2011 Dodge Durango

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Dodge (bless ’em) hasn’t abandoned ship . . . not just yet.

The redone 2011 Durango may be sitting on a unibody chassis now instead of the body-on-frame deal it used to have – but it’s still a real-deal SUV – with a big V-6 or an even bigger V-8 driving the rear wheels (or all four wheels), not a pretend SUV like the nice but no-longer-rugged four-cylinder (and front-wheel-drive-based) 2011 Ford Explorer.

There are still a few others left on the field that haven’t given up and gone crossover – among them, the Toyota 4Runner and Nissan Pathfinder. But they’re older designs that could go over to the Dark Side at any time and besides – Durango’s got them beat in several key SUV categories, such as max tow capability and underhood muscle – while absolutely creaming them when it comes to on-road manners.

The only fly in the soup is the gas price scene. $4 per gallon and 16 MPGs go together like Elvis and a rap music festival.

WHAT IT IS

The Durango is a technically (if you go by manufacturer’s categories) mid-sized but actually nearly full-sized (if you go by actual measurements) 5-7 passenger SUV – not a “crossover” as some have called it. It comes in RWD and 4WD versions, the latter available with real-deal 4WD Low range gearing for tough off-road work. It comes with either a big V-6 that’s got V-8 power, or an even bigger V-8 with… well, V-8 power.

Prices start at $29,195 for the base model Express and run to $41,795 for the top-of-the-line Citadel.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Durango is new from the tread up.

WHAT’S GOOD

Still a real SUV; can go off-road and pull a real load.

Standard V-6 puts out almost-V8 power.

Optional V-8 puts out more power than you probably really need.

Much better ride/handling/civility than previous version.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Real-deal 4WD with two-speed transfer case (and 4WD Low range) requires the V-8 engine. (You can get a lighter duty full-time AWD system with the V-6).

Real-deal SUVs are a tough sell in a world where gas already costs more than $4 a gallon and your vehicle ‘s never going to get better than 16 MPG.

Cargo space is down, new vs. old.

UNDER THE HOOD

Express, Heat and Crew Durangos come standard with Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” 3.6 liter V-6 (also shared with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee). It replaces the old 3.7 liter V-6 and also the formerly optional mid-range 4.7 liter V-8, which disappears from the Durango lineup.

The 3.6 V-6 produces 290 hp – a spectacular 80 more hp than the previous 3.7 liter V-6 and nearly as much power as the previous step-up 4.7 liter (303 hp) V-8. It also gets 2-3 MPGs better gas mileage (16 city/22 highway) than both of them, no small thing in today’s world of latte-priced gasoline.

It features lightweight aluminum construction, variable valve timing and electric-assist power steering. It’s paired with a new-design five speed automatic that helps squeeze a bit more mileage out of the package.

The optional engine in all but the base Express (which is V-6-only) and standard in the R/T is the well-known Hemi V-8, displacing the same 5.7 liters but detuned a bit for 2011 to 360 hp (down from 376 in the previous Durango R/T). It’s still much more powerful than the new Explorer’s top-of-the-line 3.5 liter, 290 hp V-6, though – as well as the Nissan Pathfinder’s optional 5.6 liter, 310 hp V-8. The Toyota 4Runner doesn’t even offer a V-8. A 4.0 liter, 270 hp V-6 is as good as it gets.

But the Hemi’s also still a hog, too – 13 city and 20 (maybe) on the highway.

The new Ford Explorer’s standard 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine can get into the 30s on the highway. It may not be able to pull much, but just to give you some perspective as to where things may be headed in this segment… .

Like the 3.6 liter V-6, the Hemi comes paired with a five-speed automatic.

Dodge offers two 4WD systems, one of which is really a street-minded all-wheel-drive system without a transfer case and low-range gearing that’s similar to what’s now offered in the Explorer. This is the unit that’s optional with the 3.6 liter engine.

With the Hemi, though, you can get real-deal 4WD with a transfer case and Low range gearing – a feature the Explorer and other car-based crossover SUVs don’t offer. An off-road-minded underbody skid plate package can be added to the mix, too.

Maximum towing capacity is down a bit to 7,400 lbs. from the old (and body-on-frame) Durango’s 8,850 lbs. but the Durango still easily outpulls the ’11 Explorer’s 5,000 lb. max.

Durango beats the V-8 Pathfinder (7,000 lbs.) and V-6 4Runner (5,000 lbs.) too.

ON THE ROAD

Night and day difference, old vs. new.

Dodge did a commendable thing in redesigning the Durango to be more on-road friendly without cutting off its balls, as Ford did to the Explorer.

