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Image: Durango
Chrysler
The 2011 Dodge Durango shows how far the SUV has come from the stone ax-simple pickup truck-derived model that debuted in 1998.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/24/2011 7:48:48 AM ET 2011-01-24T12:48:48
REVIEW

“You get what you pay for” — the aphorism normally holds true, but not always. Sometimes it’s possible to get more than you pay for.

The Dodge Durango is a case in point. It shares a substantial portion of its underlying hardware with the Mercedes GL-Class SUV, and that shared heritage shows in the Durango’s refined ride and handling.

The bottom line for the two-wheel-drive V-6 entry-model Durango I tested recently was $34,740, including shipping and options such as GPS navigation, satellite radio, Smartbeam automatic high beam headlights and automatic windshield wipers.

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The Durango’s “Crew” trim level includes goodies such as keyless start, power seats, Bluetooth connectivity, remote start, 500-watt stereo and a rear back-up camera. It has cloth seats to remind drivers that they could have upgraded to a higher trim level, but in terms of value, the Durango Crew is hard to beat. Plus, there’s leather on the steering wheel.

How far the Durango has come from the stone ax-simple pickup truck-derived model that debuted in 1998. The new Durango boasts the smoothest ride in the three-row crossover class, while the old truck felt better suited for hauling lumber.

But that isn’t to say this Mercedes-derived crossover won’t do any hard work. When outfitted with the optional 360-hp Hemi V-8 rather than the tested 290-hp Pentastar V-6, the Durango can tow 7,400 pounds, which the company notes is the same weight as a 24-foot boat and its trailer.

Most unibody crossovers are front-wheel drive, with a V-6 as their largest engine, so the rear-drive layout and available V-8 give the Durango a solid advantage for doing actual work rather than just serving as a minivan alternative for suburban families.

And the new design is 25 percent stiffer than the old one, giving it a stronger foundation that avoids the squeaks and groans of a twisting, flexing body-on-frame vehicle. Combined with a 14 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag and the corresponding cut in the resulting wind noise, the atmosphere inside the Durango is placid at speed.

Another plus on the practicality side is roof rails that contain crossbars that fold inside the rails, stowing the crossbars out of sight (and out of the wind), but keeping them handy for rooftop cargo during that trip to grandma’s or the home improvement warehouse.

Inside, the Durango features a spaciousness unimaginable inside any body-on-frame midsize SUV, thanks to the greater space efficiency of its unibody construction. Flip-forward second-row seats provide decent access to the reasonably spacious third row, though the kids who are typically sent back there might have difficulty operating the flip mechanism and tend to just scramble over the seat.

This would be fine if they didn’t leave mud or snow behind on the second-row seat in the process. Fortunately, Dodge has thought to include kid-whackers in the third row for reminding them to be more careful next time, or to stop squabbling with each other. OK, they aren’t technically called “kid-whackers.” Dodge calls them “remote headrest fold-downs,” but there is a handy button on the dashboard that causes the third-row head rests to flop down, smacking unruly kids in the process. (The only trouble comes when they start giggling and demand that you do it again.)

Image: Durango
Jim Frenak  /  Chrysler
The new Durango shows the hard, cheap, shiny plastic has been lifted from Chrysler’s products.

Of course, Dodge insists the kid whackers are really intended to make it easier to see out the back when the third row is unoccupied, which is probably most of the time. That, along with back-up sensors and a rear-view camera that is part of the Crew trim package, makes it easier to parallel park the 16-1/2-foot Durango.

The cabin appointments are typical for the new Fiat-backed Chrysler, which is to say that the blight of abominably hard, cheap, shiny plastic has been lifted, with plush matte-finished, soft-touch materials used in its place.

Similarly, the seats now offer sufficient support and adjustability to achieve suitable comfort for long drives and the instruments are thoroughly contemporary in appearance. The in-dash navigation system is programmed by Garmin, so its operation will be familiar to Garmin customers. But familiar or not, the clunky Garmin graphics and operation are a step (or two) behind the better nav systems available in competitive models, so this is an area for Dodge to improve.

