In front of the 2011 Dodge Durango Crew snow was swirling through the tunnels of light punched into the night by the headlamps. This has been a vengeful winter, and it seemed that some of that wrath was now being directed squarely at the Durango itself, and me by association. After all, even though the Durango is all-new, it’s still a big, heavy SUV with a tremendous thirst. Eight thumping cylinders and three rows of seats aren’t going to win you Green Car of the Year.
Just because the Durango is large and in charge doesn’t mean it’s some kind of outmoded throwback, though. This new Durango replaces a lumbering dinosaur of a vehicle that was ugly and ultimately not nearly as successful as the original Durango that bowed in 1998. From the beginning, the Durango has carpetbagged its architecture from another model, and this time around, it stops borrowing the Dakota’s boxer shorts and pulls on the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s uh, briefer, underbits. The exterior is expertly styled with all of the modern Dodge cues in place, and it looks great. Inside there are three rows of seats, and the third row can even support human life, though tall folks will want to ride in the front or middle row.
That shift should be interpreted as a commitment by Dodge to avoid going bankrupt. They could have hung new front sheetmetal on the old Durango and tweaked the taillights to give a passing impression of newness. That’s essentially the story of the Chrysler 200, after all. Instead, Dodge saw the same writing on the wall as the Ford Explorer, which is why both former leviathans have sworn off full frames for a membership in the Crossover Club. Car companies are not idiot collectives (though GM can sometimes come close), and since crossovers are generating so much heat, it’s a smart place to be if you want to sell vehicles.
Even though trucks are passe, the 2011 Durango is big and heavy and inefficient, all of which should naturally leave you wondering why Dodge traded one flavor of glorified station wagon for another, sacrificing towing capacity in the process. Don’t think too hard about that, or the abysmal 15 mpg I eked out of the 2011 Durango, because I’m going to tell you why it’s fantastic.
The fact that both the 2011 Dodge Durango and I were able to share a chortle at the snow storm speaks to the fact that it drives stupendously well. Yes, it weighs a jillion pounds; so much that the normally-brawny 5.7 liter Hemi’s 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque feel peaky and overwhelmed. The new Durango actually weighs a smidge under 5,000 pounds, only slightly down from the old truck. The 2011 Durango’s more powerful engine is a liter up on the 4.7 from the second-generation, and the Multi-Displacement System gives four of the holes a break whenever possible, boosting mileage to 13 mpg city, 20 mpg highway. 2008 Durango buyers suffered with the same 13 mpg in the city, but only reached 17 mpg on the highway. The long and short of all these numbers is that nobody picks the Durango for its thrift.
So it’s still just as hefty and not really any more economical than the old Durango, but it’s also blessed with perfect weight distribution, and a serene cabin that’s got just the right amount of guttural V8 anger for punctuation. The Hemi sounds so damn good that it could make three horsepower, and that would be fine. Oh, there’s also a 3.6 liter V6, the new Pentastar engine with 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque for better economy, though you’ll be putting your foot deeper into the throttle more often with that powerplant. Both engines are world-class mills, and if you can do without the extra thrust, go for it.
Either way, this porker actually has some sports car baked in, which is a hell of a surprise for a three-bencher that’s comfortable all the way back to the kid pen, which actually turns out to hold adults in relative comfort. The interior materials are nice where they should be, and the UConnect system that includes navigation, communication and entertainment functions is easy enough to use that I didn’t once threaten it with brass knuckles. The ergonomics are also great, with easy-to-use controls and features for rear seat passengers like an available DVD system and climate controls that make them feel like the designers thought about them.
The well-priced 2011 Durango starts just under $30,000 and comes with lots of standard equipment. There’s no shortage of available technology upgrades, but never is the Durango an annoyance to operate like a fully-loaded Ford Edge or Explorer with the confusion-fest of MyFordTouch. In fact, the Durango has it all over the new Explorer, with a better-balanced chassis, better looks and more gratifying experience from behind the wheel. While Explorer buyers are in their MyFordTouch class, learning how to use what they just bought, you’ll be out in your Durango. It’s the driving enthusiast’s crossover.