Review: 2012 Dodge Durango R/T AWD

How’s this for a crazy notion:  Is Chrysler the new Hyundai?  The answer, I think, is “no,” but there are some interesting parallels between two automakers who at face value probably could not be any more different.  Specifically, I’m referring to the fact that recent Hyundais have been dramatically better than the models that they replaced.  Where Hyundai previously sold cars mostly on the strength of its warranty coverage and price, its products are now improved to the point that they occupy positions among the class leaders.

And so there is a parallel with Chrysler’s situation.  While the company was staggering toward bankruptcy, its engineers and designers were behind the scenes working on some pretty nice vehicles.  Cars like the 300, Charger, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Dart are all much better than the vehicles that they replaced.  Someone who buys any of those four vehicles no longer should feel a need to justify her purchase to her friends; they’re all solid, credible offerings.  As we learned earlier this week, Hyundai and Chrysler also seem to attract more than their share of sub-prime car buyers.

The last time I drove a Dodge Durango prior to the test vehicle we’re talking about today was in September 2008, when I reviewed the then-new Durango Hybrid.  Within two weeks of the review going live, Chrysler announced the end of Durango production and the closure of its decades-old assembly plant in Newark, Delaware.  I have never, ever seen a Durango Hybrid “in the wild,” so I imagine if you do see one, it may be more almost as rare as the Pontiac Solstice Coupe, another vehicle that had a press launch only to quickly succumb to its brand’s economic realities.  If Wikipedia is to be believed (it’s probably not), 400 were built.

For 2011, the Durango name was resurrected, but this time, it shares a unibody platform (and Detroit assembly plant) with the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.  Both vehicles are related to the current (third-generation) Mercedes-Benz ML; that’s not bad pedigree for a Dodge.  It also looks a heck of a lot better than the old body-on-frame Durango.  Gone are the gangly looks, über-cheap interior, thirsty V8, and ponderous handling.  Actually, the thirsty V8 still lives, and it sounds great.

The Durango shares at least its front end design language in large part with the Charger.  To me, the front is the best-looking angle on the Durango anyway.  The Durango’s flanks are sculpted and somewhat interesting, while its designers seemed to lose some interest the further back they went.  The window between the C- and D-pillars is just boring, and there’s not really anything special about the liftgate or rear end design.  To me, it sort of looks like a combination of a Magnum wagon, an old Durango, and the new Charger’s front end.

Inside, the Durango is reasonably spacious.  It’s in line with full-size crossovers such as the GMC Acadia.  Moving to a unibody architecture dramatically helped handling and road feel while improving fuel economy and interior space relative to the exterior footprint.  Cost cutting is evident in some places, but it’s still far, far better than the vehicle it replaced.  The climate controls felt a little cheap when pressed or turned, but the biggest interior disappointment was that it had the previous-generation Chrysler navigation unit rather than the new, larger one fitted to the Charger, 300, and Dart.  Not only did it have a small screen and double-DIN rectangle head unit, but it also had the old navigation software.  The Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan have the old units but with Garmin navigation software; it seems like the Durango could at least use that.

The fact that the interior of the Durango isn’t up to par with the Charger tells one thing:  Chrysler’s bankruptcy and financial problems prior to that really messed up their new-product cadence.  Because the Durango has older technology, it was probably supposed to arrive a year or two before the Charger, but instead, they both hit the market for the 2011 model year.

Gauges are easy to read, and there’s a trip computer/information center tucked between the gauges, as is the current trend.  The Durango’s is better than what is fitted to most GM vehicles, but not a color TFT display like the – you guessed it – Charger gets.  Set the gauge to display average fuel economy, and you may be find yourself wondering why you sprung for the 5.7 liter HEMI.  I saw just over 14 MPG in mixed driving during my week with the Durango; the EPA rates it at 13 MPG city/20 MPG highway, and that sounds about right.  Helping highway economy a bit is the HEMI’s cylinder-deactivation feature.  It really works (and can stay in V4 operation even under light loads, unlike a similar system in GM’s V8-powered SUVs) according to the trip computer’s instant economy display.

So, the HEMI likes drinking unleaded fuel.  I’m sure you’re not surprised by that.  It also makes the Durango feel somewhat lighter on its feet than it probably otherwise would.  Though we haven’t yet sampled a Durango with the 3.6 liter Pentastar V6 under its hood, the similar Jeep Grand Cherokee with that engine feels like the Pentastar doesn’t have enough low-end torque to get it moving off the line.  That’s not a problem with the HEMI.  The HEMI also can tow more, and it sounds fantastic – except above 4,000 RPMs when there’s an odd escalation of intake noise that distracts from the HEMI’s exhaust note.

It’s more fun to drive a Durango R/T than, say, a GMC Acadia, despite both getting similar fuel economy.  The Acadia trumps the Durango in most interior dimensions, although the first two rows’ numbers are fairly close (aside from width-related ones like hip room and shoulder room, where the wider Acadia wins by inches).  The Acadia shames the Durango in third-row measurements and in cargo volume.  The Acadia has maximum cargo of 116.9 cubic feet with all seats folded, while the Dodge can only muster 84.5 cubic feet.  Despite its smaller dimensions, the Durango outweighs the GMC by about 450 pounds.

I think the Durango R/T would be well-served to get a transmission with more than five forward speeds.  Though the HEMI’s prodigious torque output certainly helps plaster over some of the wide gaps between ratios, having driven a Chrysler 300 with the eight-speed automatic and Pentastar, it’s obvious that an eight-speed auto in the Durango would make it come alive.  In fact, it might even make the HEMI unnecessary for all but the biggest V8 die-hards (like my father).

The Durango’s brake pedal was more firm than some of its competitors, acceleration was strong (though in reality, it was probably in the low-7s and just sounded like it was going faster), and it handled pretty well considering its size, height, and 5300+ pound curb weight.  The ride was on the firm side, which I didn’t mind, but some may not like it.  The R/T comes with the HEMI and 20 inch aluminum wheels; the wheels look great proportionately on the Durango, but those good looks do transmit some harshness to the steering wheel.

In terms of three-row crossovers/SUVs, there isn’t anything that looks even half as cool as a Durango, and very few that have the performance to back up their looks.  The Mercedes-Benz GL 63 AMG could whoop the Durango in just about any performance measure, but it’s more than twice as expensive.  Sure, the Benz has a leather dash and Alcantara steering wheel, but what kind of man are you, anyway, that you need a leather dash?  For an MSRP of $40,635 as tested, the Durango R/T isn’t cheap, but that seems like a fair price for a modern, stylish, efficient SUV.

Dodge provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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1 Comment

  1. but there are some interesting parallels……
    I think another is that Chrysler is taking a page our of their palybook abd stressing the value equation that Hyundai built it recent loyalists around. With 11 our of 16 refreshed models for ’11, Chrysler was able to make this move coupled with the fact that most were solid contenders. Driventhe V6 with the 18″ wheels, its a much better ride (less harsh than the 20’s) w/o sacrificing any handling

    Cheers

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