Otherwise the touch screen controls for the entertainment system are simple and obvious to use with none of the hassles of the various BMW iDrive wannabe systems or of Ford’s poorly executed new MyFordTouch touch screen interface.

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The Durango rides on a wheelbase that stretches seven inches longer than that of the new Ford Explorer, contributing superior legroom and ride comfort. This usually comes at the cost of inhibited maneuverability, making long-wheelbase cars hard to park because they need so much space to turn. But the Durango’s turning circle is only 37 feet, making it easy to slot into parking spaces, especially compared to other vehicles of similar size. That is foot tighter turn than the Toyota Highlander, which is nearly a foot shorter in overall length.

Consumers typically rank difficulty of parking as one of the top turn-offs for largish crossovers and SUVs, so the Durango’s unexpected agility should give parents a bit more confidence that they can dock this kid-hauling barge in the local Whole Foods parking lot without calling ahead for a harbor pilot or tug boat.

Of course, execrable fuel economy is the No. 1 reason for consumer aversion to such big vehicles, and even with its all-new V-6 engine or the Hemi that can run on four cylinders to save gas, the Durango remains thirsty.

The two-wheel drive V-6 model I tested is rated at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, but in cold-weather around-town driving with gas containing 10 percent ethanol (which contains less energy per volume than gas), using the remote starter for warm-ups and seat heaters we saw 15 mpg on the trip computer. That’s better than the old Durango, to be sure, and better than some of its competitors, but that fuel economy hurts when gas is north of $3 a gallon.

Still, if fill-ups are financially painful, it’s likely the only area where Durango ownership doesn’t seem like a great fiscal value, thanks to solid construction, lavish appointments and a Mercedes-based platform.

Sometimes it is nice to not get what you pay for.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Explainer: 2011: The year of the reborn minivan

  • Image: Dodge Caravan
    Dodge

    The minivan has been alternately pronounced dead and revived repeatedly as various alternatives have debuted and departed. But the van chugs onward, unassailable in its position as the best vehicle for transporting the maximum number of people in the least amount of space and with the least amount of fuel.

    Minivans are easier to park than long-snouted crossover SUVs, they have more fight-reducing elbow room inside and their sliding doors mean that the young’uns don’t inflict insurance claims on adjacent cars every time they climb in or out of the van.

    Are minivans cool? TODAY Moms weigh in

    Whether 2011 marks a renaissance for minivans or just the recognition that this is a critical segment that isn’t going to be displaced, carmakers clearly agree on one thing: They need fresh products because every minivan currently on the market will be replaced during the 2011 model year, or in calendar year 2011.

    Indeed, Americans bought more than 460,000 minivans last year, and with appealing all-new choices, 2011 should attract even more minivan adherents.

    Here’s a list of new minivans for 2011.

  • Chrysler Town & Country

    Image: Town and Country
    Chrysler

    When Chrysler Chairman and CEO Lee Iacocca conceived of a “leather minivan” for the 1989 model year, the Town & Country was his notion that just because a box on wheels is practical doesn’t mean it can’t also be comfortable and luxurious. Now that model is more feature-packed than ever. Leather doesn’t set a van apart from the rest anymore, so the 2011 Town & Country has standard rear back-up camera, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert to minimize the chance for “I didn’t see it” accidents. The 2011 Town & Country should be well-received, as the 2010 model was already America’s top-selling minivan, accounting for a quarter of all minivan sales.

  • Dodge Grand Caravan

    Image: Dodge Caravan
    Dodge

    The Dodge Caravan was the minivan that launched the minivan segment (along with the Plymouth Voyager) in 1984. As vans in the class grew not-so-mini, so did the Caravan’s name as it became the Grand Caravan. The Grand Caravan is Dodge’s version of the same vehicle as the Town & Country, and it aims to be less expensive, with less standard equipment, while offering a hint of sportiness (presumably just in case you need to race to the local Target for another box of Pampers). Key is the new 283-hp Pentastar engine, giving Dodge (and Chrysler) van drivers Hemi-style bragging rights for the most power. Cue Tim Allen.

