Dodge Durango looks tough but rides smoothly. Big and bulky, it handles like a truck, but it's quiet, roomy, and comfortable, with a host of available technology. Properly equipped, Durango is rated to tow up to 8,950 pounds.
A new hybrid gas-electric powertrain joins the lineup for 2009, allowing a 40-percent improvement in fuel economy in heavy traffic. The Durango Hybrid model is a durable vehicle with strong towing capacity that gets decent fuel economy in commuter traffic.
This second-generation Durango, which first appeared as a 2004 model, fits between the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition in exterior dimensions. It's larger than midsize SUVs, such as the Ford Explorer, and has the room and feel of a full-size SUV, such as the Expedition and Tahoe.
Durango offers seating for five, seven or eight, depending on the model; for example, optional second-row bucket seats provide seven-passenger capacity on a three-row model. With all seats folded, there's more than 100 cubic feet of cargo space. You can slide full-size sheets of plywood in back.
A V6 is standard, but two V8s are available and both are superb. The 4.7-liter V8 is a Flex Fuel engine that 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, which gains 30 horsepower for 2009. 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.
The biggest news for 2009 is the addition of a Hybrid model that utilizes the Hemi V8 and two electric motors. Dodge says the Durango Hybrid gets a 25-percent fuel economy boost in combined city and highway driving, and a 40-percent boost in the city.
New for 2009, the available rear DVD entertainment system gains Sirius Backseat TV. Dodge's MyGIG hard-drive radio is now called UConnect GPS in the Durango and its hard-drive grows from 20 to 30 gigabytes. The base SXT model has also been replaced by an SE model and last year's Adventurer model is gone.
The Dodge Durango offers an imposing presence in rearview mirrors, with its big crosshair grille and shotgun headlights that have become a Dodge signature.
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.
SLT models come with 18-inch aluminum wheels, and 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels come standard on Limited; 20-inch chrome-clad wheels are optional. All of these big rims are framed nicely by Durango's bold wheel arches. The large (6×9-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.
The Hybrid model does not have any exterior modifications, unlike the GM two-stage hybrid vehicles that tout their green powertrains.
Despite its modern aerodynamics, the Durango takes styling cues from the 1946-68 Dodge Power Wagon, 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 owned the quarter-ton utility-vehicle market (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. It was popular for hunting and fishing for the same reasons. Today's Durango is far more refined than those old Power Wagons, and the Durango offers better capability.
The Dodge Durango feels spacious inside. Large amounts of glass contribute to that feeling along with lots of cargo space. The Durango is officially classified as a midsize SUV, like the Ford Explorer, but it's bigger than that and inside it feels like a full-size SUV. It straddles the segment.
The front seats are comfortable, neither too soft nor too firm, and the four-spoke steering wheel is nice. The cloth upholstery in SLT models is said to be stain, odor, and static-resistant. Dog hair might be another matter, though. The SLT and Hybrid models have 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 SE. Separate rear-seat climate controls are standard on all but SE, a useful feature when carrying dogs to say nothing of rear-seat passengers.
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 standard on SLT. On Limited and Hybrid models, the third row is split 60/40 for additional convenience.
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, making the Durango a great hauler. 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 and Hybrid 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 and Hybrids, 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 and Hybrid's high-tech climate-control panel with automatic temperature adjustment is better. And we welcome the availability of seat heaters.
The Hybrid's gauge cluster replaces the tachometer with a power gauge that shows when the electric motors are aiding power or being charged. The power gauge has a green Economy zone that drivers can use to aim for the best fuel economy.
The UConnect GPS system comes with a 6.5-inch touch screen, a navigation system with real-time traffic, and a 30-gigabyte hard drive to hold music and picture files, plus navigation map information. The navigation system can be operated with voice commands, which can be used to input destination information when the vehicle is in motion. The optional rear DVD entertainment system now has Sirius Backseat TV, which has three children's channels: Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network. DVDs and TV can be played on the front navigation screen when the vehicle is in Park.
With its size and refinement, the Dodge Durango can be a good compromise between the medium and extra-large SUVs available from other manufacturers. It's smaller than the Tahoe and Expedition. As with all truck-based SUVs, it lacks the pleasant handling of the new generation of larger crossover SUVs. That said, the Durango is smooth and quiet, quite different from earlier noisy, rough-riding sport-utilities. In addition, the Hybrid model is fuel efficient like a crossover, though at a steep price.
The 3.7-liter V6 lacks the power to adequately move this heavy vehicle, and it doesn't offer a fuel economy gain. Its estimated EPA fuel economy rating is 14 miles per gallon City and 19 mpg Highway, which is the same as the 4.7-liter V8 and only 1 mpg better in the City than the 5.7-liter Hemi. The V6 comes with a four-speed automatic and is rated to pull a 3750-pound trailer. The only way a V6 Durango makes sense over a crossover, or car-based, SUV that offers similar towing and hauling capability is for someone who wants the durability of the truck-based suspension and chassis, for example because they drive on unpaved roads a lot. In any case, we recommend one of the V8s for the Durango. The V6 doesn't make much sense to us.
