The 2011 Dodge Durango is substantially overhauled from previous iterations, keeping only its name, optional Hemi engine and perhaps a couple of hidden electronic pieces. It's a big change likely to win its share of “most improved” awards.
A Durango is for those with varied needs: plenty of seats, cargo hauling flexibility, towing, or four-wheel drive. To that end it can accommodate seven, even seven adults. It can be configured to carry big boxes or four people AND a 10-foot long-board inside. It can tow a minimum 3500 pounds fully loaded and up to 7200 in a lightly loaded V8, considerably more than most of the crossover competition that's based on front-wheel-drive platforms. And you can get low-range 4WD with the V8, though it's not as tough underneath as the old truck-based Durango.
The standard setup is rear-wheel drive, yielding even weight distribution, a compliant bump-soaking ride, nice quiet cruising and good response to driver commands.
An all-new 3.6-liter V6 brings 290 horsepower and is paired with a 5-speed automatic transmission, but they are saddled with 4900 pounds to haul around. On the plus side, the V6 gets 23 mpg on the highway and has a big fuel tank, so those 400-mile scenic routes won't have you worrying where the next gas station is located. Those less concerned with mileage will opt for the Hemi, not because of its 70 added horsepower but for the extra 130 lb-ft of torque and the V8 soundtrack.
Durango's interior now seats seven (except the Heat model) but it feels larger than before and looks better. Materials and fit-and-finish are miles ahead of its predecessor and remain wholly appropriate for the SUV mission.
Pricing runs from about $30,000 to about $46,000. The base Durango Express model is far from basic and a loaded Durango Citadel has everything you need and a lot more. Options, especially compared to some imports, are reasonably priced; our Durango Crew model had just $1,550 in options on it and left us wanting for naught.
The only Big 3 vehicle that's undergone wholesale change like this is Ford's Explorer, but it no longer offers rear-wheel drive, a V8, or similar towing capacity, and dare we say isn't as much improved as the Durango. By class benchmarks the Durango has a refined ride and cabin; by previous Durango standards it's beyond comparison.
Durango competes in a fairly crowded market, against the GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Hyundai Veracruz, Kia Sorento, Subaru Tribeca, Mazda CX-9, and Honda Pilot. Top-drawer Durango models could also compete with the Acura MDX and Volvo XC90, yet Nissan's Pathfinder is the only seven-seat, rear-wheel-drive competition to offer a V8 in this price range.
If you do no towing and don't need the V8, we would suggest the Dodge Grand Caravan. With the same V6, a 6-speed automatic and less weight to cart around it is quicker, gets better mileage, handles as well, has more people room, and as much cargo space behind the second row as the Durango does behind the front seats.
It wouldn't be a Dodge without a big cross-hair grille and the 2011 Durango doesn't disappoint. It's broad and tall enough to deliver presence, especially given its forward inclination in a class where everything slopes rearward, yet with the chrome flourishes and finer detailing it's more elegant than the macho, blunt-snouted old Durango. The hood carries out to the fenders rather than sloping off like the old one, and combined with the deep air dam and bodywork gives it a much more wagon-like proportion in side view.
Dodge Durango falls right in the middle of the three-row mix of SUVs for outside dimensions, and the long rear side doors look even longer because they have no fixed quarter window within. It's a fairly subtle shape with chrome down low on most models, sprinkled about more on fancy ones. Windows are neither Hummer-slit nor overly generous, and the apparent proportions vary significantly with paint color.
The rear end of the 2011 Durango is sloped more than the previous Durango, not as upright as the ultra-practical Pilot nor as fastback as others. Rear lighting is simple, though we found them too similar to those on the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Like the wheel-well openings, the lower edges all around the perimeter are dark plastic to avoid scuffing and rock chips.
A cargo hatch, powered on some models, does not open the glass separately, not such a big deal with pushbutton access. A lock button is camouflaged in the big chrome Dodge band across the back, and the manual hatch release is big enough to use with gloves. Rear wipe/wash and a small spoiler are standard on all.
The bumper has a top cover to avoid paint damage, though the toe of your boot may scuff the hatch standing up there to load the roof: Better to stand on a tire where you won't have to lift things around the antenna. Low-profile roof rails have swivel-out crossbars built in so wind noise is only added when cargo is up there. There is a small attachment loop at each rail end.
Unlike the first Durangos, the 2011 Durango uses five-lug wheels, which means a wider choice for those wishing to customize. Twenty-inch tires and wheels are available (or standard) on anything above Express but we consider the 265/60TR18 Michelin Latitude Tour tires and 18×8-inch alloy wheels far and away best for multipurpose use. Spare tires are stowed underneath the back, a nuisance in the snow, but do not require unloading or dirtying the cargo area.