  • Ford C-Max

    Image: Ford C-Max
    Ford

    Minivans have become maxi-vans, leaving a potential opportunity for smaller vans. Mazda has been in this space with its Mazda5 for several years, but a large brand like Ford could legitimize this so-far marginal van sub-segment. Ford terms the C-Max a 5+2 seater, recognizing that the third row is suitable for car-pooling teammates on their way to soccer practice, but is also probably not ideal for adults on long drives. Segment exclusive gadget: a sensor that lets a person carrying the van’s key to wave a leg under the back bumper to open the hatch, saving them from fumbling for keys while carrying groceries. Ford has announced plans for hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the C-Max for 2012, making it potentially the most fuel-thrifty family hauler.

  • Honda Odyssey

    Image: Honda Odyssey
    Honda

    Honda destroyed the myth that “minivan” equals “Chrysler” when its innovative Odyssey van set new standards for convenience features and garnered large sales. Until the Odyssey, competitors blamed the weak sales of their poor products on customers’ reflexive purchases of Chrysler vans, but Honda proved that consumers just want practical features. The new-for-2011 Odyssey proposes that consumers want a sleek, stylish minivan. It remains to be seen whether shoppers will be attracted by the styling, or whether they will continue to look past exterior appearances and concentrate on interior features. The rear seat video screen is so wide that its can show two different episodes of Dora the Explorer (or any other video content) simultaneously, side-by-side on the screen.

  • Kia KV7 concept

    Image: Kia KV7
    AFP - Getty Images

    Kia is the only minivan maker that doesn’t have a fresh family hauler headed to showrooms in coming months, if not there already. But lest anyone think that the aggressive Korean upstart is satisfied with being left behind in the face of new competition, Kia unveiled the KV7 concept at the Detroit auto show, previewing the styling for its next generation Sedona. Of course, the Sedona won’t actually have the KV7 concept’s outlandish gull wing doors, but auto show concepts are supposed to be outrageous. Just don’t expect your kids to be able to disembark from the van’s back seat like Marty McFly climbing from his time-traveling DeLorean.

  • Mazda5

    Image: Mazda5
    Mazda Motor Corportaion

    People movers are smaller in Japan, but Mazda thought its best solution to replacing its old MPV minivan was to “hit ‘em where they ain’t” by importing a smaller Japanese-market model with no direct competitor in the U.S. market. The six-seat Mazda5 retains the light weight and simplicity of manual sliding side doors that are so carefully designed that they close with the push of one finger. The 2012 iteration carries expressive new styling too. And this van’s claim to fame? Enthusiast drivers can buy one with a manual transmission if they want. Zoom zoom.

  • Nissan Quest

    Image: Nissan Quest
    AP

    Nissan has followed its own path in the minivan segment, admirably and unsuccessfully, as family van buyers didn’t buy into the Quest’s quirks. For 2011, Nissan has punted that strategy, introducing a thoroughly conventional and completely equipped contender that should easily gain the attention of Odyssey and Sienna intenders rather than scaring them off. Available dual sliding glass moonroofs allow more light and air into the van’s interior depths than is normally the case, while still permitting space for the overhead video screen.

  • Toyota Sienna

    Image: Toyota Sienna
    AP

    Toyota saw Honda’s success in challenging Chrysler directly with a full-sized contender and followed up with a bigger Sienna that was an instant hit. The 2011 Sienna continues that path with available eight-passenger seating and the only available four-cylinder engine among full-size minivans. Unfortunately, there is only a slight fuel economy benefit from the smaller engine, but it could be a step in the right direction. And the Sienna is the sole all-wheel-drive minivan on the market, making it a viable alternative to a crossover SUV for customers concerned about all-weather security.

  • Volkswagen Routan

    Image: Volkswagen Routan
    Volkswagen

    The truth is that Chrysler did not invent the minivan; Volkswagen did, way back in the 1950s. The old Beetle-based microbus was the first minivan, but the company let that legacy wither away over the decades. VW still makes vans in Germany, but they are too expensive to be competitive in the price-sensitive U.S. market. So instead the automaker sells its own version of Chrysler’s minivan, branding it the Routan. So far sales have been tepid, but a refreshed version of the van (not yet revealed) featuring the improvements seen in the new Chrysler vans should make the Routan more appealing to U.S. car buyers.

