This is no longer the dawning of the age of the SUV, for the sun smiles brightest on roomy and comfortable vehicles adept at hauling families, packing in cargo and towing stuff.
The level of engineering expertise, design elegance, creature comforts and materials selection makes midsize crossovers and SUVs the finest group of vehicles ever available to mainstream America.
It's obvious in the sales figures. New car sales have trended downward since the middle of 2014, and through July this year are down nearly 12 percent from a year ago. Midsize SUVs, led by the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, on the other hand, are up six percent.
Automakers saw this coming and, over the past couple of years, have filled the market with clean-sheet redesigns of formidable competitors such as the GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Santa Fe and the hot-selling Toyota Highlander, which has climbed to No. 3 in the class with a 23 percent sales increase in the first seven months of 2017. Prices in this niche range from around $26,000 to $45,000
Having spent time in all of those lately, I was prepared not to like the 2017 Dodge Durango, which was last redesigned in 2011. That's an eon in the car business, which is seeing an ever-increasing rate of applications of the improved metal alloys, electronics, drive lines and safety systems.
Remember when TVs were big, heavy things with tubes and thick wires? Now they are thin, light, and controlled by transistorized boards and computer software. And they are much better.
The same sort of thing is happening in cars, which are getting lighter, but stronger, safer and more comfortable. Test drive a few hundred cars and you can really feel these improvements. Or you could just take my word on this, although trusting the observations of experienced people is a common courtesy that seems to have disappeared from
our civic discourse.
Eye-opening ride and drive
Imagine my surprise when, after a few blocks in a 2017 Durango Citadel, I found myself liking Dodge's trucky SUV. Powered by Chrysler's classic 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine, which produces 360 horsepower and 390 lb.-ft. of torque, mated to a silky shifting eight-speed automatic, the Durango may not be as refined as some competitors, but it is more fun-to-drive. It will scoot away from a stop light and hang tight on a skid pad.
Raw power alone does not suffice in the age of the computerized car. The Durango is satisfying to drive. Though it outweighs competitors by some 800 lbs., steering is nimble and nicely weighted, and the ride is agile and as comfortable as full-size SUVS costing twice as much.
There is a reason for that.
The Durango and Grand Cherokee share a rear-wheel-drive platform developed in conjunction with the Mercedes-Benz GLE class back when Daimler owned the company. Durango and Grand Cherokee share as much DNA as any set of first cousins, but the Durango is five inches longer, with a 119.8-inch wheelbase.
Rear-wheel drive contributes to a smoother ride. So does a longer wheelbase, which also gives the Durango room for a third row that seats three adults comfortably, and leaves room for the most cargo space and passenger room in class.
In its front row, the Durango has 39.9 inches of headroom, 40.3 inches of legroom, and 58.5 inches of shoulder room. Seats folded, the Durango has 84.5 cubic feet of cargo room—room enough for a refrigerator and about two dozen six-packs.
That's a couple more cubic feet than the competition, and most of that is in the storage area behind the third seat. Mobsters will be glad to know they can carry seven adults—four muscle, two lawyers and the Don—and stuff a coupla dead stool pigeons in the back.
Depending on the trim, the Durango can weigh from 4,756 to 5,331 pounds.
The Durango's interior is not as stylish as competitors, but it has a handsome, old-school look. Jeep-Chrysler get high marks for its Uconnect infotainment systems, which may be the most intuitive to operate of all. The radio has knobs for volume and tuning stations, a rarity these days.
A 7-inch screen is standard, an 8.4-inch screen is available.
Seats are comfortable and perform well during long-distance driving. With standard five-passenger seating, optional seven-passenger seating and second-row captain's chairs available on GT, R/T and Citadel models, the seats can be configured in 50 different ways. SRT features standard second-row captain's chairs and six-passenger seating.
If you routinely tow something, the Durango may be four first choice. With its base 3.6-L V-6 it can tow as much as 6,200 pounds. The Hemi will tow up to 7,400 pounds.
New for 2018 is the Durango SRT, powered by 392-cubic-inch HEMI V-8 delivering 475 horsepower and 470 lb.-ft. of torque It can move from 0-60 miles in 4.4 seconds and cover the quarter-mile in 12.9 seconds and out-haul every three-row SUV on the road with a best-in-class towing capability of 8,600 pounds.
By comparison, with standard front-wheel drive, the Honda Pilot can tow 3,500 pounds. That increases 5,000 pounds with available all-wheel drive. The base 4-cylinder Highlander tows only 1,500 pounds. With a V-6 engine, the Highlander can haul up to 5,000 pounds.
With gas hovering around $2.00 a gallon it barely merits mention, but, even with cylinder deactivation, Hemi-powered Durangos get 14-19 mpg, about a 30 percent less than modern competitors. The V-6 is EPA-rated at 22 mpg city, 27 city, about average for the class.
Safety is where the Durango shows its age, earning low scores. It received a four-out-of-five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with four stars in frontal crash and rollover testing. The AWD model got three stars in rollover.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Durango's small overlap front protection marginal and gave it good—the IIHS top rating—in four other tests.
More modern competitors like Highlander and Pilot each earned a good in all five IIHS crash tests and were named Top Safety Pick+, the IIHS highest award. Both also earned a five-star rating from NHTSA.
Ten years ago, Durango's crash protection was state of art. Dodge will not able to correct the shortcomings until it redesigns the foundation and incorporates high tensile strength steel alloys and modern crumple zone designs.
To make matters worse, Dodge does new life-saving technologies, but almost begrudgingly.
A rear camera costs extra, as does most of the safety suite that technology that Honda sells for around $1,000 and Toyota makes standard in all its vehicles.
These include features such as lane-keep assist—which avoids wondering off road and over correcting into a lethal rollover. Active cruise control keeps an eye on traffic ahead and slows the vehicle if needed. Think about all those people killed on interstate highways in fog, rain, or because they were distracted when everyone else hit the brakes.
Those features are not available—even as options—on Durango's first three trim levels: the SXT, $29,995, SXT Plus, $32,995, or GT, $37,995. The GT lets you buy a $1,200 Safety and Security Package, which gets you HID headlamps with auto high beam, rain sensitive wipers, blind spot monitoring and cross path detection, which warns you of approaching traffic when backing out of a parking spot.
But if you want the good stuff, like lane-keep and frontal crash avoidance, you need to step up to the $41,395 Citadel and purchase the $2,295 technology group.
Doing the math, that puts us at an additional $13,800 to get life-saving technology that IIHS says reduces injuries and fatalities by a third and that competitors are practically giving away.
To be fair, this hardly a reincarnation of the Chevy Corvair. The Durango comes with more than 60 available safety and security features, with seven standard airbags, including full-length three-row side-curtain airbags, standard front-seat mounted side-thorax air bags, front-row active head restraints, and standard trailer-sway control.
Bottom line: A lot of Americans apparently appreciate Detroit Muscle. If Durango and Grand Cherokee sales were combined, they would be the runaway top seller. If that suits your style, it's a good choice.