Dodge has a very low bar to clear. For the better part of a decade, its cars and SUVs with rare exception were compromised by cost-cutting efforts that hindered sales and slaughtered the brand's reputation. So it is with tremendous and pleasant surprise that we report the 2011 Dodge Durango is the equivalent of an Olympic pole vaulter who shows up to the William McKinley Middle School track meet. Not only does this all-new Durango soar above the bar set by the truck-based SUV it replaces, it is now easily a top choice among all large three-row crossovers.
But let's take a few steps back, shall we? You walk up to the all-new Durango and are struck by chunky yet sophisticated bodywork that looks sculpted rather than tacked on, unlike the last Dodge Dakota-based Durango. From behind, it is a spitting image of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, with which it shares a platform originally designed for the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, but move around a bit and you'll notice the slightly awkward tail end that was elongated to accommodate a third-row seat. It may be elongated, but the Durango nevertheless looks significantly smaller than a Chevy Traverse, despite being only 1 inch shorter in length and 3 inches narrower.
Pull open the door and you're greeted with a solid, Germanic thunk. Climb the short step into the cabin and discover the sort of design and quality you'd expect from this price point. There's nothing transcendent or class-leading, but it's perfectly competitive, and for Dodge, that's a revelation.
Press the keyless start button and the all-new Pentastar V6 whirs to life, followed by a distant, refined thrum as you accelerate away. The Durango's steering is pleasantly weighted and returns actual feedback from the road, while the first pothole encountered by the suspension elicits nothing but a muted thump and the sort of "who cares" impenetrability from the body structure you'd expect from, well, a Mercedes-Benz M-Class. There is an inherent confidence and involvement you get with the Dodge Durango that's just not present with its rivals from Ford and GM.
So while the 2011 Dodge Durango might have had a low bar to clear, the fact remains that Dodge has a winner on its hands.
The Durango comes standard with Chrysler's new 3.6-liter V6 that produces 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard. This is a very smooth power plant that returns class-competitive fuel economy of 16 city/22 highway mpg and 18 mpg combined, but the Durango is also quite heavy, so acceleration suffers as a result. We wouldn't exactly call the V6 overburdened in this application and it'll be just fine for a majority of buyers searching for a family hauler, but it certainly didn't come as a surprise when our all-wheel-drive Durango Crew went from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.0 seconds. By comparison, a Chevy Traverse hits 60 in 8.2 seconds and a 2011 Ford Explorer does it in 8.3. At least the Durango is the only vehicle in this category to offer an optional engine — in this case, a 360-hp Hemi V8.
So it might not be as quick as those rivals, but the new 2011 Dodge Durango manages to feel smaller, more agile and more eager from behind the wheel. Not only is its steering more responsive and communicative, but also the seating position, cabin design and a fractionally narrower body create a less burdensome feel when piloting this still sizable vehicle. You definitely get a commanding view of the road without feeling as if you're about to crush everything on the road.
The Durango's brakes are also excellent, bringing this heavy SUV to a stop from 60 mph in an impressive 119 feet. The Explorer's about the same, but that's a good 12 feet shorter than the Traverse and a whopping 30 feet shorter than the Honda Pilot).
While the 2011 Dodge Durango's suspension ably sops up the messy inputs from garbage pavement, its ample acoustic insulation quells the tire roar normally associated with the sort of deplorable road surfaces indicative of overused freeways (a fact of life in our Los Angeles testing playground). Admittedly, the Durango's competitors are also quite quiet, so it's really just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Still, the result is a level of refinement that is welcome from a previously rough-around-the-edges truck.
Interior space is also a vast improvement thanks to the new carlike crossover platform. The third-row seat is particularly impressive, with more than enough leg- and headroom for a pair of 6-foot-3 adult males. It's more comfortable back there than in the caboose rows of all its competitors (save the Ford Flex), though the wider Traverse has the bonus of a middle seat and thus the ability to accommodate eight passengers. Second-row passengers will find a 60/40-split seat that generously reclines and can be heated as well, although legroom is a bit tight.
The driver benefits from a wealth of adjustment from the eight-way driver seat and the power-adjustable tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel that's a surprising luxury car option on the Durango's Crew trim level (one down from the top-of-the-line Durango Citadel). The seats of our tester were upholstered in a hearty cloth that felt nice and seems durable for the abuse that families will throw at it. (Perhaps you'd prefer leather, but we certainly didn't feel short-changed with cloth.)
While passenger space is generous, the 2011 Dodge Durango provides considerably less cargo space than its GM rivals (84.5 cubic feet versus 116). It is on par with the Flex and new Explorer, though, and considerably bigger than its Jeep Grand Cherokee sibling (69 cubes). The third row folds flat into the floor, but that floor itself is quite high and lifting heavier items on board can be straining. The Flex and any minivan are better in this regard.
Standard for the Durango Crew is Chrysler's familiar touchscreen audio interface that includes controls for Bluetooth and digital music storage. Its menu structure remains convoluted and only four radio presets (or iPod entries) can be listed at once, while the corresponding buttons on the back of Dodge's new, nicely contoured steering wheel aren't as useful as those in other vehicles.
Optional on the Crew is the added functionality of Garmin navigation built into the touchscreen. While its graphics and street labeling aren't as good as those of the available, upgraded Chrysler navigation system, the Garmin software is remarkably quick to program and its directions are clear. It's also a relative bargain as part of the $695 Entry Navigation/Commuter Group.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Durango's cabin won't be winning any design awards and its materials aren't of the same surprisingly high-class quality of the new Ford Explorer. But most contact points are soft to the touch and/or nicely textured, the switchgear feels nice to press, the two-tone color schemes are tasteful and controls are within easy reach. Forget awards; this is really all you can ask from a family crossover like the Durango.
To cap this transformation off is the revamped Dodge logo, which ditches the Ram head in favor of the word "Dodge" encased in an outline of the crossed bars that mimic the revamped corporate grille. This grille is handsome, bold and maintains the Dodge look of the past two decades, yet revamps it just enough to differentiate the new Durango from the cars that have tarnished the brand's reputation over the course of those decades.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Dodge Durango should be considered by anyone shopping for a large three-row crossover. It doesn't have the high-end interior or high-tech options of the Ford Explorer; it doesn't have the overall interior space of GM's Acadia/Enclave/Traverse and it isn't as responsive to drive as the Mazda CX-9, but it strikes a happy medium among them all.
† Edmunds.com received the highest numerical score in the proprietary J.D. Power 2014 Third-Party Automotive Website Evaluation Study℠. Results based on responses from 3,381 responses, measuring 14 companies and measures third-party automotive website usefulness among new and used vehicle shoppers. Proprietary study results are based on experiences and perceptions of owners surveyed from January 2014. Your experiences may vary. Visit jdpower.com.