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.
Looking at the Durango's specs, I wasn't surprised to see that it's built on a fully independent suspension, as it shares a platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Another point of modernity in its construction, rather than live axles and a truck frame, as with SUVs of the past, the Durango has a unibody with individual suspension components at each wheel.
That suspension gave the Durango a planted feeling when cornering, making for good response to my steering input. But Dodge tuned this suspension with maybe too much rigidity. Over bumps, and even mere road reflectors, the jounce in the cabin was strong. At the same time, the damping was immediate, with no prolonged bouncing. And on smooth pavement the ride proved comfortable enough for long miles of effortless driving.
Continuing the modern SUV theme, in the center of the Durango's dashboard was Chrysler's standard 8.4-inch touch screen for its Uconnect navigation system. I like this system a lot for its features and ease of use. So many automakers overly complicate their cabin tech interfaces, yet Chrysler gets it right. Running along the bottom of the screen are icons for the various functions, while the majority of the space shows either phone, stereo, navigation, or apps, whichever the driver wants up.
The Uconnect interface not only shows excellent usability, but it responds quickly to input. This is how cabin tech interfaces should work.
In the Durango, at the right-hand corner of the menu strip, gripping the Apps icon, sat a little 3G notation, indicating a built-in data connection. That data connection vaults the Durango clear of dinosaur status right into the forefront of current automotive tech. Dodge uses the data connection to power apps integrated with the car, but also includes integration with a phone running its own Uconnect app.
Yelp was the main app using the built-in data connection, a good first choice from Dodge. Much better than the navigation system's built-in points-of-interest database, Yelp let me look up nearby restaurants and see descriptions and ratings. Being able to tap a button to make a restaurant my destination was a much better experience than looking up something on my phone, then retyping the address into the navigation system.
Dodge still uses the Durango's satellite radio to get traffic data for the navigation system, but it would be better delivered over the data connection. I would also like to see a Google or Bing local search feature integrated with the navigation system, accessible by voice command.
The Uconnect app, running on a smartphone, also integrates with the car, opening up access to apps such as Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Slacker. At least it will, once the company finishes developing this capability promised on the Uconnect site. The good news is that the connection is already built into the car, so owners will get added features when the smartphone app is updated.
The large LCD in the Durango worked nicely as a display for navigation, showing the bright, clear maps in good detail. These maps offered plan and perspective views, with useful turn-by-turn directions giving good detail and lane guidance for freeway junctions.
The other usual suspects for cabin tech features were here. The Bluetooth hands-free phone system showed the paired phone's contact list onscreen, and allowed dial by name through voice command. The stereo interface was easy to use, giving access to Bluetooth streaming from a paired phone, or music devices plugged into the Durango's USB port.
One nice feature was that, with a USB drive plugged in, the system scanned MP3 files and presented them in a nice music library format, just as if an iOS device were plugged in.
Voice command also let me request artists, albums, and songs by name.
The upgraded but unbranded stereo in the Durango I tested included a 506-watt amp and was very satisfying in its music reproduction. This system falls short of real audiophile quality, but the bass is strong and the highs come through clearly.
A full rearview camera with trajectory lines and a blind-spot monitor system rounded out the cabin tech. Not included in this car was the available adaptive cruise control, which would have been a useful addition for the long freeway miles.
Long live the SUV
The popularity of SUVs came not from any ability to claw up muddy mountain roads or tackle the canyons of Moab, but from their comfort and capacity. Families could pile in with their luggage and take a 100-mile trek to grandma's house for Thanksgiving. The 2014 Dodge Durango continues this utility in a stylishly designed, modern SUV.
Dodge's engine choices are solid, but don't go as far as competitors in seeking high fuel economy, leaving the eight-speed automatic transmission as the real star of the drivetrain show here. The V-6 base engine will make the best choice for most drivers, but the V-8 can come in handy for towing boats and trailers, or for bragging rights.
More impressive from a tech standpoint is the cabin. Dodge's Uconnect system is a standout for smart design and functionality. Navigation, digital audio, and hands-free phone all fit in nicely, but I'm more impressed with how Dodge was able to add connected features into this system. Previous versions of Uconnect I've tested lacked any app integration, but these new features slot into the interface perfectly, without looking shoehorned in. Smartphone app integration will add useful features, without requiring a complete car update.
|Model||2014 Dodge Durango|
|Power train||5.7-liter V-8 engine, 8-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||14 mpg city/23 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||18.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash memory-based system|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, Internet-based radio, iOS integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||506-watt 19-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$43,570|