006, so the Durango SXT is the entry level for the Durango line-up. For 2006 the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engine is now equipped with the new Multi-Displacement System (MDS) that disables four cylinders when cruising to improve fuel economy.
The Durango was awarded the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Five-Star frontal impact rating in 2005, in part due to the Durango's frame design, which absorbs front impacts. For 2006, dual stage front air bags and an occupant-sensing system for the passenger-side front air bag are standard. Curtain airbags and electronic stability control are available as options.
Dodge Durango SXT ($28,200); SLT ($30,350); Adventurer ($32,290); Limited ($35,085); SXT 4x4 ($31,180); SLT 4x4 ($33,330); Adventurer 4x4 ($35,085); Limited 4x4 ($37,210)
The short hood and flared fenders give the Durango the look of a big-rig truck. That short hood leads into a steeply raked windshield and sloping roof. The front fenders make the hood look as narrow as it is short. The windshield is aerodynamically efficient and offers good visibility.
The roofline slopes briefly downward at the rear, and the liftgate window curves in to meet it. This reduces that boxy look common on so many SUVs and minivans. Durango's taillights are distinctive as well, looking like afterburners from a jet fighter with two big red stacked circles per side. The sheet metal is molded around them to suggest speed.
Chrysler has an expensive new wind tunnel at its headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan, and it was used extensively when designing the second-generation Durango to reduce wind noise. The aerodynamics are fine-tuned, including the contours of the exterior mirrors, and the subtle ducktail at the trailing edge of the hood under the wipers that minimizes wind noise over the windshield. The motor mounts were calibrated to reduce the frequencies and harmonics of each engine. The windows have an extra layer of lamination to deaden sound. Foam is injected into many of the body and chassis crannies, which would otherwise serve as tiny echo chambers.
Behind the second row of seats is 68 cubic feet of cargo space, equal to the total for many SUVs. Put the second row down, and there's 102 cubic feet of cargo capacity. The distance between the wheel housings is 48 inches, so full-size sheets of plywood can be loaded flat. Speaking of loading cargo, this task is aided by the liftgate, which opens very easily. A power liftgate is available on 2006 Durango models, a handy feature. Also, the cargo floor is relatively low, thanks to the rear suspension design.
The second and third rows are notably easy to access because the rear doors open an exceptionally wide 84 degrees. The second-row seat easily flips forward with the touch of one hand, and the seatback flops flat just as easily. This is no small virtue. For 2006, a 60/40 third-row seat, large enough for three passengers, is an available option on SLT and Limited models.
The second-row seats recline and have their own climate control, so back-seat passengers can snooze in comfort. Details are carefully thought out, including convenient grab handles cleverly molded into the stubby rear leg of the second-row seat, which ease climbing back to the third row. Once back there, a small bubble in the ceiling provides additional headroom for third-row passengers. Rear A/C can be a useful feature for dogs.
The front seats are comfortable, neither too soft nor too firm, and the four-spoke steering wheel is nice. The SLT has orange-hued wood trim, while the Limited presents a cleaner look with its brushed aluminum. And that trim is real wood and real aluminum, not plastic.
Instrumentation is clean, handsome, easy to read and easy to operate. It looks classy. We especially like the simple black-on-white gauges and rectangular black Venetian-blind style heating and cooling vents. The center console is deep, under a removable tray. Forward of that is another important compartment designed to serve as a fast-food bin. Two integrated cup holders with removable neoprene for different sizes of drink containers are provided.
We found the SLT's manual heating controls and the wiper controls a bit fussy, and the high beams seemed a little lacking one wintry night. The Limited model's high-tech climate-control panel with automatic temperature adjustment is better. And we welcome the availability of seat heaters.
The 4.7-liter V8 engine is competent, powerful and very smooth. It is rated at 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque, but it only gets 14/18 mpg with 4WD, using 87 octane.
The 5.7-liter Hemi is rated at 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. That's a lot more power than the 4.7-liter, with around-town mileage suffering only slightly at 13/18 mpg with 89 octane recommended, 87 acceptable. For 2006, fuel economy is enhanced with the introduction of Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System on the Hemi, which disables four of the eight cylinders when cruising by deactivating the valve lifters. In our tests of variable displacement on other Chrysler products, we found the transition between cruising and power modes was nearly indiscernible. The Hemi seems like a good value. Plus, it can tow up to 8,950 pounds with the optional 3.92 rear axle, compared with 7,400 pounds for the 4.7-liter. Also, the two-speed transfer case comes standard with the Hemi 4x4, optional with the other engines.
Hemi, by the way, refers to the overhead-valve, hemispherical combustion chamber design, and harkens back to the late '60s when the 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Dodge Hemi Ramcharger ruled. Chrysler modernized the basic design in 2004 after it had been gone (but not forgotten) for decades. Still, the Hemi didn't feel like 335 horsepower to the seat of our pants. The 5.7-liter Hemi felt a little more powerful than the 4.7-liter, but it wasn't a night-and-day difference. The double overhead-cam, 5.6-liter, 305-horsepower Nissan Armada feels more responsive than the 5.7-liter Durango, which feels solid, but heavy.
We were most impressed by the five-speed automatic transmission that comes with both V8 engines. The shifts were incredibly smooth. Shifting up or down between third and fourth gears is undetectable. The transmission features a Tow/Haul mode, which holds the gears longer and will even downshift under deceleration, as might be needed with a trailer. It's cool when you come toward a turn at high speed and back off, and your automatic transmission drops a downshift for you.
The best fuel economy goes to the 3.7-liter V6, rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque and 16/21 mpg. It comes with a four-speed automatic and is rated to pull a 3700-pound trailer.
The Durango has good brakes. When you need to slow down or stop, they'll be there. They're big vented disc brakes with twin-piston calipers in front, just the thing for slowing down this heavy beast. ABS helps the driver maintain steering control by eliminating wheel lockup, while electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) balances braking forces front and rear for more stable stopping. We slammed on the brakes several times from 70 mph and found the Durango stopped steady and true.
The current Durango represented a clean-sheet design when it was introduced as a 2004 model, with nothing borrowed from the Ram pickup (as before). New manufacturing processes resulted in a more rigid chassis, which benefits from hydroformed boxed frame rails, a new independent front suspension and innovative adaptation of a Watts link rear suspension with coil springs. Cornering and handling are excellent, maybe even superb, for a big SUV.
The ride quality is quite good, way better than the old Durango. There's a lot more travel in the suspension. The rack-and-pinion steering provides a 39.9-foot turning circle, three feet larger than a Ford Explorer, but pretty good for a vehicle of this size.
We found the Durango offered good, responsive handling over more than 100 miles of remote twi
Dodge Durango is smooth and powerful with either of the two V8 engines. It rides well and handles especially well, and has excellent engineering touches and details. Its pricing represents a good value. If you're in the market for a large SUV and like the looks, you should check it out.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Austin, Texas; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Detroit.