The new Durango’s unibody construction (shard with the new Jeep Grand Cherokee) greatly increases the rigidity of the package and also cuts down on the squeaks and rattles that are much harder to tune out in a body-on-frame layout. But Dodge kept the front engine/rear-drive-based concept intact – which leaves the Durango’s off-road (and towing) capabilities intact.

Big changes include a new multi-link rear suspension (with automatic load-leveling available optionally) that noticeably mutes the jiggles on washboard surfaces and makes hitting sinkholes in the pavement a lot less cavity-loosening than in the old solid-rear-axle Durango.

The new Explorer behaves a lot better on pavement, too – but it’s also now a car that looks like an SUV and is useless for real work or rugged use.

The Durango is more civilized now – but it’s not metreosexual.

Durango’s new 3.6 liter engine also fixes the Durango Dilemma that faced buyers of the old model: The base 3.5 liter V-6 used previously was a dog, but the step-up 4.7 liter V-8 was a hog. The new engine is neither. Power/performance is good enough (0-60 in 7.4-7.6 seconds, depending on RWD or AWD) to make the Durango acceptable as-is, performance-wise – without having to order the optional V-8 (unless you must have 4WD). And gas mileage is… decent.

For what it is – and what it can do.

And the Hemi? Now that you can’t even get a V-8 in the Explorer, there’s no point even cross-shopping them – if you want V-8 power and need V-8 capability.

Muscle car pull comes standard with this engine (0-60 in the low-mid six second range) and smoky burnouts, too. If you turn off the traction control. Enjoy it while you can. A 2011 Durango R/T Hemi is the equivalent of a 1971 SS 454 Chevelle. Just like its spiritual ancestor, its days are probably numbered. Maybe I’m an Eyeore or an Emo or whatever the hell they’re calling it – but I don’t see a 13 MPG V-8 SUV that isn’t also a high-end luxury SUV (rich people don’t care about gas prices) surviving when working and middle-class Americans are staring $4 gas in the face.

Do you?

AT THE CURB

The new shell is similar to the old so people will recognize what it is, but it’s also classed-up considerably (especially inside) and could pass for a more expensive ride – which is nice given the pretty reasonable under $30k to start price tag.

The trim nomenclature – especially “Crew” – is a bit misleading because all Durangos are the same, body-wise. TheĀ  Crew is not larger than the Heat or the Express or the R/T or the Citadel.

Mentions: The new Durango sits about two inches higher off the pavement than the previous model (8.1 inches of clearance vs. 6.9) which makes the new one’s much better cornering feel/stability at higher speeds all the more impressive.

If you lift the hood of a V-6 equipped Durango you will see about a foot of daylight between the radiator and the front of the engine. This will make working on things like the water pump/pulleys a lot easier in years to come.

On the lefthand side of the of the engine compartment you’ll notice jump-start hook-ups, but the battery is hidden Elvis-knows-where in the bowels of the thing. That may make replacing the battery harder in years to come.

Although the ’11 Durango is physically a bit larger than the model it replaces, it has lost some of its former cargo room. Behind the third row, there’s now 17.2 cubic feet vs. 20.1 in the old Durango – and total capacity (seat down) is reduced to 84.5 cubic feet from 102.4 previously.

So, where did the space go? To improved legroom for the second and third row passengers. For instance, there’s now about an inch and a quarter more legroom for the second row occupants ( 38.6 inches vs. 37.4 previously) and third row – while still not really For Adults Only, is at least usable by adults – which the new Explorer’s still aren’t.

The 2011 re-boot also includes a bevy of new high-tech optional equipment, including a 28 Gig music storage hard drive and Nav with Sirius Travel Link. A heated steering wheel is available, too.

THE REST

The Durango enters the ring with at least one other thing going for it in addition to the fact that it’s now a much nicer vehicle than it was before: It also has one less competitor than it used to, because the Explorer is now a crossover – not an SUV – and built to do different things. Some things it does better – like eat like less gas. Others it can’t do very well – like pull a heavy trailer.

Others it really shouldn’t try to do at all – like go off-roading.

A Pathfinder or 4Runner can do great things off-road – but their older-design, closer-to-truck-type layouts aren’t as refined on-road as the Durango now is.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Dodge – and its new owners, Fiat – have to be eyeing the rising cost of gas with fear and loathing. A bunch of money was spent on bringing the Durango (and the new Grand Cherokee) up to date and ready to claw its way back into the hear of American SUV buyers. Problem is, as much as Americans love them some SUV, they may no longer be able to afford them some SUV – at the pump or otherwise. It costs about $70 at current prices to fill up a Durango and that hurts unless you’re pulling down six figures. And unfortunately, most Americans aren’t. And those who are shop Land Rover or Mercedes, not Dodge.

There’s a bad moon on the rise…

Throw it in the Woods?

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