Dodge Durango has a solid, substantial, but not heavy, feel to it. Some credit for that goes back to Chrysler's two-owners-back: The Durango approximates a longer, three-row version of the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee, which itself was derived from the Mercedes-Benz ML and GL classes. Dimensions are not identical, but consider this the least expensive way to get some Mercedes engineering in a seven-seat package.
The 2011 Dodge Durango has a pleasant cabin that combines some of the features and flexibility of a minivan with a less upright seating, usable materials and a dash of style. Above your waistline materials are soft-touch or heavily textured, while those closer to the floor are harder plastics that are easy to clean and scratch-resistant.
Trim varies by model, no surprise, and the fit and finish is good. Sporty Heat and R/T models come with black upholstery broken up by red stitching, Express and Crew in gray or black cloth upholstery that negates temperature extremes, with a lighter headliner to brighten the cabin, and the Citadel offers black or tan leather. Our primary example, a Crew V6, had gray cloth with dark brown upper dash and door panels, a light putty color for lower trim, and ash-gray woodgrain trim for doors and dash. Our only nit-pick about cabin finish is generous chrome touches that generate a lot of sun glare.
The front buckets are very comfortable, supportive without being confining and able to handle many miles without feeling too firm for five-minute jaunts. The majority are 8-way power for the driver (with 4-way power lumbar) and a 6-way power cushion for passenger side, which has a manual backrest because it folds flat; the Citadel's does not fold flat, so it's also 8-way power.
A tilt/telescoping steering column fits a range of drivers, and a power column links to the driver seat/mirror/audio preset memory system. Unlike some newer models the footwell does not feel narrow, so there is plenty of room for your left leg to relax.
Engine revs and speed instruments house smaller fuel and coolant temperature gauges, with the EVIC electronic vehicle information center between. EVIC displays everything from fuel economy or oil temperature to how long the lights stay on when you park, operated via the left thumb-switches on the steering wheel. All controls, the door handles, door pockets and the cupholders are illuminated an icy-blue, the gauges off-white.
Most controls are straightforward. Climate controls are split into three zones, or can be matched with the touch of one button; rear controls are operable if the driver approves by pressing a button. The shifter's a model of simplicity with no buttons to press, merely push left to downshift or right to upshift from the Drive position. The lone stalk on the left side of the wheel has high beams, signals, front and rear wash/wipe, so it gets a little busy; not all can be done without taking your hand off the wheel to twist it, where the impetus for stalk controls was to keep your hands on the wheel.
Audio systems work well, and the 500-watt 9-speaker sound system has plenty of rumble. The mid-grade 430 with navigation audio system in our Crew played everything we wanted (though the radio mutes when you load/unload a CD), and adding navigation among other things as a $695 option is relatively cheap. The navigation isn't as advanced as that in the 2011 Charger yet the only behavior we didn't like was how it occasionally reset the map scale on its own, even without us locking the truck or changing the driver memory position. The display is up high dash center, but like the climate display, is affected by polarized sunglasses.
Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillar is slimmed mid-way to aid front quarter vision, and the door pillars will be behind most drivers. The third row headrests don't block the view (heads might) because there is a dash switch that drops them at the touch of a button. Front wipe/wash coverage is very good, rear good, and the headlights provide satisfactory illumination; HID headlamps are available on some models, low-beam only.
In general the Durango's interior measurements are very competitive. You might gain an inch here or lose one there, but when your six-foot-plus correspondent can find a comfortable driving position, ride comfortably behind that in the second row, and then easily clamber in to the third row and sit without knees, toes or head scuffing anything we can't argue it's shy on space.
The second-row seat is split with the narrow section on the passenger side; you can keep two kids belted in the middle row while letting two more get in back. The center position has a soft cushion but the backrest isn't as soft as the outer positions because of the armrest within; a child seat won't be bothered. Both sides recline slightly, there are aim-able reading lights and vents overhead, and in the back of the center console above the 115-VAC outlet.
Side windows don't go all the way down but the rearmost few inches is flush because of the window shape. There are recessed coat hooks in the roof, assist handles on the back side of the door pillar, bottle stowage in the doors, overhead controls for rear air, good foot-room under the front seats, and four grocery bag/purse clips flanking the net seatback pockets.
Third-row access is very good. A simple strap-pull folds and tilts up the second row seat, and the walk-through floor space to reach the third row is almost twice what a Tahoe has for reaching the second row. There is more room back here than the legroom dimension implies and it offers the same adjustable reading lights and overhead vents as the second row.
The cargo deck is 32 inches off the ground and has one small deep bin on the left side and a broader one under the main floor. On Crew trim features include a small built-in LED flashlight, hooks and power point on the right and a pair of tie-down loops in the floor. The cargo cover may be mounted behind the second or third-row seats, the hatch has two loading or tailgating lights at the back/lower edge, and the close button is on the left side low enough for a kindergartener to reach.
