A Guzzler No More, Dodge's Fullsize SUV Goes Green
We recently returned from a testdrive of Chrysler's first-ever gas-hybrid vehicle-and nope, it sure doesn't resemble a Prius or a Volt. Instead, Chrysler's decided to launch its brand-new hybrid technology on the platform most sorely in need of better mileage right away: Fullsize SUVs, in this case personified by the '09 Dodge Durango.
The heart of the two-mode hybrid system, a joint venture with GM, BMW, and Mercedes, resides in the Durango's CVT transmission (which still sports four dedicated forward gears for operation at higher speeds). Two electric motors, driven by three planetaries and four clutches in the gearbox, are powered by a 300-volt sealed nickel battery to provide full or partial acceleration at speeds of up to 40 mph or so, as well as to recharge the battery on the fly via regenerative braking. The battery stores neatly behind the second-row seats, so overall interior volume isn't compromised by the system.
Also noteworthy with the new Durango-and its sister 'ute, the Chrysler Aspen-all engine-driven accessories are now run off the battery, not an accessory drive belt, which reduces drag on the Hemi and improves performance. We particularly liked the new power steering, which is essentially an electric hydro-assist setup now. We can't ever recall a 5,500-pound SUV exhibiting the oversteer characteristics of a front-drive car, but the Durango hybrid does, and steering feel is remarkably sporty for such a big vehicle.
The rest of the Durango is largely unchanged from the prior year: 345hp Hemi V-8, independent torsion-bar suspension up front, coil springs and Watt's link in the rear, and 265-series Goodyear Wranglers rollin' on 18x8 alloy rims.
Chrysler's own mileage estimate for the Hemi is 19 mpg city, 20 highway. We logged 22 mpg during our 200-mile testdrive on winding New England backroads, and one of our colleagues (OK, Skippy the 4-Wheel Guy) claimed 25 mpg with his test mule over the same route. This would certainly seem to confirm Chrysler's claim that the new hybrid system delivers a 40-percent-plus gain in fuel efficiency over the conventional Hemi, which in our past experience is good for about 15 mpg.
Another strong selling point: the Durango hybrid will sport a $45,340 base price-a fair chunk of change, to be sure, but a full eight grand less than the Chevy Tahoe hybrid currently on the market. Advantage, Dodge, for the moment.
So what's the drawback? None, really, except ... you can't get a low-range gear with the hybrid system. When we asked Chrysler reps about this, they told us that the vehicle's not being marketed to the more dedicated wheelers, but we're fine with that regardless. The way current electrical hybrid systems work, producing their peak torque at zero rpm, we'd drain the battery in no time on one of our favorite trail rides anyway. But for those out there who need the space and function of a fullsize SUV, and who desire some relief at the pump (or simply a smaller carbon contact-patch), the new Durango hybrid's worth a look. With that new power steering, it's definitely worth a testdrive.
Darn good mileage for a V-8; seamless drive-mode switches; crisp steering; competitive base price.
A bit slow off idle; slightly low ride height; low-range gear unavailable with the hybrid, sorry.
A viable alternative for SUV owners looking for relief at the pump.
Vehicle/model: 2009 Dodge Durango Hemi Hybrid
Base price: $45,340
Engine: 5.7L 90-degree DOHC V-8
Max hp & torque (lb-ft): 345/380
Transmission(s): Four-speed automatic CVT
Transfer case(s): Full-time single-speed
Low-range ratio: N/A
Frame type: Boxed steel
Suspension, f/r: Upper, lower A-arms, torsion bars, stabilizer bar/Solid axle, coil springs, Watt's linkage
Ring and pinion: 3.21:1
Max crawl ratio: Don't ask
Steering: Variable power rack-and-pinion
Brakes, f/r: 13.2x1.1-inch vented disc/13.8x.87 disc
Wheels (tested): 18x8 cast aluminum
Tires (tested): P265/60R18 Goodyear Wrangler GSA
Wheelbase (in): 119.2
Length (in): 202.1
Height (in): 73.6
Base curb weight (lb): 5,553
Max approach/departure angles (deg.): Not real good/A little better
Minimum ground clearance (in): 7.8
GVWR (lb): 7,050
Max cargo volume (cu ft): 102.4 (rear seats folded)
Max towing capacity (lb: 6,000
EPA mileage figures, city/hwy (mpg): 19/20
Fuel capacity (gal): 27.0