There were few more comforting images from this snow-ridden winter than an SUV sitting in the driveway, which is why I found such pleasure in the 2011 Dodge Durango Crew AWD I had last month. When it first burst upon the scene in 1998, Dodge billed the Durango as the perfect mid-sized SUV, producing a press kit that loosely borrowed the "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" theme with Durango being "just right."
(For the launch, they even gave journalists a box of "Durangos" cereal, with then-Chrysler chairman Bob Eaton and product VP Bob Lutz holding a bowl of it. On the latest Durango launch, they just handed us a flash drive.)
A lot has changed since then, including a two-year hiatus when the production plant was closed and a short-lived hybrid model in 2009. Today's Durango sits upon the heralded unibody Jeep Grand Cherokee platform, has an improved interior, wheelbase (+5"), width (+4"), length (+6"), room (it seats 7 in real-world adult comfort), and offers a car-like ride. Did I say this car laughs at the cold? Equipped with the all-wheel-drive setup and the 5.7-liter Hemi engine, it could easily pull a bob house, skimobile trailer, or 5,000 pounds with a trailer hitch.
Dodge says it designed the Charger and Durango simultaneously, but it seems like a merger of the departed Magnum station wagon and the SUV, providing a lean, athletic, and muscular appearance. The backside is rounded like the Jeep. Dual exhaust pipes proclaim the power of the 5.7-liter V-8 under the hood. There are now five trim levels: Express, Heat, our midlevel Crew, the luxury Citadel, and sporty R/T.
On the inside, there's more refinement, improved touch and feel for the dash materials, and an array of technology that made the Durango a comfy condo on wheels during a weekly 100-mile commute in snow and slop. Dodge notes there are 28 interior configurations that redefine the term "utility" in an SUV. A visit to the laundry list of creature comforts, safety equipment, and optional technology seems akin to morphing the minivan into the SUV, thus earning the "crossover" label.
Where the Durango earns high marks is on the road. In 2009, it sat upon an independent front suspension with rear coil springs and a solid rear axle, providing a stiff and unsettling ride. Rectifying that problem is an all-new short/long arm front suspension and isolated multi-link rear suspension with isolated front and rear cradles for improved on-road handling and comfort. Weight is balanced 52-48 front-to-back on all-wheel-drive models and 50-50 if you get rear-wheel-drive.
Despite it's largesse, tipping the scales at 5,330 pounds, the Durango didn't feel heavy or lumbering. It felt agile, like a lineman who was sent to conditioning to become more lithe and limber. That won't prevent the need for K-turns in parking lots, but it's devoid of the heavy Mack truck-like feel of old.
The tested Crew AWD was sure-footed, never wavering on the slick roads from Manchester, N.H., to Boston, even tackling what the plows had not cleared. Standard 18-inch wheels and eight inches of ground clearance helped me see over the high snow banks at intersections (thankfully, the warmer weather and heavy rains have since cleared them). Cloth seats, while missing the heated option, were comfortable and supportive. Moving around the Durango's interior made me think of a minivan, with its flip-and-fold ease and access to the third row, where room was tight but not punitive.
Dodge fans like the power they get from the Hemi, and this motor will not disappoint. With 360 horsepower (the 3.6-liter, 290 horsepower V-6 is the standard mill) and 390 lb.-ft. of torque, there's no lacking for takeoff speed or outright smooth running down clear roads. In fact, the lack of wind and tire noise was impressive given the vehicle's girth.
Moving this mass of metal requires a tradeoff at the pump. The V-6 is rated at 16/23 and is 14 percent more fuel efficient than the motor it replaces. The V-8 drops to 14/20 in RWD and 13/20 in the AWD setup but features the MDS fuel saver mode. When you need low-end grunt, it's there, and when it's not needed while cruising the highway, four of the engine's cylinders shut down to save fuel, indicated by a light on the dash cluster. Lifting off the gas also illuminates the "economy" light.
Economy in an SUV this big may be underrated, considering how it has a 24.6-gallon gas tank that read 371 miles to empty when full. In my week of more than 500 miles of mixed testing, the Durango computer read 15.5 mpg, but the actual math delivered 14.1 mpg.
Call it a crossover, an SUV, or what you will, but the new Durango is clearly a contender that should grab sales with its diverse offerings, attention to details, and Hemi-powered engine.
Gerry Miles is the former auto editor of the Portsmouth Herald.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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