Ten years ago, the market started a dramatic shift away from conventional transportation. Midsize sedans, compact sedans and minivans dominated the search lists for family purchases at that time, but just as the economy started to falter there were cracks in the popularity of these offerings. Regulators and bureaucrats were pushing hybrid and electric-powered cars, as fuel economy standards increased. Novel ideas like ride-sharing and autonomous driving were figments of some tech-guru’s imagination.
Look where the market has migrated. Hybrids and electric-cars still only comprise 3 percent or less of the new car market, midsize (and full-size) sedan sales have plummeted, while compact crossover sales are now the top-selling category in America. Uber and Lyft are synonymous with urban transportation, while a persistent effort to create driver-less driving still has momentum, the reality may be far different for the vast majority or automobile owners. Pickup truck sales are as strong as ever, while the stampede to crossovers has become a worldwide phenomenon that was largely unforeseen.
Buyers were restless 10 years ago — and still are today. To many, crossovers are the ultimate “comfort transportation.” You can bring whatever you want with you all of the time, there is space inside to bring lots of people and do lots of things, plus the vast majority of crossovers sold here carry AWD/4WD, so weather is not an impediment to living where you want, going where you want when you want, and otherwise not depending on someone else for your travel needs. The proliferation of crossover models, sizes and configurations reflects this fact.
And while Dodge and Chrysler have missed some of these evolving trends — Dodge lacks a compact and sub-compact crossover, leaving these sales solely to Jeep at FCA — the Durango capably fills the large crossover class with a wagon that is a pleasing three-row performer that actually matches up well against its contemporary mainstream rivals as well as several luxury wagons of similar size and mission scope.
The Durango shares its basic platform with Jeep’s Grand Cherokee. At 5 inches longer in the wheelbase, at 120 inches the longest in the segment, and 10 inches longer in the body, 200 inches total, the Durango is longer than the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander as well as the Volvo CX90 and Infiniti QX60. Only Chevy’s Traverse and the full-size truck-based Tahoe are larger externally.
The Durango further differentiates itself from the pack with four trim levels, SXT, GT, R/T and our Citadel sample, as well as there are now, or soon to be, three engine options — 290-hp V-6, 360-hp Hemi V-8, plus the pending 485-hp Hemi V-8 in this summer’s SRT Durango. Max tow rating also exceeds all rivals at 7,400 pounds.
Fuel economy — still a concern to many buyers — is comparable to the class stalwarts with the base V-6 powertrain; 17/25 on regular grade fuel. As we see the market shift to more turbocharged engines, these high-performers often need more expensive premium grade fuel to achieve their elevated power numbers. If you trade miles per gallon for more expensive fuel, you are not further ahead. Even with our Citadel’s swift V-8 — smooth torque, quiet running — the depressed fuel economy (18 mpg realized on EPA ratings of 14/22 mpg) and actual fuel costs still beats a supercharged and turbocharged Volvo four-cylinder that needs premium fuel.
Functionally, the Durango makes great impressions and delivers virtuous performance. Steering feel, braking action and overall handing and ride dynamics, the Durango ranks near or at the top of its class. The cabin is very quiet — beating many rivals handily — while the car’s stability and tracking lend itself to stress-free motoring in heavy traffic or over snow-covered highways littered with cars having left the surface.
Nothing apparently stands out as one distinct component that separates the Durango from the pack, yet a host of intangible virtues combine to make this Dodge so likable. Subtle pieces like a real steering wheel heater, not a warmer, provide all-drive comfort. The power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, with memory, feels perfect in your hands — especially as you employ the simple to use cruise functions, redundant app controls, as well as the excellent audio buttons on the back of the steering wheel — where your fingertips can easily detect what is going to happen when you initiate action, all with your eyes never leaving the view ahead.
Add to this the intuitive operation of the U-Connect panel in the center dash. GM is close, but really, no other automaker has matched the relative simplicity and efficiency of this touchscreen. Apps pop up and are easy to manage, as are controls for climate, navigation and entertainment. This user-friendly panel should be recognized for what it does not require — two days with the owner’s manual. Simple is always better; driver distractions should be minimized and all too often we see interface interpretations of these technologies different for the sake of being different, not better. Not so here.
Throttle up the Durango’s V-8 and seamless power flows through the eight-speed automatic and the rear-biased AWD system. Shod with moderate-grip all-season tires, the Durango proved stable and worthy on a long snowy drive home from southern Massachusetts. Another point for the Dodge.
In top Citadel trim (there is a more expensive Brass Monkey R/T package) buyers get many expected features: heated and cooled front power seats, memory settings, sunroof, three-zone climate controls, power rear liftgate, auto-dimming headlamps, auto wipers, paddle shifters, as well as the Durango’s unique rotary shift knob on the console (unlike Jaguar, however, it does not recess into the console when not used). Add a plethora of safety electronics, the full tow package with heavy duty battery and cooling, as well as a dual-screen rear entertainment package and Beats audio system, and the Durango’s interior soon rises to the premium level of several more expensive rivals.
The leather and suede seating is supportive, rich looking. Controls are logically arrayed and simple to access — including a power-folding rear headrest function to improve rear visibility. The surfaces are generally pleasant to touch, except the top of the dash, as the grainy plastic seems too basic for this up-level trim. It would also be good if Dodge, and other automakers, would engineer a smarter rear security shade setup. The long tube is removable here for larger cargo, but then where does it go? How about some way to store in the ceiling, or, a cover that rolls out from the side instead.
Other pluses include the auto-braking rear sensors that can detect obstacles you might not see and can brake the Durango to a stop before impact, and the Chrysler dynamic cruise system remains one of the most refined setups and works superbly even when the front radar dome is covered in road grime.
The nuanced behavior of the Durango Citadel makes it an easy three-row crossover to drive and live with. Fully loaded, the Anodized Platinum trim moves the Citadel sticker from $43,995 to over $57,000 — right in league with Audi, Volvo and Infiniti crossovers of this size. In many ways, the Durango is a more pleasing driver than these premium wagons and it definitely has a more expansive performance and functionality range than either of those luxury crossovers.
The market will certainly make more shifts in the coming years. Yet, it will be hard to see American drivers abandon their comfort wagons, their prized crossovers. With models like this handsome Durango, compiling growing sales each year, it will be difficult to adjust to life in anything less flexible or functional.