Cargo volume is 17 cubic feet behind the third row, 48 behind the second, and 84 behind the front seats, all average measurements if GM's much longer trio (Chevrolet Traverse, GMV Acadia, Buick Enclave) is left out. A simple lever drops either third-row seat flat, and with the right seat section folded flat in each row you can secure ten-foot-long objects inside.
The Dodge Durango is easy to drive and delivers a comfortable, quiet ride empty or loaded. The way it responds to steering and braking inputs will please those who enjoy driving and go completely unnoticed by those who don't. Our drive time suggests the EPA ratings are not far off, though routine short trips in town on a cold engine, as many of these are used, will be lower than EPA city numbers.
Nearly all the vehicles in the Durango class are front or all-wheel drive, often derived from a front-wheel-drive based car or minivan. The rear-wheel-drive Durango is not, even if the gauges and V6 are similar to what you get in a Dodge Caravan.
If you think you need front-wheel drive for traction, think again. Most front-drive vehicles carry more weight over the front wheels, where it helps traction. The Durango carries as much weight on the back wheels as the front, and winter tires and the standard traction control will take it farther than most owners plan to go.
Durango's excellent balance and rear-wheel drive also mean the tires do more equal work. Front tires aren't overwhelmed pulling lots of weight and doing all the steering, and rear tires do more than hold the tailgate off the ground. This is one reason the Durango steers crisply and needs less U-turn space than its rivals.
We hustled the Durango along mountain roads at a better clip than most owners will, an indication it has a lot in reserve if you miscalculate your road speed. And that's easy to do given the subdued cabin and lack of wind noise thanks to laminated front windows, dual firewalls, good aerodynamics, and a solid structure. We also noted that ride quality and handling dynamics didn't really change with five adults and two kids on board, the 1,000-pound load close to maximum for most users.
Around town the Durango soaks up big and small bumps alike with nary a quiver. The nose drops under heavy braking and there is a little body lean in the corners, both providing visual clues without any hint of drama.
Durangos with the V6 offer all-wheel drive with power routed to all four wheels all the time. V8 models offer four-wheel drive with low-range gearing for steeper inclines/descents, a Neutral position for flat-towing, and can be used like the all-wheel drive on pavement for slippery conditions.
We'd rate the Durango's off-highway prowess about equal to its predecessor: the suspension is better and more flexible, ground clearance is about the same, but the new one has things like aluminum suspension arms that won't take abuse and grounding like the old model's truck-style steel bits. As on the winding road the Durango will go far farther afield than most owners even consider, and tires the likely culprit stopping progress in mud. So you don't want to hammer it over rugged terrain, but it has enough off-highway capability for most needs.
The V6 engine is smooth and generally quiet, getting mildly raucous only above 5000 rpm. Despite not making peak grunt until 4800 rpm it has enough to climb a 7-percent grade at 80 mph fully loaded in third gear. It will merge at speed provided you mash the pedal early, and expect it to downshift at least one gear for any notable speed gain. This is because the V6 is geared for highway fuel economy, and the transmission has five forward gears rather than the six-or-more of many competitors. And those competitor five-speeds often have better gearing, weigh less, or both.
EPA ratings for the V6 are 16/23 mpg (16/22 all-wheel drive). More expensive hybrids and diesels notwithstanding everything in the Durango's class will be within one or two mpg of Durango's EPA rating; driving style and vehicle condition yield far greater differences.
The V8 Dodge calls the Hemi has 360 hp but it's the 50 percent increase in torque and lower revving nature that make it feel more powerful. It also lops a few miles per gallon off the top, but if you have a 6,000-pound trailer you'll appreciate it. The V8 also has a 5-speed automatic (not the same transmission as the V6) but the engine's better grunt makes this less an issue.
The rear-wheel-drive architecture of the Durango means better towing. All models are rated to handle a 5,000-pound trailer; with the tow package the V6 rates 6,200 pounds and the V8 7,200 pounds. A full truck generally means 1,000-1,500 pounds off those maximums, however. Even if we never planned on towing anything we would get the tow package: It includes a full-size spare tire, load-leveling rear shocks, wiring and the hitch that comes in handy for bike or stowage racks, as a recovery point, or a place to show your allegiances.
The 2011 Dodge Durango qualifies as a wholesale advance on its predecessor. It's not merely competitive, it's near the top in many of the things that SUV buyers want. Durango can carry seven people very comfortably, rack up the vacation miles in quiet punctuated only by the half-kilowatt stereo, and is full of the conveniences you never thought of before and now can't do without. That it drives so nicely and is downright fun with the addictive note of the V8 is the frosting on the cake.
G.R. Whale filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Durango models in Southern California.