First Drive: 2011 Dodge Durango

Return of the “man van.”

by on Jan.03, 2011

A first look at the 2011 Dodge Durango.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Chrysler is in a holding pattern this year, awaiting some of the big new product launches promised as part of its new affiliation with Italy’s Fiat.  But, yet again, conventional wisdom would be wrong.

True, some of the most important launches are yet to come, but the troubled U.S. maker is turning out a significant assortment of all-new and updated models for 2011, including eight under the Chrysler and Dodge brand names.  That includes an all-new version of the Dodge Durango, which the maker is billing as “the return of the man van.”

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There was reason to be skeptical, of course, as we headed to California for a first ride in the 2011 Dodge Durango.  Chrysler has a history of wrapping the same basic product under a variety of different wrappers, and one could only wonder whether the ’11 Dodge SUV would be little more than a warmed-over version of the new, 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee remake.

To our surprise – and satisfaction – what we discovered when we got a first close-up look at the 2011 Dodge Durango was a crossover/ute with a decidedly distinct appearance, both inside and out, and on-road manners that are notably different from those of the Grand Cherokee.

The 2011 Dodge Durango can tow up to 7,400 lbs with the optional Hemi V8 package.

The overall package is one that’s not only stylish but functional and fun-to-drive, a combination that has landed the new 2011 Dodge Durango a variety of kudos – in fact, I’m one of the 50 judges with North American Car and Truck of the Year jury who saw enough merit in the maker’s new offering to vote it one of the three Truck of the Year finalists.

It’s been two years since the market has seen the Durango in Dodge showrooms, and for good reason.  The old model had plenty of drawbacks, admitted Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s lead corporate designer and head of the Dodge division, as we got the chance to look at the SUV’s replacement.  It was neither fish nor fowl, neither as functional as a minivan nor as stylish and aggressive as a true ute.

Longer than the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the new Dodge Durango boasts a third row and plenty of cargo capacity.

So, the challenge for Gilles’ team was to come up with the right combination of driving dynamics, utility and style for the 2011 redesign.  True, the new model has plenty in common with the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee remake, starting with their shared crossover-based platform.  But Chrysler designers and engineers have been able to deliver two very distinctive offerings that aren’t just clones.

“I don’t have to spend a lot of time apologizing,” said Gilles, as we got our first look at the 2011 Dodge Durango.

Visually, Durango and Grand Cherokee have been drawn apart, in line with Chrysler’s pledge to continue separating its various brands.

The 2011 Dodge Durango gets the division's new double-crosshair grille.

The new Dodge is a sleek, well-proportioned, 7-passenger/3-row crossover.  After taking in the overall package, we focused in on the details that give the new Durango its own look, starting with the new double-crosshair grille, a signature for Dodge, going forward.

The overall look is more elegant and refined, as we discovered when the new Grand Cherokee – which is also up for Car of the Year honors – made its debut.

But the real surprise is inside.  To be blunt, Chrysler interiors have been among the worst in the business.  They’ve been prime examples of how not to do things right, with plenty of cheap plastic parts, poorly grained panels, and multi-piece instrument panels that always seemed to fit together poorly, and to generate plenty of squeaks and rattles,

The 2011 Dodge Durango began development under former German parent Daimler but has undergone significant tweaking since Fiat took the helm at Chrysler in May 2009.

The new model does a 180-degree turn.  The IP, for example, is now a seamless one-piece design that not only fits together well but rivals some much more expensive brands in terms of visual refinement.  Elegant soft-touch details are accented by chrome trim and there’s been plenty of attention paid to the new Durango’s ambient lighting, which proves particularly attractive at night.

Beauty here is more than skin deep, with a lot of functional improvements, such as the 1-hand operation of the second-row folding seats, making it quick and easy to shuttle people in and out of the back row – which is now roomy enough to handle adult passengers.  (That’s one big difference from the 2011 Grand Cherokee, by the way, Jeep’s shorter, 2-row offering limited to five seats.)

Some of the most striking changes have been made to the interior of the 2011 Dodge Durango.

Durango is, in many ways, a transition vehicle.  The project began while Chrysler was still owned by Germany’s then DaimlerChrysler AG, and the underlying Durango platform has more than faint similarity to the next-generation Mercedes-Benz M-Class.  But some key steps were taken to enhance the Dodge model’s refinement after Fiat stepped in to assume control of post-bankruptcy Chrysler.

“When you go through something as dramatic as bankruptcy you have to drastically change the way you do business,” said Klaus Busse, head of interior design.  “You can’t just make minor modifications.”

The 2011 Dodge Durango is offered with either a 3.6-liter V6 or the big Hemi V8.

Those changes are apparent across the board.  Take handling, which now actually puts a bit of sport back into this sport-utility vehicle, as we discovered flogging the 2011 Dodge Durango around the Napa Valley wine country.  Steering, previously one of Durango’s weak points, is now something Dodge can take pride in, delivering a clear and accurate road feel.

On-road, the new Durango is well-mannered, if not quite up to the car-like qualities of the 2011 Ford Explorer, one of its key competitors.  But save for the new Grand Cherokee, with its smaller wheelbase, it’s hard to find a crossover/ute that’s also so capable off-road, as well.

Dodge boss Ralph Gilles, shown here emerging from the driver's door.

Offered in both front and all-wheel-drive packages, the 2011 Dodge Durango delivers up to 7,400-pound towing capacity with the big Hemi V8, 6,200 lbs with the small V6.

That base engine is a new 3.6-liter package making 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.  The 5-speed gearbox is a holdover, and one we’re looking to see go away over the next year or two as Chrysler brings out an assortment of more advanced automatics, including an all-new 8-speed.  That should improve driving behavior – and fuel economy, which is an acceptable, if not overwhelming 16 mpg City and 23 Highway, (in FWD configuration, 22 with AWD).

The 2011 Dodge Durango is being offered in four different models, starting at just over $30,000.

The 5.7-liter Hemi, offered in the R/T model, meanwhile, bumps the numbers to 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque, though mileage dips 14 City (13 in AWD) and 20 Highway.

Dodge is offering four separate versions of the 2011 Durango, from base to lavishly-equipped Citadel editions, as well as the R/T which, tellingly, was added to the line-up barely six months before the first of the new SUVs rolled into dealer showrooms at the end of last year.

The 2011 Dodge Durango is one of three models up for the coveted North American Truck of the Year trophy.

The line-up begins at an unexpectedly affordable $30,045, and stretches upwards another $12,000.  Significantly, all models feature more content than you’d normally expect from Chrysler, including such necessities as electronic stability control.  That’s a signal shift for the American maker and something you’ll be seeing on all its brands, according to Gilles, reflecting a new marketing strategy that emphasizes affordable luxury.

Does it work?  If the 2011 Dodge Durango is an example, absolutely.  The new crossover/ute is good looking, surprisingly functional and, fittingly for a “man van,” it’s a lot of fun to drive.  There’s a reason it has landed on the short list for North American Truck of the Year.  Whether it wins remains to be seen – the final announcement coming on January 10, 2011.  But we judges will clearly have a tough pick to make.

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