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Dodge Durango, 2011 car review

Except for its name, there’s virtually no resemblance between the old truck-based Dodge Durango sport utility vehicle and the redesigned 2011 Durango.

The new four-door Durango is handsome and aerodynamic. It has Dodge’s “crosshair grille” and resembles the muscular, discontinued Dodge Magnum wagon.

There are four trim levels: Express, Crew (also offered with a CrewLux lifestyle package), sporty R/T and Citadel. They come with rear or all-wheel-drive and have three rows of seats.

List prices range from $29,195 to $43,945, without an $850 shipping charge. Add $2,000 for all-wheel drive.

To emphasize the Durango’s upscale nature, Dodge says there are no “base” models.

Engines are Chrysler’s smooth new 3.6-liter, 290-horsepower Pentastar V-6 with double overhead camshafts and a carryover 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 360 horsepower. The V-6 has 260 pound-feet of torque and provides lively performance. It should satisfy most Durango buyers.Dodge Durango, 2011 car review 1

Those who want stronger acceleration and tow heavier objects should opt for the Hemi, which produces a whopping 390 pound-feet of torque. It switches seamlessly to fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when V-8 power isn’t needed.

But fuel economy isn’t a strong point with either engine. The V-6 with rear-drive produces 16 mpg in the city and 23 on highways or 16 and 22 with all-wheel drive. Figures with the V-8 are 14 and 20 with rear-drive and 13 and 20 with all-wheel drive.

What’s the driving range (at least on paper)? Well, the Durango’s fuel tank has a 24.6-gallon capacity.

Both engines can run on 87-octane gasoline, although Dodge notes the Hemi does best with 89-octane fuel

Watch option prices because they can raise prices a lot. My rear-drive Crewlux model, which listed for $33,195, had a bottom line price of $41,48? — thanks to a $5,000 option package.

However, that package contained everything from 20-inch wheels (versus the standard 18-inchers) and heated first-and second-row leather-covered seats to a navigation system, power sunroof, adaptive speed control and a front-collision warning system.

There are a fair number of stand-alone options, but all Durangos have a good amount of  comfort, convenience and safety equipment—including electronic stability control. Even rear air conditioning has headliner vents and rear-seat controls.

A rear back-up camera is optional for the Express and R/T, but standard for the Crew and Citadel.

The Durango uses an old-fashioned five-speed automatic transmission. It shifts crisply, but a new eight-speed automatic is reportedly on the way.

The interior — long a weak point — is improved so much that older Durango owners may not believe their eyes when they see it. The old rough cockpit has been replaced by a quiet, precisely assembled interior with higher-quality soft-touch materials and attractive stitching. The new seats are comfortable, gauges can be easily read and controls work precisely. There’s even a soft third-row armrest.

The Durango calls for a high step-in (and step-out), but the third-row seat can be reached fairly easily and is generally roomy. However, it’s only suited for two because it has a hard center area.

The old Durango was dropped in 2009, when the market for truck-based SUVs had fallen apart. The old model had a truckish body on frame design. The new Durango has more rigid carlike unibody construction and rides on an extended version of the refined new Jeep Grand Cherokee’s platform. It could be called a crossover, but is considerably larger than some vehicles that carry that classification.

The Durango has a comfortable ride with that platform, an all-independent suspension and a long 119.8-inch -inch wheelbase. Some models have perfect 50-50 weight distribution, others are close to it.

While larger and heavier than the old Durango, the new model “drives” smaller than it is. There’s responsive steering, a compliant ride and good handling, thanks partly to aggressive shock and spring rates and large sway bars. The R/T has the best handling, due partly to a lowered ride height.

Adding to the Durango’s carlike nature is its tight turning circle (37.1 feet) —especially impressive for huge car. The anti-lock brakes feel strong and are controlled by a pedal with a nice linear action. They have brake-assist, brake traction-control and rough-road detection systems.

Cargo room can be enhanced by the 60/40 split-foldling second-row seat, which folds and tumbles. The third-row seat has a 50/50 split and is easily folded from the rear. Both second-and third-row seats fold to provide a flat load floor.

Dodge definitely may have a winner with this one.

Dan Jedlicka, the former car reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his work, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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