Head to head: 2012 Dodge Durango

Kevin Mio: The stories dominating the automotive headlines these days are all about fuel efficiency, smaller cars and even electric vehicles.

And that is probably how it should be given the state of the environment, the ever increasing price of fuel and the decreasing amount of real estate being allocated to vehicles in some urban areas.

But there is still – and probably always will be – a need for a vehicle that can haul around up to seven passengers and have excellent towing capability.

That’s where a sport utility vehicle like the 2012 Dodge Durango comes in – a vehicle segment that also includes the likes of the Chevy Traverse, Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner and others.

The third generation of the Durango was re-introduced to the market as a 2011 model after a short hiatus from the market. The new Durango also shares some of its underpinnings with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, another revamped model from the automaker that made a good impression on me last year.

The seven-passenger Durango comes in four trims, starting with the SXT at $37,995, the Crew Plus model at $46,195, the R/T trim at $47,195 and the top-of-the-line Citadel trim, which starts at $50,195.

The tester was a decked-out Citadel model that topped out at $57,045 once all the extras and charges were added up.

Among the options was something every family can appreciate: a rear DVD entertainment system, which runs for $1,300 but is probably worth its weight in gold for keeping the little ones from asking “are we there yet?” every 10 minutes.

The tester was also equipped with the $300 Skid Plate Group for improved off-road capability and a $750 Trailer Tow Group IV.

Buying a larger vehicle like the Durango also adds a $1,000 Federal Green Levy because of the amount of fuel the vehicle burns. There’s also the $100 air conditioning excise tax and $1,400 destination charge added in.

Standard equipment on the Citadel tester includes Nappa leather-faced seating with perforated inserts, ventilated front seats, Media Centre with enhanced GPS navigation, 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, sunroof, blind spot monitoring system, rear cross path detection, rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning.

Design: The 2012 Durango is nothing like the original model that appeared in the mid-1990s, which looks very much like the Dodge pickup trucks of that era.

The new model is a much sleeker and more attractive model.

The tall front end is dominated by the massive crosshair grille that is also seen on other Dodge models. The wide placement of the headlights and fog lights enhance the overall appearance.

The side view features some nicely contoured sheet metal and the 20-inch wheels on the tester definitely stand out.

Wraparound tail lights lead the eye to the rear hatch, which is dominated by a large chrome bar, a look similar to that of the Grand Cherokee.

The passenger cabin is comfortable and most everything is properly laid out, with most controls centred around a single spot on the centre stack, making them easy to operate.

The steering-wheel controls also eliminated the need for going to the central controls for everything other than the ventilation system, or the heated and cooled seat controls.

The cabin is also surprisingly quiet given what is under the hood.

Performance: There are two available engines in the Durango lineup. Every model except the R/T comes with the Pentastar 3.6-litre VVT V6 engine that delivers 290 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque.

That engine can tow up to 6,200 pounds and is rated at 13.0 litres per 100 kilometres in the city and 8.8 L/100 km on the highway.

But the Durango is also available with a HEMI engine, which is standard on the R/T and optional on the Crew Plus and Citadel models. At an extra $2,000, the tester was equipped with the larger engine. The 5.7L VVT V8 HEMI MDS engine pumps out 360 horsepower and a stump-pulling 390 foot-pounds of torque.

The all-wheel-drive Durango comes with a six-speed automatic transmission and the HEMI ups towing capacity to 7,200 pounds. Fuel efficiency jumps to 16.6 L/100 in the city and 10.0 L/100 km on the highway.

Those numbers would likely be even higher if not for the FuelSaver Multi-Displacement System, which alternates between four-cylinder mode when less power is required and full V8 performance when more power is needed.

The transition from eight to four cylinders goes on unnoticed behind the wheel.

Driving/utility: When driving around town in a Durango, you have to be aware of its size. This is not a Fiat 500, so parking in tight spots can be tricky, as can be navigating some tight turns in smaller parking lots. But that just means you have to pay attention while driving, which we all should be doing anyway.

But the sensors on the Durango Citadel, as well as the rear-view camera, facilitate any manoeuvre you make.

The overall ride is pretty comfortable, and the cabin is well appointed with all the amenities you need.

The front and second row of seats are heated, as is the steering wheel, and there is a standard 110-volt plug in the rear, which is activated by a button on the centre stack.

The seven-seat Durango has four doors, meaning getting into the rearmost two seats can be challenge for some. And once back there, legroom is at a premium and probably best suited for the youngest members of the family.

When the third row of seats is up, cargo space behind them is quite limited. Dropping the 60/40 split rear bench opens up much larger cargo area, easily accessed via the large powered rear hatch.

Design leaps make 2012 model the best Durango yet

Jim Leggett: Like a university student, the Dodge Durango has returned from its sabbatical in Europe with a sleek new look and a fresh attitude. Did you not notice that it was missing from the vehicle lineup at your local Dodge dealership?

That was the biggest problem with the previous Durangos, they were not the favoured choice of the domestic SUV crowd and sales that declined for the first generation (1998-2003) went into a death spiral for the second generation.

