2011 Dodge Durango Driving Impressions

The Dodge Durango is easy to drive and delivers a comfortable, quiet ride empty or loaded. The way it responds to steering and braking inputs will please those who enjoy driving and go completely unnoticed by those who don't. Our drive time suggests the EPA ratings are not far off, though routine short trips in town on a cold engine, as many of these are used, will be lower than EPA city numbers.

Nearly all the vehicles in the Durango class are front or all-wheel drive, often derived from a front-wheel-drive based car or minivan. The rear-wheel-drive Durango is not, even if the gauges and V6 are similar to what you get in a Dodge Caravan.

If you think you need front-wheel drive for traction, think again. Most front-drive vehicles carry more weight over the front wheels, where it helps traction. The Durango carries as much weight on the back wheels as the front, and winter tires and the standard traction control will take it farther than most owners plan to go.

Durango's excellent balance and rear-wheel drive also mean the tires do more equal work. Front tires aren't overwhelmed pulling lots of weight and doing all the steering, and rear tires do more than hold the tailgate off the ground. This is one reason the Durango steers crisply and needs less U-turn space than its rivals.

We hustled the Durango along mountain roads at a better clip than most owners will, an indication it has a lot in reserve if you miscalculate your road speed. And that's easy to do given the subdued cabin and lack of wind noise thanks to laminated front windows, dual firewalls, good aerodynamics, and a solid structure. We also noted that ride quality and handling dynamics didn't really change with five adults and two kids on board, the 1,000-pound load close to maximum for most users.

Around town the Durango soaks up big and small bumps alike with nary a quiver. The nose drops under heavy braking and there is a little body lean in the corners, both providing visual clues without any hint of drama.

Durangos with the V6 offer all-wheel drive with power routed to all four wheels all the time. V8 models offer four-wheel drive with low-range gearing for steeper inclines/descents, a Neutral position for flat-towing, and can be used like the all-wheel drive on pavement for slippery conditions.

We'd rate the Durango's off-highway prowess about equal to its predecessor: the suspension is better and more flexible, ground clearance is about the same, but the new one has things like aluminum suspension arms that won't take abuse and grounding like the old model's truck-style steel bits. As on the winding road the Durango will go far farther afield than most owners even consider, and tires the likely culprit stopping progress in mud. So you don't want to hammer it over rugged terrain, but it has enough off-highway capability for most needs.

The V6 engine is smooth and generally quiet, getting mildly raucous only above 5000 rpm. Despite not making peak grunt until 4800 rpm it has enough to climb a 7-percent grade at 80 mph fully loaded in third gear. It will merge at speed provided you mash the pedal early, and expect it to downshift at least one gear for any notable speed gain. This is because the V6 is geared for highway fuel economy, and the transmission has five forward gears rather than the six-or-more of many competitors. And those competitor five-speeds often have better gearing, weigh less, or both.

EPA ratings for the V6 are 16/23 mpg (16/22 all-wheel drive). More expensive hybrids and diesels notwithstanding everything in the Durango's class will be within one or two mpg of Durango's EPA rating; driving style and vehicle condition yield far greater differences.

The V8 Dodge calls the Hemi has 360 hp but it's the 50 percent increase in torque and lower revving nature that make it feel more powerful. It also lops a few miles per gallon off the top, but if you have a 6,000-pound trailer you'll appreciate it. The V8 also has a 5-speed automatic (not the same transmission as the V6) but the engine's better grunt makes this less an issue.

The rear-wheel-drive architecture of the Durango means better towing. All models are rated to handle a 5,000-pound trailer; with the tow package the V6 rates 6,200 pounds and the V8 7,200 pounds. A full truck generally means 1,000-1,500 pounds off those maximums, however. Even if we never planned on towing anything we would get the tow package: It includes a full-size spare tire, load-leveling rear shocks, wiring and the hitch that comes in handy for bike or stowage racks, as a recovery point, or a place to show your allegiances.

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