The Dodge Durango was completely redesigned for 2011, and exterior changes for 2012 are limited to paint. Three new colors expand the standard palette to eight choices.
By exterior dimensions, the Durango falls near the middle of the three-row sport-utilities and crossovers in its competitive set. At 199.8 inches long, on a 119.8-inch wheelbase, Durango has a smaller footprint than a Chevrolet Traverse, and a slightly larger one than Ford Explorer or Honda Pilot.
Nonetheless, the Durango has a higher towing capacity than all of them in comparable configurations, and with the optional V8 it can pull a class-leading 7,400 pounds.
It wouldn't be a Dodge without a big cross-hair grille, and the Durango doesn't disappoint. Its grille is broad and tall enough to deliver presence, especially given its forward slant in a class where most front ends slope rearward for aerodynamic reasons. Yet with its chrome flourishes and finer detailing, the Durango's nose is more elegant than the macho, blunt-snouted designs that preceded it.
The hood flows out to the fenders, rather than sloping off like that on the previous-generation Durango, and combined with a deep air dam in front, it creates a more wagon-like proportion in side view. The long rear side doors look even longer because they have no fixed quarter window at the rear. In total, Durango creates a fairly subtle shape, with chrome down low on most models and even more sprinkled about on fancy ones. Its windows are neither Hummer-like slits nor particularly tall.
The rear end slopes gently, neither as upright as the ultra-practical Pilot nor as fastback-slanted as Traverse or Explorer. The rear lighting is simple, effective and elegant, though in our view a bit too similar to that on Durango's corporate sibling, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In substance, the Durango approximates a longer, three-row version of the Grand Cherokee, which itself was derived from the Mercedes-Benz ML and GL classes (Mercedes owned Chrysler when these vehicles began development). You might consider Durango the least expensive way to get some Mercedes engineering in a seven-seat package.
The cargo hatch in back is powered on all but the base model, but the glass doesn't open separately. It's an issue only when you want to drop a couple of grocery bags in back without hefting up the entire hatch. The lock button is camouflaged in the big chrome Dodge band across the back, and the manual hatch release is big enough to use with gloves. A rear wiper and small spoiler are standard on all.
Several exterior features are intended to improve durability. The wheel-well openings and lower edges all around the perimeter are dark plastic to avoid scuffing and rock chips. The rear bumper has a top cover to avoid paint damage should you rest a heavy package or stand there to reach the roof. The low-profile roof rails have swivel-out crossbars built in so wind noise is reduced when there's no cargo up there. There is a small attachment loop at each rail end.
Unlike the previous Durango, the current generation uses five-lug wheels, which means a wider choice for those wishing to customize. This one is available with wheels up to 20 inches from the factory, though the standard 18s are probably best for multi-purpose use. The 18-inch wheels deliver the best ride and probably the best all-season traction, and we wouldn't guess that the typical Durango buyer will be overly impressed with the slightly improved steering response that comes with the lower-profile tires on the 20-inch wheels. Choosing the 20-inch wheels is usually a styling decision.
The spare tires, temporary or full size, are stowed underneath the rear, in front of the rear bumper. It can be a nuisance crawling under there in mud or snow, but this storage system doesn't require unloading or dirtying the cargo area to change a tire.
The Durango's interior blends a lot of the space, flexibility and family friendly features of a minivan with seating that's less upright and design that's a bit more anti-utilitarian. Dodge claims there are 28 distinct seating configurations. We're not sure precisely how they count that total, but we assure you that there are many.
And there's a new one for 2012, because the Durango is available for the first time with second-row captain's chairs. These decrease ultimate seating capacity by one passenger, but they create a neutral zone between the two kids sitting in the second row.
Trim varies by model, no surprise, and the fit and finish is generally good. Above your waistline materials are soft-touch or heavily textured, while those closer to the floor are harder plastics that are scratch-resistant and easy to clean. R/T models come with black, pseudo-suede upholstery broken up by red stitching. The SXT and Crew come with cloth that negates temperature extremes, with a lighter headliner to brighten the cabin. The Citadel comes standard with black or tan leather. One of our nit-picks inside is the generous chrome touches that generate a lot of sunlight glinting.
Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillar is slimmed mid-way to aid front quarter vision, and the door pillars will be behind most drivers. The third-row headrests don't block the view because there is a dash switch that drops them at the touch of a button, though heads in back definitely narrow the scope of the image in the rearview mirror. The optional rearview camera comes in handy when Durango is fully loaded with passengers. The front wipe/wash coverage is very good, the rear is good, and the headlights provide satisfactory illumination. HID headlights are available on some models, low-beam only.
