After spending a week in the latest version of the Dodge Durango, I would urge Dodge to give it a new name. It doesn't have the best history.
Too many buyers considering three-row crossover SUVs look past the Durango — mainly because the initial version was little more than an SUV shell plopped atop a Dodge Dakota pickup frame. As you can imagine, refinement suffered as a result.
And the previous generation saw the Durango grow, but more in terms of attitude than civility.
Finally, in 2011, a Dodge Durango appeared possessing the second generation's attitude, but gaining an impressive amount of sophistication. For 2014, a number of midcycle changes gild the lily.
The Dodge shares its platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee. What differentiates the two is the Durango's size; its wheelbase is 5 inches longer, overall length is up by 10 inches. The Dodge has three rows of seats, the Jeep offers two.
So if you need more room than the Grand Cherokee offers, but with similar capability, the Durango should be on your list.
As you might expect, engine choices are identical to the Jeep's. The standard engine is Chrysler's excellent 3.6-liter, double-overhead-cam V6 mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission. It produces 290 horsepower and can tow 6,200 pounds. A 5.7-liter Hemi V8 hitched to a five-speed automatic transmission is optional. It's rated at 360 horsepower and can tow up to 7,400 pounds.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Durango can be had with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, but the Dodge has engineered the Durango for street use more than off-road boulder bashing. So, while both of the Durango's engines can be mated to all-wheel drive, only the V8's all-wheel-drive system features a locking low-range.
As before, the Durango turned in an impressive performance, with a refined ride, smooth manners and reassuring ability. The steering is tuned to be just fast enough to take advantage of the well-tuned suspension. This doesn't feel as big as it is, even though you'll never mistake it for a compact. However, you might be surprised at how quickly you can take corners. Body lean is kept in check, and any softness in the suspension comes out only in the most extreme circumstances. The flip side is a ride that will have you wondering why they need to bother repaving so many highways. The Durango's ambience is enhanced by its quiet nature.
The real change comes when you ask for performance. The eight-speed automatic transmission transforms the V6. No longer merely adequate, this driveline has more than enough power for most situations. Yet its responsive nature doesn't come at the expense of fuel economy. The EPA rated the test vehicle at 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. Not bad for a three-row family hauler that tips the scales at more than 2 tons. If you can live without all-wheel drive, mileage goes up 1 mpg. Overall, unless you need the extra 1,200 pounds of towing capacity, you don't need the Hemi V8 and its rating of 14 mpg city, 22 mpg highway — not to mention its 89-octane fuel requirement.
The Durango has five ascending trim levels: SXT, Rallye, Limited, R/T and Citadel. For my weeklong test drive, Dodge provided a Durango Limited with all-wheel drive.
All Durangos get a redecorated cabin for 2014.
Limited models have standard leather seats and seat heaters in the first- and second-row seats. Legroom is impressive until you get to the third row where it's a bit more limited, but still very usable by adults for quick trips. All seats are very comfortable.
A large 8.4-inch touch screen handled the many infotainment options. The software is simple and intuitive to use. Thankfully, some functions can be handled by the knobs below the screen. The touch screen is augmented by a 7-inch screen in the instrument cluster that, Dodge says, can be customized more than 100 ways.
Unless you're a hedonist and need lots of gear, opt for the Limited. It leaves off items many will find unnecessary, while still providing an opulent feel. The test car was stuffed with gear, such as a $1,995 rear DVD entertainment center, which could be easily handled by a couple of iPads. Skipping the power sunroof saves another $1,095, enough to splurge for $1,195 aluminum wheels. Other useful options included second-row fold-and-tumble bucket seats ($895) with second-row console ($300).
As you might expect, the Durango's exterior styling gets a bit of a nip and tuck as well, although the overall appearance looks familiar. There's a new front fascia, projector-beam headlamps, LED running lights and a new choice of wheels. In the rear, the Durango gets an LED tail lamp design similar to that on the Dodge Charger and Dart.
Prices start at $29,795 – a slight premium over the base Grand Cherokee, but a bargain considering the extra square footage this ride provides. The prices do rise as you climb through the trim levels, so go easy. The well-equipped test vehicle started at $38,395 and carried an MSRP of $44,870. That's luxury car territory, but this Durango felt appropriately equipped and trimmed for the price.
It's easy to see that the Durango seems as if it has spent time at a health spa. With its revised cabin, refined road manners, peppy but fuel-efficient V6 engine and a long list of available gear, the Durango is the three-row crossover SUV that's much better than you'd ever expect.
As long as you don't mind its name.