2011 Dodge Durango

October 21, 2011

The 2011 Dodge Durango has been redesigned for this model year, and it looks better than ever. I used to wonder why the Durango was so popular with its odd angles, protruding hood and bulging eyes, I mean, headlights. Now, with softer edges and a more uniform body, I get it. The interior has also been redesigned and offers a no-frills, yet attractive design.

This three-row SUV is big, makes some noise and has an engine that won't quit, but it's ultimately likeable and seems like it just might be able to handle anything, including a family.

With all of this new styling, I think 2011 is the year that the Durango is finally growing into its own skin. This is the genesis that I've been waiting for, turning the Durango from an otherwise brutish vehicle into an almost charming one.

I write "almost" because the Durango is not a car for everyone. Driving the 2011 Durango is a trucklike experience. Like a Mack truck. A new V-6 engine is the standard for 2011, but my test car had the optional V-8. While the V-8 was powerful, it never let me forget it was there, which was a good thing when I needed some extra power and a bad thing when I wanted some extra quiet.

Despite the noise, I must admit that the Durango's V-8 engine was extremely capable. Acceleration came easily to it, and plowing up hills, over gravel and dirt, and around city streets were all easily accomplished.

The Durango starts at $29,195, and my test car, an all-wheel-drive Crew trim, had a price tag of $46,975.

After my weeklong test drive, I decided the 2011 Durango is a double-edged sword. It looks better than ever both inside and out, and the size can work to your advantage when hauling lots of people and things. However, its large size can be problematic for people with small children or people who are just small themselves.

EXTERIOR

The 2011 Durango is better looking than its predecessors, with its soft, Rubenesque edges. It seems more put-together than in years past. The 2011 Durango shares its unibody design with the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee; it's easy to notice the similarities between the two, though the Durango is still almost a foot longer than the Cherokee.

The Durango's size is also evident in terms of pure heft. The car's curb weight is around 5,000 pounds, which makes for heavy doors and a heavy liftgate. Of course, the standard power liftgate helps alleviate any strain in getting it up and down.

None of my children could open the Durango's doors on their own, but this was both a product of their size, the door-handle height and the door weight. The step-in height was also reflective of the size of the Durango. My 4-year-old could climb into the SUV with some struggle, but needed a lift to get in the third row, and my 2-year-old needed a lift either way. My infant always needs a lift, so her experience, in this case, was irrelevant.

My test SUV had the optional 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 that uses regular gas. There's also a standard 290-hp, 3.6-liter V-6. If you need to tow anything, the V-8 can haul up to 7,400 pounds. The standard V-6 can haul up to 6,200 pounds.

The V-8 was one of the more conspicuous engines I've driven in recent memory. It grumbled and roared as if we were having a constant conversation about how powerful it was. I never doubted its power, but did wish it would silence itself occasionally.

Of course, all of this grumbling and power comes at a price. A high gas price, that is. A two-wheel-drive Durango with the V-6 gets 16/23 mpg city/highway and the V-8 gets 14/20 mpg. An all-wheel drive Durango with the V-6 gets 16/22 mpg. With the V-8, it gets 13/20 mpg. In light of rising gas prices, these fuel-economy numbers are brutal.

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some/Good Times

INTERIOR

I wouldn't call the 2011 Durango's new interior indulgently luxurious, but I really liked it. It's got some black plastic surfaces that don't offend, and silver-colored trim finishes things off with simplicity. What's more is the center stack's layout is simple and functional. I didn't once have to refer to the owner's manual, which I detest doing, but it happens more often than not in today's high-tech, multi-buttoned interiors.

The interior is also where the Durango's size earns kudos. Once you get yourself in this car, which can be difficult if you're petite, there's ample shoulder, head- and legroom. Even with three large child-safety seats installed, everyone still had plenty of space to stretch out. With the third row in use, cargo space was 17.2 cubic feet, which isn't enormous, but was enough to hold my small stroller and several bags of groceries. Furthermore, since I only had one car seat installed in the third row, I was able to have one side of the 50/50-split third row down, which provided more cargo space.

With the entire third row down, storage space becomes almost cavernous, and with the second row folded down, you'll probably start losing things because there's so much room in the Durango. The front passenger seat even folds flat to allow you to carry really long items, too. There's also a hidden storage compartment in the rear, as well as a tiered center console in the front row and various cubbies throughout the cabin. The storage options are endless and practical.

Speaking of options, my test car was loaded with a slew of options that are worth mentioning. Heated front- and second-row seats were toasty and switched on with the press of a button. The Sirius Backseat TV, a subscription service that delivers Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network, provided good entertainment for the kids. I'm still at philosophical odds with the necessity of in-car television, but my children find it enthralling.

Beyond that, the seats were comfortable and supportive, the iPod/USB port was accessible and there was a handy flashlight in the rear cargo area. The Durango's 10 cupholders were always close by. Tri-zone air conditioning and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls were also nice standard features.

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample

SAFETY

In this large, seven-passenger SUV, there are only two sets of lower Latch anchors. As of mother of three kids who are all in child-safety seats, I'd love to see Dodge add another set or two of Latch anchors to the Durango.

The two sets of anchors were thankfully easy to find, access and use. Given the size of this SUV, it's no surprise that all three of my car seats — a rear-facing infant-safety seat and two convertible seats — fit fine, leaving plenty of legroom for other passengers when installed. Depending on the size of your car seats, you might be able to fit three of them across the second row. However, I ended up putting my children's car seats in both the second and third rows. Read MotherProof.com's Car Seat Check of the 2011 Durango here.

The Durango comes replete with a bevy of standard safety features. The full complement of airbags comes standard, including side curtains for all three rows. A stability system with anti-roll control, traction control, four-wheel-disc antilock brakes with brake assist, a backup camera and rear parking sensors are also standard. For those of you who would like to use this beast to haul things, there's even standard trailer-sway control.

My test car also came with a host of optional safety equipment that I could get used to having in my arsenal. SmartBeam automatic high-beam headlights and rain-sensing wipers came as part of the $5,000 options package, which also includes 20-inch wheels, navigation system, and heated front- and second-row seats. A forward collision warning system with adaptive speed control and a blind spot warning system and rear cross-path detection system made up the almost $1,200 Technology Package and worked like charms.

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