The front buckets are on the soft side: very comfortable and not confining for short hauls, reasonably supportive to handle more miles at a time. The SXT comes with manually adjustable seats, and the bottom cushions don't adjust for height or incline. All other models have eight-way power adjustment for the driver (with four-way power lumbar) and a six-way power cushion for the front passenger. Most have a manual front-passenger seatback, so it can fold forward and flat, though the Citadel has power adjustment and no fold-flat feature.
The tilt/telescoping steering column fits a range of drivers. It's power-operated on the Citadel, and links wheel position with driver's seat, side mirrors and audio settings in the memory buttons. The driver's footwell is wide, so there is plenty of room for your left leg to relax.
Engine revs and road speed are shown in two very large gauges, trimmed with a blue LED ring that almost looks like neon, and inset with smaller fuel and coolant-temperature gauges. The Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) sits between, displaying everything from fuel economy or oil temperature to how long the lights stay on when you park, operated via left thumb-switches on the steering wheel. All controls, the door handles, door pockets and the cupholders are illuminated with that icy-blue. The gauges are back-lit in off-white.
Most controls are straightforward, and we're fond of the simplicity in the switch layout. The gear selector is a model of efficiency, with no buttons to press and a simple push left from the Drive position to downshift, right to upshift. Temperature controls are split into three zones, or can be matched with the touch of one button. The rear controls are operable if the driver approves by pressing a button. The lone stalk on the left side of the steering column has high beams, turn signals and front and rear wash/wipe, so it gets a little busy. The impetus for stalk controls is keeping both hands on the wheel, but not all can be done without taking your hand off the wheel to twist this one.
The base audio system is adequate for family duty, though Dodge's unusual pre-set station buttons take some getting used to. Each one stores two stations, reached with consecutive pushes. The premium 500-watt, 9-speaker sound system has plenty of rumble. The mid-grade 430-watt system played everything we wanted (though the radio mutes when you load/unload a CD), and it can be equipped with the lesser of two navigation options for a more reasonable price than most factory systems. This system isn't the most advanced, but the only behavior we don't like is its tendency reset the map scale on its own, even without locking the truck or changing the driver memory position. The graphics aren't as legible as the upgrade system, either. The display is up high and center, but like some others in the Durango, it's affected by polarized sunglasses.
Interior measurements are very competitive. You might gain an inch here or lose one there, but when your six-foot-plus correspondent can find a comfortable driving position, ride comfortably behind that in the second row, and then easily clamber into the third row and sit without knees, toes or head scuffing anything, we can't argue that Durango is shy on space.
The second-row seat is split with its narrow section on the passenger side. It keeps two kids belted in the middle row while letting two more get in back. The center position has a soft cushion but the backrest isn't as soft as the outer positions because of the armrest within. The rear side windows don't go all the way down, but the last few inches of glass that remain are flush and even with the top of the door panel all the way across.
Both sides of the second row recline slightly. There are aim-able reading lights and vents overhead, with more vents and a standard-plug, 115-VAC outlet on the back of the center console. You don't need an inverter to plug a game or computer into the Durango. There are recessed coat hooks in the roof, assist handles on the back side of the door pillar, bottle stowage in the doors, four grocery bag/purse clips flanking the front seatback nets, overhead controls for rear air, and good foot-room under the front seats.
Third-row access is very good. A one-pull strap folds and tilts up the second row seat, and the walk-through floor space is expansive as such spaces go. There is more room back here than the legroom dimension implies, and it offers the same adjustable reading lights and overhead vents as the second row.
Cargo volume is 17 cubic feet behind the third row (comparable to trunk space in a good mid-size sedan), 48 cubic feet behind the second row (comparable to a compact SUV or crossover with the rear seats folded), and 84 behind the front seats. Those numbers are substantially less than what's available in GM's longer trio of crossovers (Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave), but competitive with other mid-size models. There's a little bit more cargo volume in Durango than in a Ford Explorer, and little bit less than what's available in a Honda Pilot.
A simple lever drops either of Durango's third-row seats flat. With the right seat section folded flat in each row, there is more than ten feet of length. Durango can carry 10-foot items as narrow as a two-by-four or as wide as folding ladder inside. The cargo deck is 32 inches off the ground. There's one small, deep bin under the load floor on the left side, adjacent to where the spare hangs underneath, and a broader, shallower one under the main floor.
Even the base Durango SXT comes with a small, rechargeable LED flashlight, hooks and a power point just inside the tailgate, with a pair of tie-down loops in the floor. The cargo cover can be mounted behind the second or third-row seats. The gate has two loading or tailgating lights at the back/lower edge, and the close button for the power option is on the left side, low enough for a kindergartener to reach.