Dodge's Big-Boy 4x4: Back From The Dead As A Lighter, Lower Midsize
For 2011, Chrysler has resurrected the Dodge Durango in an all-new, all-wheel-drive incarnation that's lighter (by some three hundred pounds), lower (by 20 mm) and slightly shorter (by three inches) than the previous version. And contrary to rumor, you can get it with a two-speed transfer case. Available in both rear- and all-wheel drive and in four trim levels (base-level Express, volume-leading Crew, Hemi-standard R/T, and high-zoot Citadel), the new Durango should've already arrived at your dealer showroom by the time you read this.
Much of the new Durango's weight savings has come at the rear axle-or, should we say, the solid rear axle that isn't there anymore, now that the Durango runs an independent four-wheel suspension on a steel unitbody chassis with unequal-length double wishbones and coilovers in front, and multilink locators with coil springs in the rear. If that sounds eerily similar to the new Jeep Grand Cherokee platform, it should, since the two vehicles now share the same architecture and much of the same underpinnings. The Durango won't get the Jeep's Terrain-Select electronic off-road drive-mode system, but you can get the 360hp 5.7L Hemi V-8, backed by the very-smooth 545RFE transmission, or the base-model 3.6L Pentastar V-6 as your choice of engine. The new Pentastar, rated at 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, and paired with the W5A580 automatic with a taller First gear, wasn't a terrific match for our 5,300-pound tester (hint: spring for the V-8 if you drive a lot of Interstate miles), but it's a peppy little powerplant in a considerably lighter vehicle, and we can't wait until it finds its way into the Wrangler JK for 2012. Standard wheel sizes are 18x8 inches for the V-6 Express model, and 20x8s for the others. The MP 3022 two-speed transfer case is only available with the Hemi, however, which means (sigh) that you're stuck with 20x8-inch rims if you want to use your Durango for slow-speed trail work.
Due to the inherent nature of the new Dodge's design, most of our comments on the Durango's on-road ride and handling mirror those of the new Grand Cherokee found elsewhere in this issue. Our seat-of-the-pants impression was that the Durango's overall chassis dynamics might be slightly less refined, with slightly softer suspension tuning than the Grand Cherokee's, though to be fair we'll need to spend a little more time in it before we can make any firm distinctions. Our tester's Kumho Solus tires delivered excellent adhesion on the tarmac, with minimal transfer of road noise to the cabin. Interior fit and finish are greatly improved from the previous model, with smooth one-piece moldings and soft-touch plastics replacing the section-cut, gap-riddled dash panel and hard-touch armrests of old.
We didn't get the opportunity to pilot the new Durango over any off-road surfaces more demanding than gravel and graded dirt during our too-brief testdrive, so we'll withhold judgment on its true backcountry capabilities for now. It will, however, be at the top of the list of invitees for our 2012 Four Wheeler of the Year test, to be held about a year from now. If we can get a hold of one sooner for a backcountry shakedown, we'll let you know all about it.
Greatly improved on-road ride, handsome and well-appointed interior; you can still get it with a low-range gear.
No more solid rear axle, approach angle keeps getting closer to single digits, your low-range gear comes with 20-inch wheels.
A good example of leveraging cross-platform componentry, the Durango should keep Dodge a legitimate player in the ultra-competitive midsize crossover segment.
Vehicle/model: 2011 Dodge Durango
Base price: $32,170 (R/T)
Engine (tested): 3.6L Pentastar V-6/5.7L Hemi V-8 w/MDS
Max hp & torque (lb-ft): 290/360 (V-6); 360/390 (V-8)
Transmission (tested): 545RFE 5-spd automatic OD/W5A580 5-spd automatic OD
Transfer case: MP 3022 full-time 2-spd
Low-range ratio: 2.72:1
Frame type: Steel unitbody
Suspension, f/r: Short-long arm, coil springs, twin-tube coilover shocks/multilink, coil springs, twin-tube shocks
Max crawl ratio: 28.3:1
Steering: Power rack and pinion
Brakes, f/r: 13.8x1.3-in vented disc/13.0x0.9-in vented disc (Hemi)
Wheels (in, tested): 20x8
Tires (tested): P265/50R20 Kumho Solus A/S
Wheelbase (in): 119.8
Length (in): 199.8
Height (in): 70.9
Base curb weight (lb): 5,133 (R/T model)
Max approach/departure angles (deg): 16/21
Minimum ground clearance (in): 8.1
GVWR (lb): 7,100 (max R/T)
Max cargo volume (cu ft): 84.5 (rear seats folded)
Max towing capacity (lb): 7,200
EPA mileage figures, city/hwy (mpg): 13/20 (Hemi AWD)
Fuel capacity (gal): 24.6