First Look: 2011 Dodge Durango

First Look

The 2011 Dodge Durango is a magnificent improvement over its awkward predecessor. In fact, it's one of the best new products from Dodge to hit showrooms this year. While there are other more exciting (Challenger, Charger) revamped models and other, well, much less inspiring (Avenger, Journey), the 2011 Durango is very important to Chrysler's revival. Spiritual symbolism aside, the new Durango has the quality - inside and out - that the previous model never had.

The first generation Durango won praise for its exterior styling, but even then Dodge was never known for building quality interiors. The second generation model just looked awkward and interior quality continued to plummet. And while the Durango has always been a good value if one needs a powerful V8 and solid towing capacity, the SUV still lacked the refinement of pretty much everything else in its class. That's all in the past - except for the V8. That stays. The new base engine is Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with variable valve timing and is good for 290 hp at 260 lb-ft of torque.

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For V8 fans and boat owners, the Hemi V8 returns with its 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. Although the Hemi has better acceleration, the new V6 is plenty powerful for most purposes. The biggest complaint, however, is the transmission. Currently, the only one offered is a five-speed automatic with manumatic shifting. For both engines, this current transmission set up is not unacceptable, considering the competition offers six-speed and even a few seven-speed automatics.

Fortunately, Chrysler plans to swap the five-speed in the near future. What's strange is that Chrysler already does offer the Pentastar engine with a six-speed auto. Case in point: the Chrysler 200. Why they didn't use the six-speed for the Durango is something we can't answer, but an extra gear would help improve fuel economy, which comes in at about 16 city and 23 highway (for the RWD model). Due to a unibody construction, weight is at a nearly 50/50 distribution, which helps to allow for a more carlike driving experience.

In fact, the Durango drives better and has less body roll than the Jeep Grand Cherokee, its platform sharing mate. This due in part to the Durango's five-inch-longer wheelbase. Stability control also contributes to the steady ride and cannot be de-activated. One look inside and it's obvious that major investment dollars went into it. The dash is very nicely laid out and the materials are first-rate. Did I just claim a Dodge has a premium interior quality?! The proud answer is yes.

The most obvious competition is the also new 2011 Ford Explorer, which is now a car-based crossover. While it has some towing capacity, if you truly need an SUV to pull your boat to the lake house on weekends, the Durango is clearly the better choice. Unfortunately, most of don't have a boat. Or a weekend lake house. That means the typical suburban commuter driving. And that's ok, because the Durango V6 fits the bill in price, utility, and comfort. Some other competitors include the Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, and even the Ford Flex.

Staring at $30,045, the Durango is priced accordingly. If the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is too small and that extra third row of seating is needed, then don't go the proverbial CUV route. The 2011 Dodge Durango stays true to its SUV origins, but now with proper 21st century engine technology and build quality. Dodge, it's a pleasure to see you back in the game. Just do something about that transmission.