High gas prices and the emergence of electric cars would suggest that the SUV has gone the way of the dinosaur, but the 2014 Dodge Durango makes a convincing argument for its continued survival, having evolved into a modern, connected vehicle that improves on its fuel efficiency.
My road testing of this Dodge Durango encompassed a trip down to the Los Angeles Auto Show, involving a significant amount of freeway driving and a bit of cutthroat LA traffic. For the latter, the Durango's imposing size worked in my favor, as other drivers could not ignore it when I needed to merge.
However, I initially chose the Durango based on the idea that its capacious interior would keep the editorial crew I was bringing down to the show content for the long drive. It certainly pleased CNET's video crew, who loaded up the back with all the camera equipment they didn't want to take on their separate flight down.
In either sense, the Durango proved an able vehicle.
Choices, many choices
Dodge offers the Durango model in many permutations, not only in five trim levels but with choices of rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and a 3.6-liter V-6 engine or a 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi. Prices range from just under $30,000 to over $50,000 for a fully optioned Citadel trim model with all-wheel drive and the V-8 option.
The example Dodge sent me fit in the middle, a Limited trim with rear-wheel drive, the V-8, and Dodge's Uconnect navigation system, putting it at a bit over $40,000. I was actually a little disappointed with the V-8, only in that I would have rather experienced how well the more fuel-efficient V-6 drove the car.
The Durango's V-8 produces 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, versus the V-6's 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. For the V-8 to get its EPA-rated 14 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, it relies on an eight-speed automatic transmission and cylinder deactivation, which lets it run on only four cylinders under low-load driving conditions. Those fuel economy numbers may not look like much, they represent a more than 20 percent average fuel economy increase from the similarly equipped 2004 Durango.
Monitoring the trip computer during the long freeway drive, I saw the average fuel economy steadily top 20 mpg, but city driving at either end of this trip brought the review total down to 18.7 mpg. By the grace of a 24.6 gallon fuel tank, I was able to make it from San Francisco to LA without a fill-up.
Because of its fuel economy, I was loath to floor the gas pedal, but that engine gave the Durango plenty of go when I need it.
There doesn't appear to be much aerodynamic improvement on the Durango -- its classic SUV shape meant it had to push a lot of air out of the way, which didn't help the fuel economy on a 70-mph freeway. While this two-box shape will make it attractive to buyers focused on an SUV, Dodge worked some modernity into the styling.
The exterior shows a surprising smoothness, the sheet metal assuming an edgeless continuing mold around the car. The lights contribute to this modern theme, the headlight casings incorporating LED parking strips while at the rear full LED taillights live under a red lens that makes them look like a continuous form. The C-pillar is canted forward, denoting motion.
Up front, the current Dodge grille, a strong and simple cross-structure, leads the look.
Third-row seats folded flat, allowing room for my video team's equipment and editors' luggage. The second row included optional console-separated captain's chairs, reducing the overall passenger volume a bit. My rear passengers were also treated to an entertainment system with individual LCDs. Mounted into the sides of the front seats were AV ports that included an HDMI input, allowing for a variety of portable media devices brought into the car.
More modernity greeted me from the driver's seat. On the console sat, not a traditional shifter, but a simple dial for choosing drive modes, with paddles on the steering wheel to manually shift the eight-speed automatic. The change from shifter to dial is another example of the Durango's evolution.
Pushing the tach, fuel, and temp gauges to the edges of the instrument panel, a wide LCD took center stage, letting me see a digital speedometer. Underneath the speed, I could select from a variety of useful vehicle data screens. With a destination set for navigation, the screen popped up turn guidance when needed. The usefulness of that display made me question why Dodge still included analog gauges on the instrument cluster.
Convenient tech touches included rain-sensing windshield wipers and automatic high beams, both of which worked just fine.
Despite the transmission's eight gears, it shifted incredibly smoothly, never seeming to hunt for the right gear, basically doing its job without intruding on the driving experience. Parent company Chrysler sources this transmission from ZF, a company with which I've been continuously impressed.
For power steering, Dodge uses a purely hydraulic rig with the V-8 option, but an electrohydraulic system with the V-6. That sounds to me like unnecessarily complicated manufacturing.
The steering in the Durango I drove had a good feeling of heft to it, and held nicely to center on the freeway. At full lock in low-speed maneuvers, the hydraulics felt like they were strained slightly, something cars did commonly before the advent of electric power steering systems.