Fortunately for the Durango, which had been based on the Dakota mid-size pickup truck at first, corporate circumstances that saw the arrival of Daimler (Mercedes Benz) as a partner with Chrysler and the Europeans wanted to reclaim a piece of the North American SUV market.

The Chrysler-Daimler marriage has since ended in divorce, but one of the children was the third generation Durango which is based on the vehicle architecture of the Mercedes Benz ML class. Those are pretty good genes to inherit. The new Durango shares not only the assembly line with its cousin the Grand Cherokee, but also the running gear, powertrains, and some chassis parts.

Design: The 2012 Durango is a completely different design than the outgoing models, lower in total height and longer in wheelbase although a bit less in overall length. The Dodge brand has always had a strong character from the front and the Durango doesn’t disappoint with a very big, shiny grille like the RAM trucks. If you choose the Citadel model like our tester, the top-of-the-line Durango gets extra bling with a chromed wire grille that dazzles like a rap star’s smile. Where to Mr. Flav o’Flav?

Dodge trucks and SUVs all share huge headlights under clear covers and the requisite driving lamps mounted low and wide under the bumper. A simple strip of chrome trim along the bottom edge of the lower grille opening keeps things from becoming too bland. The layout is basic but it works well.

The side profile is perhaps a little too smooth, devoid of any accent lines or details other than a repeat of the chrome strip, this time along the running board. The Citadel’s chrome side mirrors and door handles have a lot of sheet metal to brighten up where a bolder character line would use light reflections to break up the expanse.

Thankfully the 20-inch chrome-clad wheels match the size of the vehicle and fill the wheel wells nicely.

The rear end keeps with the Dodge design doctrine with a small spoiler over the rear window, a rear window wiper and a finishing flourish of chrome trim between the tail lights on the powered liftgate.

Our 5.7L HEMI V8-powered Citadel had twin chrome-tipped exhaust tips and the optional trailer hitch that was well integrated into the lower valance.

The interior design of the Durango is a big improvement with a stylish two-tone dashboard and simple instrument layout.

The heated (should be standard on all Canadian vehicles), leather-wrapped steering wheel holds many controls for the audio system, communications and cruise control. Chrysler still insists on a pair of switches located out of sight on the backside of the steering wheel rim and each has three functions so you need to remember which one does what. I still managed to change channels or volume by accident because I place my hands at the proper 9 and 3 positions, especially when turning.

The centre stack is the home of the 6.5-inch navigation/audio system display screen which is controlled by touchscreen and two columns of buttons, one on either side. Unfortunately these buttons are all identical and require a glance to choose the correct one. The HVAC controls directly below work like a champ with minimal attention from the driver.

The front seats in all models are firm and supportive, just like the essentially identical set in the Grand Cherokee. Citadels come wrapped in slippery Napa leather and are both heated and cooled.

The second-row seating is roomy and offers a traditional power outlet for laptops and the like. Citadels feature rear seat warmers, a very welcome feature. Row 3 is really for kids, but the split-folding seats are actually reasonably comfortable for smaller adults. Unlike some rivals, the Durango’s rear seats are manually-folding, an inconvenience I didn’t really find inconvenient. Just one lever and a pull strap move the seats into place in less time than most power units take.

Materials throughout the interior are class-leading – which makes them a colossal leap ahead of any previous Durango. Soft-touch materials and chrome trims abound, with nothing feeling cheap aside from maybe some of the trim around the gear lever. A dark finish faux wood completes the look much better than one would have expected it to.

Performance: Yes, this Citadel has a HEMI; 5.7 litres of V8 power, best-in-class at 360 horsepower, 390 foot-pounds of torque and variable valve timing. It switches automatically from eight cylinders to four during cruising, for greater fuel efficiency (16.6L/100 km in the city and 10.0L/100 km on the open highway, not bad for an AWD seven-passenger SUV).

The Durango puts this power rating to good use when towing, rated at 7,400 pounds, another class-leading stat. The six-speed transmission is another component shared with the Mercedes ML and it shifts smoothly under load.

The engineers have included a standard trailer sway control plus several additional safety features such as blind spot monitoring, rear cross path detection (to warn of traffic in parking lots), adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning.

Driving/utility: The 2012 Durango is definitely the best one yet with big leaps forward in engineering thanks to Daimler. The handling for the full-size SUV is firm and settled, the Citadel was positively unflappable over any broken pavement I could find in Montreal or the surrounding countryside. The hydraulic rack-and-pinion power steering (not the electric setup found on its rivals) made the Durango mildly entertaining on curvy roads. Body lean was minimal, especially given the size of the vehicle, and grip from the optional all-wheel-drive was tenacious.

With the third row seats folded flat, there’s tons of cargo space. The DVD player will keep the kids happy, especially with the UConnect Web feature keeping everybody online.

The exterior styling is an odd mix, a little too sedate for me, but in the case of the Citadel, with too much chrome in the grille. I would choose to load up the R/T version with options to equal the Citadel’s features.

Photograph by: Jim Leggett, Special to The Gazette