The 4.7-liter V8 engine produces 303 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. The 4.7-liter engine is generally competent and smooth, but it struggles to provide passing punch. With the 4.7-liter V8, the Durango can pull up to 6050 pounds. It is rated at 14/19 mpg with rear-wheel drive, using 87-octane regular, and 13/17 mpg with AWD.
The 5.7-liter V8 Hemi is upgraded for 2009, gaining 30 horsepower to 365 and 20 pound-feet of torque to 390. It provides more immediate power and more confident passing punch than the 4.7-liter.
Fuel economy ratings for the 5.7-liter V8 are 13/19 mpg with 2WD and 13/18 with AWD. Dodge recommends 89 octane fuel, though 87 octane is acceptable. The 5.7-liter Hemi's fuel economy is enhanced by Dodge'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 5.7-liter Hemi seems like a good value and is our choice for the Durango. With it, the Durango is rated to tow up to 8,950 pounds with the optional 3.92 rear axle.
We were most impressed by the five-speed automatic transmission that comes with the V8 engines. The shifts were smooth; shifting up or down between third and fourth gears was 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 the automatic transmission drops a downshift for you.
The 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid shares its two-mode hybrid system with the 2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid and the new round of full-size SUV and pickup hybrids from General Motors. Developed with BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and GM, this system uses a new electrically continuously variable transmission (ECVT) paired with the Hemi V8. The ECVT has two electric motors and four fixed gears. Total output is 385 horsepower and 380 pound-feet of torque. Dodge says the hybrid system boosts city fuel economy by 40 percent and overall fuel economy by more than 25 percent. Fuel economy is estimated at 19/20 mpg City/Highway.
The Hybrid has a Traction Power Inversion Module that determines when the vehicle should operate in the first or second mode and also chooses gears. The first mode is mostly for around-town driving and can use battery power alone up to 25 mph. The second mode is meant for highway speeds and always uses engine power. No engine speed changes are necessary for mode shifts to occur. In the Hybrid, the Hemi V8 also has the Multi Displacement System, and Dodge says the hybrid system allows the Aspen to idle part of the engine more often for better fuel economy.
On the road, the hybrid system works well, but not seamlessly. We detected a stutter during initial acceleration. We also felt a clunk that may have been the system choosing one of the fixed gears, or it could have been the Multi Displacement System kicking in, or even the engine starting. Also, in aggressive acceleration, we noticed a dead spot at about 45 mph. It felt like a manual transmission in the middle of a gear shift. Dodge engineers said it was the ECVT switching between modes. It's a little annoying, but it's not noticeable when you go easy on the throttle. Overall, the Durango's hybrid system is mostly transparent in operation, and you have to pay careful attention to tell that you're not driving a regular gasoline model.
The Hybrid powertrain may make the Durango slightly quicker than the standard Hemi version, but not by much. Any additional power the hybrid system provides at low speeds is offset by the sometimes tardy operation of the ECVT, and we actually felt the standard Hemi was more responsive. The Hybrid may also not be the best choice if you need to tow. It is rated to tow 6000 pounds. But it gets good fuel economy and emits less pollution.
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. The anti-lock brakes (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 first-generation models borrowed running gear from the Dakota pickup, but since its first major redesign for 2004, the Durango has been built on its own platform. Chassis rigidity benefits from hydroformed box-section frame rails.
Ride quality is surprisingly good, thanks to plenty of wheel travel built into Durango's suspension. Up front, torsion bars absorb impacts while providing tight control. Out back, Durango centers its live rear axle with a three-segment Watt link instead of a single-segment Panhard rod. This not only eliminates the slight bit of sway that's built into Panhard or track bar systems, but also makes room for a lower, wider load floor. Dodge engineers say they considered an independent rear suspension, but found this arrangement provided many of the same handling and space advantages, while retaining the superior load capacity of a live axle. Durango's 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 responsive handling over more than 100 miles of remote twisty roads in the Texas Hill Country. It maintained composure in hard cornering, but exhibited body lean typical of a truck-based SUV. The engine sits relatively far back in the chassis resulting in better balance. Driving a 5.7-liter Durango SLT around Detroit in January backed up our earlier impressions. It felt very secure in icy conditions.
In off-road driving, our Durango didn't hit bottom even when driving aggressively over rough terrain. However, crawling over irregular terrain in 4 Low reveals the suspension is set up more for on-road handling than off-road flex. On a great 4X4, the suspension articulates to let the wheels droop to the ground. That's fine for severe off-highway use, but it's at odds with good handling on pavement. In the Durango's case, Dodge has traded some extreme off-road capability for superior on-road handling, which more people will appreciate on an everyday basis. The off-highway capability, meanwhile, is plenty good enough to get the Durango down primitive roads and two-tracks in the backcountry.
We towed a 5,950-pound trailer for about 30 miles behind a Durango with the 5.7-liter Hemi and decided it's the best model if you need to tow. The 4.7-liter V8 would also do the job, but it would struggle on uphill grades and would offer slower acceleration when taking off from a stop or merging onto a fast freeway. And while the Hybrid has a diminished towing capacity, its 6000-pound rating is quite substantial.
The Dodge Durango is smooth and powerful with either of the two V8 engines, and the new Hybrid powertrain operates admirably, though with a few minor annoyances. This large midsize SUV 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.
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.