By the end of the Dodge Durango's second generation, it had been years since the SUV was competitive with anything in its class. For the 2011 model year, the Durango bursts back onto the crossover SUV scene as a seven-passenger vehicle that might actually be worth considering without $5000 in incentives dumped on the hood.
The completely new 2011 Durango shares a platform with the also fresh 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, an SUV that does not offer three rows of seating. The larger Durango can be purchased in rear- and all-wheel drive forms, with a V-6 and V-8 engine. Pricing starts at $30,000 and can rise to the mid-$40,000 level if you're not careful. The 2011 Dodge Durango can be compared with vehicles like the 2011 Ford Explorer, 2011 Honda Pilot, 2011 Chevrolet Traverse and, at a stretch, the 2011 Buick Enclave.
Most 2011 Durangos will be powered by Chrysler's new 3.6-liter V-6, an engine you can find under the hood of numerous products like the Chrysler 300 sedan and Dodge Grand Caravan. In the Durango, the V-6 is good for 290 horsepower at 6400 rpm (295 horsepower on the Heat trim) and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4800 rpm. The optional 5.7-liter V-8 makes 360 horsepower at 5150 rpm and 390 pound-feet of torque at 4250 rpm.
Both models mate the engines to a five-speed automatic transmission that is probably the weakest element of the Durango. Soon to be replaced by a new eight-speed automatic transmission, the five-speed unit is partly responsible for lower-than-average EPA fuel economy ratings. The V-6 Durango is rated 16/23 mpg city/highway in rear-wheel drive; lose one mpg on the highway if you go for all-wheel drive. The V-8 Durango is rated 14/20 mpg in rear-wheel-drive form and 13/20 mpg with all-wheel drive.
If you occasionally need to use an SUV to tow, the 2011 Durango should be put on your shopping list. Six-cylinder models have a 6200-pound towing capacity. An all-wheel-drive V-8 Durango can tow 7200 pounds while the rear-wheel-drive V-8 variant maxes out at 7400 pounds.
When Motor Trend tested the 2011 Durango V-6 in a comparison test featuring competitive crossovers from Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, Honda, and Mazda, the Dodge finished second behind the Mazda CX-9. Editors found the Durango fun to drive - yes, a seven-passenger SUV that's fun to drive - and appreciated its refined interior and good ride quality. The transmission held back the Durango.
"Geared for fuel economy and little else, the Dodge's old, nearly antiquated five-speed automatic just isn't up to snuff," Motor Trend said. "'It feels like a slug,' quips [one editor], and our dragstrip results echo those sentiments. Despite a similar power-to-weight ratio as the rest of its competitors, the big Dodge turned in the worst acceleration, with 8.5 seconds to 60 mph and a quarter-mile time of 16.4."
Those who want a Durango that maximizes driving enjoyment should check out the Heat and R/T trims. The Heat has unique 20-inch wheels, a slightly lower ride height, special suspension and steering tuning, plus tuned dual exhaust. While the V-6 Heat model is the only Durango with just two rows of seats, the R/T has similarly sporty intentions along with the 5.7-liter V-8 and seven-passenger seating.
Cargo capacity is respectable on the 2011 Durango. Behind the third row of seats is 17.2 cubic feet of space. Fold down the third row and you'll have 47.7 cubic feet while also folding down the second row leaves 84.5 cubic feet.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have crash tested the 2011 Dodge Durango, but we can say that the Jeep Grand Cherokee -- which is based on the same platform as the Durango -- is a Top Safety Pick for 2011 at the IIHS and has a four-star overall rating (out of a possible five stars) with the NHTSA.
With so many five- and seven-passenger SUVs in the $30,000 range, it's understandable for consumers to become confused at the choices. What separates the Durango from the pack is its attempt at offering a crossover with personality.