It takes a long time to lose a bad reputation. The 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid looks like the kind of big SUV that says you don't give a damn about the environment and are OK with importing the majority of our oil. But looks can be deceiving. Although the Durango sits up high on its 18-inch wheels, has three rows of seating plus cargo room, and swaggers about with 1990s hedonism, it gets fuel economy around 20 mpg. Some may scoff at this number, but it's a drastically better than straight gas-powered SUVs, especially in the city, and equivalent to plenty of V-6 sedans we've tested. If the Durango Hybrid had come along two or three years ago, it might have countered flagging SUV sales.
The hybrid system in the Durango is the result of a joint development effort between GM, Daimler, and BMW. Dodge seems to figure that, if you are the type of person who would want a hybrid SUV, then you are also the type of person who wants all of the cabin tech, as the Dodge Durango Hybrid comes standard with the excellent UConnect GPS, UConnect Bluetooth phone integration, and Alpine audio system. In fact, the only option in our tech-loaded Durango Hybrid was the rear-seat entertainment system with Sirius Satellite TV, which Dodge also puts under its UConnect brand.
Test the tech: City drive
The hybrid system in the Dodge Durango Hybrid uses a transmission that's half continuously variable and half traditional automatic, along with an 87-horsepower electric motor and a 300-volt battery pack, similar to the hybrid system we tested earlier in the GMC Yukon Hybrid. In normal driving situations, the continuously variable transmission operates, with the four-speed automatic taking over when towing or on more difficult terrain. For low-speed cruising--less than 30 mph--this big truck runs under electric power, with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 kicking in only when greater speed or acceleration is needed.
To test out this 5,609-pound behemoth, we put it in terrain where big-engined SUVs get their worst mileage: city traffic. We first drove south of San Francisco on the freeway, giving the trip computer time to get near its maximum average fuel economy, which hit a plateau at around 19.5 mpg. According to the EPA, this number could average 22 mpg on the highway, but freeway driving around here tends to run faster than the EPA highway test, at 65 to 70 mph speeds.
We exited in Palo Alto, and drove surface streets back up to San Francisco, over 30 miles with frequent stop lights, traffic, and speed limits maxing out at 35 mph. Fortunately for our fuel economy, the Durango Hybrid shuts off its big engine when stopped, so we didn't burn fuel at red lights. Although the Durango can drive up to 30 mph under electric power, it takes gentle work with the gas pedal to keep the gas engine from kicking in when accelerating. As we matched our pace with traffic, we had to hit the pedal a little harder, maybe a quarter depressed, which usually brought the engine into play.
Fortunately, the electric motor assists on acceleration as well, so we weren't burning too much gas on our starts. As we cruised up the peninsula, we found that the Durango Hybrid saved the most gas when we could manage a stretch of steady driving around 25 to 30 mph. At this steady pace, the gas engine would shut down, letting us cruise under electric power. The more green lights, the longer we could run without burning any gas. To get the car running in this mode required us to take our foot off the gas pedal once the Durango was up to speed, then just massaging it to keep our speed up.
Taking surface streets over this distance took about an hour and a half, and as we drove, we watched the Durango Hybrid's trip average slowly climb. We hit a high point at 19.6 mpg just before reaching San Francisco--not bad for such a big truck, especially considering a gasoline-only version would probably get about 14 mpg for this kind of driving. Anybody should be happy to get a free 5 miles for every gallon of gas.
In the cabin
The 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid's roomy cabin holds the usual accoutrements of a big SUV, such as yards of plastic across the dashboard and a column-mounted shifter. But high-tech touches and hybrid instruments show up here and there, letting you know the Durango Hybrid isn't just another SUV. The most notable feature is the charge gauge to the right of the speedometer, which shows when the battery is being charged and when the car is running in its optimum fuel-saving mode. LED cabin lights are also a nice touch, suggesting the Durango is a thoroughly modern SUV.
The heart of the cabin electronics is the UConnect module, a double-DIN unit fronted by a touch-screen LCD. This unit encompasses hard-drive-based GPS navigation with live traffic, onboard music and photo storage, Sirius satellite radio and TV, and Bluetooth phone integration. This UConnect unit is essentially the same as we saw in the Dodge Challenger and the Dodge Ram. UConnect gives the Durango many cutting-edge cabin tech features, but its implementation is a little weak. Dodge sets it into the dashboard with little integration with the rest of the car. For example, the unit has telephone and voice command buttons on its face, but no similar buttons on the steering wheel, forcing the driver to reach across the cabin to answer the phone or initiate a call. There are audio control buttons on the back of the steering wheel, letting you adjust volume and skip songs.
We do like the colorful and clear maps from the GPS system, which can be viewed in 3D or 2D. It even shows the outlines of buildings in some urban areas. But we did find the maps a little small, as the LCD isn't very big and some screen real estate is taken up by onscreen buttons. Also, the zoom only goes down to 250 feet, making it hard to distinguish individual streets in dense areas. The system offers many different ways to enter destinations and inputting a street address is made easy with the touch screen. The system also has a feature called My Trips, which lets you save a multidestination trip under a customizable name, good for planning a road trip.