2014 Dodge Durango First Drive

A three-row darkhorse in the crossover segment

What It Is
Refreshed and refined, the 2014 Dodge Durango now comes with a more efficient eight-speed transmission.
Best Thing
Germanic refinement and road manners with a dash of in-your-face American style.
Worst Thing
Hemi fuel economy is said to be improved. We wonder how bad it was with the old five-speed automatic in that case.
Snap Judgment
Proof that "most popular" doesn't always equal "best."


Ford Explorer. Toyota Highlander. Honda Pilot. Chevrolet Traverse. Nissan Pathfinder. You hear all about those five large crossovers, as they all sell incredibly well. But what about the Dodge Durango? There has been a Durango on sale in one form or another since 1998, yet it still trails the other big guys. While sales are up dramatically through the first two thirds of the year, it still lags well behind the segment-leading Ford Explorer.

The question is: Why? We've driven the Explorer, and without a question, it was among the most disappointing newcomers we've come across in the segment. Despite having gone on sale in 2011, the Dodge Durango hasn't resonated with the same success, even though its chassis engineering was heavily influenced by Mercedes-Benz's M- and GL-Classes when Daimler and Chrysler were still joined at the hip.

With a new eight-speed automatic transmission that is said to increase fuel economy as much as 15 percent, a revised interior, and updated styling, we wondered if there was much of anything left keeping the Durango from reaching top-dog status, especially given how good its genes were from the start.

Walkaround

You can tell that the Dodge Durango was designed during the Daimler Era of ownership at Chrysler if for no other reason than how conservative it is. Strong and stylish, the Durango's looks are reserved—hardly the exuberance of the Charger or the Dart that also fall under the Dodge umbrella. That's not a bad thing; it'll age well, as nearly every Germanic design does.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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However, Chrysler has seen fit to give it a little more pizzazz for 2014, adopting LED headlight accents with projector beams standard across the lineup. A narrower "crosshair" grille complements the headlights and provides a little more of an aggressive demeanor. Out back are LED tail lights with Dodge's signature "racetrack" design that stretches from fender to fender instead of last year's tail lights that looked similar to the Jeep Grand Cherokee's.

Sculpted lines add some machismo to the look, which we absolutely dig. Whereas most three-row crossovers are designed to be inoffensive to attract both men and women, we're confident in saying that Dodge is going straight for guys who appreciate their vehicles like they do their scotch: understated with subdued aggression, and something that will age well.

Sitting Down

Stepping inside the Durango, it is awash with blacks, silvers, and aqua blue lighting accents, exuding a definite sense of focus around functionality without too much styling for the sake of it. Sitting down, we found the Durango's thrones to be stiffer and more supportive than much of the competition's, making them comfortable over a long haul, with the exception of lacking side bolstering. However, without much padding, I found the driver's seat to be uncomfortable until I could figure out the right lumbar setting. It's an ergonomics philosophy that German automakers do more often than not, as 'Mericans have often stuck by pillow-top tufts and quilted velour.

The purposeful theme carries over to the five-inch TFT display that houses the speedometer as well as the 8.4-inch Uconnect infotainment system that we think is among the best touch-screen infotainment systems out there in terms of ease of use, clarity, and functionality. Press the voice command button and say "Channel 36," and it will instantly change stations to the alternative rock channel without missing a beat. The Durango couldn't be more user-friendly if were designed by Consumer Reports analysts.

For 2014, Dodge has added a captains' chairs option in the center row that removes a seat in exchange for an entertainment console with cupholders or a flat floor so you don't have to fold seats up and down to get to the third row. And a roomy third row it is, comfortable for more than just kids on short trips. The interior is finished in soft-touch materials from front to back, with power outlets, and entertainment systems available for everyone, as well as a split-mode in the available rear-seat monitors so passengers can be watching two different programs or playing different video games. Dodge says that this is a real SUV with rugged construction whereas most three-row crossovers are two sliding doors away from being minivans. To that we say sure, but the Durango still more than excels at family-hauling duties in its own right.

Driving

What genuinely sets the Durango apart from most of the competition is that it's legitimately fun to drive, no caveats necessary. Part of that is attributable to the linear, smooth steering that makes the Durango easy to drive quickly on tight stretches of road, now with standard paddle shifters. Part of that is due to the gem of an eight-speed automatic transmission that comes paired to Chrysler's fantastic 295-horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 or 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Another is the Durango's compliant, yet firm, suspension that more than held its own when we nearly missed a turn during our route; between the Durango's well sorted suspension and stability control, the big crossover handled the last-minute maneuver with ease.

The SUV just kept going about its business, happily and in complete control.

Rated at 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway in rear-drive form for the V-6 and 17 mpg/24 mpg for all-wheel drive, we saw a respectable 20.9 mpg over the course of a day in mixed driving. Not shabby at all for such a large vehicle.

On the other hand, the V-8 top-level Citadel model we drove was rated at 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway; we saw 17.1 mpg with the lightest of right feet. Believe me when I say this, but the Hemi V-8 makes one of the most sultry, intoxicating noises in the world under wide-open throttle. If we were to have driven it with any justice, we might have been lucky to see 12 mpg. Still, all of the aforementioned numbers are well above last year's with the five-speed automatic, and the quality of the experience is up there with plenty of big luxury SUVs we've experienced lately, from everything from driver comfort (once the seat is properly adjusted as not to stab you in the back with the lumbar support) to amenities to ergonomics to visibility. To boot, the Durango is rated at 6,200 pounds of towing capacity with the V-6 or 7,400 pounds with the V-8, far and away the best in its class. We're searching real hard to find something overt to complain about, and it's just not happening this time around.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Summary

If vehicles sold as a function of how good they are, the 2014 Dodge Durango would be pushing class-leading figures instead of hovering below 100,000 units while vehicles like the Explorer clean everyone's clock. The Durango deserves to do well because it's a crossover that starts at around $30,000, yet offers a level of sophistication that rivals the Mercedes-Benzes on which it's based, a darn impressive feat.

There are no corners cut with the Durango; its interior is incredibly well-executed--space-efficient, well-built, user-friendly, and high-quality. And while its ride may be too stiff for some, its fuel economy too poor, or its styling too bland, we can't fault too much of it, at least from the few hours we had driving it, riding shotgun, jumping through all three rows, and trying out as many of the features as we could. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Durango is that the cheaper, more mass-market Dodge Journey can do most of the same feats, giving up some space, refinement, and sophistication for a massive price cut.

The 2014 Dodge Durango isn't for everyone. It definitely has a greater masculine appeal than much of its competition. If you're longing for a family-hauler, want some amazing bang for the buck, and your wife doesn't mind some of the stoic style and testosterone-driven appeal of this latest take on Chrysler's biggest SUV, we're not exactly sure if we can think of a reason to keep you from taking a look. In fact, we'd encourage it.

Basic Specs

3.6-liter V-6 or 5.7-liter V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear- or all-wheel drive, 295- to 360-hp, $30,790-$41,990, 17-18 mpg city/24-25 mpg hwy (V-6, AWD and RWD), 14 mpg city/22-23 mpg hwy (V-8, AWD and RWD)

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