  • Ford Flex

    Image: Ford Flex
    Ford

    Ford’s Flex gets an honorary mention here. It’s almost a van, and derived from the Fairlane concept, which like the Kia KV7 debuted wearing impractically designed rear doors. In the Fairlane’s case, they were rear-hinged “suicide” doors rather than Kia’s top-hinged gullwings. Regardless, they didn’t make it to production on the Flex. Ford considered proper sliding doors to make the Flex a minivan, but consumer clinics revealed such a strong customer aversion to minivans that Ford estimated it could sell triple the number of Flexes if the vehicle were equipped with SUV-style hinged rear doors, according to Ford styling chief J Mays. But in 2010 Chrysler sold three times as many Town & Country minivans and three times as many Grand Caravan minivans as Ford sold Flexes. Maybe if it had suburban-chic sliding doors Ford would sell more of them.

Photos: Production models

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  1. Volvo’s C30 electric crash test display is shown during the media preview of the 2011 North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Arena in Detroit. Volvo is hoping to burnish its reputation for car safety at the event, which features over 30 debuts of vehicles made by automakers from around the world. The show is open to the public from January 15 to 23. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model poses in front of an Audi A7 during the media previewfor the show. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. The 2011 Jeep Compass is unveiled. Chrysler Jeep is celebrating its 70th year in 2011. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Chevrolet Corvette, right, and a 2011 Corvette ZR1 sit on display. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The 2011 Ford Explorer, winner of the 2011 North American Truck of the Year award, on display at the 2011 North American International Auto Show. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Volvo’s Electric C30 car is powered by a lithium-ion battery and can be charged from a household power socket. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Venturi’s high-voltage buggy concept includes a 300-horsepower engine. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The new Dodge Ram 3500 truck is equipped with a powerful 350-horsepower engine. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The 2011 Camaro RS convertible. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A model poses next to a Dodge Charger Hemi. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The 2011 Dodge Challenger SRT8 392. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The new Chevrolet Sonic small car will go into production later this year for the 2012 model year. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Porsche returns to the 2011 North American International Auto Show with the Cayman R sports car. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The new Bentley Continental GT will launch from standstill to 60mph in just 4.6 seconds and has a top speed of 197 mph. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Toyota Executive Bob Carter introduces the Prius V midsize hybrid-electric vehicle, left, and the Prius C concept, right. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Ford's Mark Fields introduces the Ford C-MAX electric vehicle. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Dr. Martin Winterkorn, Chairman of Volkswagen Management Group, introduces the new Volkswagen Passat. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. The Porsche 918 RSR sports car Has a V8 engine that delivers 563 horsepower and can jump to 767 horsepower with the push of a button. (Friso Gentsch / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Audi introduces the new A6 Hybrid. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A model poses next to the Ferrari 458 Italia. (Kamil Krzaczynski / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The BMW 650i convertible is unveiled. (Mark Blinch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The Mercedes Benz SLS AMG E-Cell has four electric motors (one for each wheel) and can accelerate to 60 mph in 4 seconds. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Ford’s President and CEO Alan Mulally presents the Ford Focus ST. (Tannen Maury / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford introduces Ford’s electric lineup: (Left to right) the C-MAX electric car, the Transit Connect electric truck, the Focus electric car and the C-MAX hybrid. (Stan Honda / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. The interior of the Buick Verano, GM’s first upscale compact car for a luxury brand, is shown. The Verano is GM’s only new model to debut at the event. (Geoff Robins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Chrysler 300, once a hot-selling sedan, is redesigned with a sleeker look. (Tony Ding / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Tom Stephens, vice chairman of General Motors, holds up the 2011 North American International Auto Show Car of the Year trophy, which this year was awarded to the Chevrolet Volt. (Paul Sancya / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Two of the new Mercedes Benz C Class vehicles are shown at a Mercedes Benz event the night before the official start of the media preview event. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Michael Price cleans a Cadillac CTS-V coupe race car on the show floor. (Rebecca Cook / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Above: Slideshow (29) On the catwalk in Detroit - Production models
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    Slideshow (12) On the catwalk in Detroit - Concept cars

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