This second-generation Durango, which first appeared as an '04 model, slips between the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition in exterior dimensions.
Standard seating is for five, seven or eight (depending on model); optional second-row bucket seats provide six- or seven-passenger capacity. With all seats folded, there's 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 optional Hemi engine is rated to tow up to 8,950 pounds.
A V6 is standard, but two V8s are available and both are superb. The flex-fuel 4.7-liter V8 is upgraded from 235 to 303 horsepower for 2008 without a fuel economy penalty. It can run on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). It's smooth and powerful, but drivers who want or need more can opt for the celebrated 5.7-liter Hemi. Both V8s come with a five-speed automatic transmission that's smooth, refined, and responsive. This transmission includes a Tow/Haul feature we like that holds lower gears longer when towing to reduce gear searching.
Newly offered for 2008 are a rear backup camera, a cargo management system, and Dodge's MyGIG hard drive radio that can hold songs, pictures, and navigation system map information.
Dodge Durango SXT 2WD ($26,455); SXT AWD ($29,735); SLT 2WD ($29,785); SLT AWD ($33,065); Adventurer 2WD ($31,710); Adventurer AWD ($33,930); Limited 2WD ($34,995); Limited AWD ($37,215)
The Durango features a high beltline that suggests great mass. The short front and rear overhangs, not typical of a full-size SUV, contribute to Durango's forceful expression. 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.
Eighteen-inch aluminum wheels are standard on SLT models with either black sidewall or outline white letter tires, and 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels come standard on Limited. Available 20-inch chrome-clad wheels are optional on both the SLT and Limited. All of these big rims are framed nicely by Durango's bold wheel arches. The larger (6x9-inch) rearview mirrors are heated and folding on all models.
The roofline dips slightly at the rear, and the liftgate window curves in to meet it, which keeps Durango from looking entirely like a box. Afterburner tail lamps are another Dodge hallmark. The center high-mounted stop lamp is integrated smoothly into the rear roofline. A wide chrome applique accentuates the rear liftgate and features a centered, three-dimensional ram's head.
Despite its modern aerodynamics, the Durango takes its styling cues from the 1946-68 Dodge Power Wagon, which was essentially a World War II T214 military truck with a longer wheelbase and a civilian-style, fully enclosed cab. In the immediate postwar era, when the Willys Jeep pretty much had the quarter-ton utility-vehicle market to itself (and mainstream pickups didn't yet offer four-wheel drive) the 3/4-ton Power Wagon was the first choice of rural contractors, firefighters, and forest rangers who needed serious off-road capability and more load capacity than the Jeep could provide.
The front seats are comfortable, neither too soft nor too firm, and the four-spoke steering wheel is nice. The YES Essentials fabric in SLT models is said to be stain, odor, and static-resistant, though we didn't see any mention of dog hair. 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.
Second-row bucket seats are available to replace the standard 40/20/40 bench. A second-row floor console is part of the bucket-seat package. And if you order the optional heat for the front bucket seats, the second-row buckets get it, too. As a compromise for customers who need to carry five adults, the 40/20/40 bench has a recline feature on all but SXT. Separate rear-seat climate controls are also standard on all but SXT, where they are optional; that's a useful feature when carrying dogs.
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. A one-piece third-row bench is optional on SXT and standard on SLT and Adventurer. On Limited models, the third row is split 60/40 for additional convenience. SLT and Adventurer (but not SXT) buyers can order the 60/40 split at additional cost.
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.
Cargo capacity is quite impressive. 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 easily and is power-operated on Limited models. The cargo floor is relatively low, thanks to the rear suspension design, making loading and unloading easier.
Instrumentation is clean, handsome, easy to read and easy to operate. It is simple and utilitarian. We especially like the black-on-white gauges and rectangular black Venetian-blind style heating and cooling vents. The center console is deep, under a removable tray. On Limiteds, it is covered in leather. 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 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 MyGig Multi-Media Infotainment system can hold 1600 songs. The MyGig Entertainment system doesn't have a navigation system and all its associated map information, so it holds almost twice as many songs.
The 3.7-liter V6 lacks the power to adequately move this heavy vehicle, and it doesn't offer much of a fuel economy gain. Its estimated EPA fuel economy rating is 14 mpg City and 19 Highway, only a small gain versus Dodge's more-competent V8s. The V6 comes with a four-speed automatic and is rated to pull a 3750-pound trailer. We recommend one of the V8s instead.
The 4.7-liter V8 engine has been upgraded for 2008, adding 68 hp for a total of 303 horsepower and 30 foot-pounds for a total of 330 pound-feet of torque. The 4.7-liter does a better job of moving the Durango than the old version. It is generally competent and smooth, but it still struggles to provide passing punch in this heavy SUV. With the 4.7-liter V8, the Durango can pull up to 6050 pounds. But it still rates only 13/18 mpg with rear-wheel drive, using 87-octane regular.
The 5.7-liter V8 Hemi is rated at 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. It provides more immediate power and passing punch than the 4.7-liter, with around-town mileage improving slightly at 13/19 mpg with 89 octane recommended, 87 octane acceptable. The 5.7-liter Hemi's fuel economy is enhanced by Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System, which disables four of the eight cylinders when cruising by deactivating the valve lifters. We found the transition between cruising and power modes 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. The two-speed transfer case comes standard on AWD models with the Hemi, while it's optional with the 4.7-liter.
Hemi, by the way, refers to the overhead-valve, hemispherical combustion chamber design, and harkens back to the 1960s when the 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Hemi dominated NASCAR stock car and NHRA drag racing. That engine was itself a revival of the original 1951-58 Hemi. Chrysler modernized the basic design in 2003 after it had been gone (but not forgotten) for decades.
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, 317-horsepower Nissan Armada feels more responsive than the 5.7-liter V8 in the Durango, which feels solid, but heavy.
We were most impressed by the five-speed automatic transmission that comes with both V8 engines. The shifts are 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 downshift under deceleration, as might be needed with a trailer on mountainous terrain. 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 Durango has good brakes. When you need to slow down or stop, they'll be there. They're big vented discs with twin-piston calipers in front, just the thing for holding back 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.
Cornering and handling are good for a big SUV, but the Durango is far less nimble than a car or crossover SUV. The earliest Durangos bor
Dodge Durango is smooth and powerful with either of the two V8 engines. It rides well, handles well for its size and weight, and has excellent engineering touches and details. If you need a large SUV for towing or managing rough terrain, the Durango is a fine choice. If not, a car-based crossover SUV would provide a more pleasant driving experience and deliver better fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from Austin, Texas; with nctd.com editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Detroit, and correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.