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Hard-sell Dodge Durango bought for trailer duty and it delivers

Consumer Reports News: June 19, 2012 03:08 PM

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If you had told me at the end of 2008 that I would own a Dodge Durango, I would have thought you were crazy. Chrysler was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion. The concurrent Durango had just received a softened suspension that made it drive like a Hemi-powered marshmallow with a Fisher-Price interior.

My, how times have changed! Chrysler is now healthy under Fiat ownership. The redesigned Durango is now a sophisticated SUV that shares its platform with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. And now CR's 2011 Durango Crewlux V8 test car lives in my garage. I truly put my money where my mouth (er, keyboard) was.

Sometimes I wonder if Chrysler should have renamed this car, because when it originally came time to sell it from our test fleet, no one wanted it. After a dearth of interest in our internal staff sale process, we tried to trade it in. The Hemi made it a tough sell. Trying to trade it back to a Dodge dealer got a response of, "No thanks. We have plenty of new ones that aren't selling." Resale probably won't be helped either by the announcement that the Durango will likely replaced by a reborn three-row Jeep Grand Wagoneer.

So CR held on to the Durango, putting it to good use for evaluating forward collision-warning systems and towing various trailers, including hauling our Nissan Leaf back from our Washington, D.C., office. It racked up 13,000 flawless miles without even a rattle.

And this is where I come in. My wife and I just bought a 2007 Airstream Safari SE 23-foot trailer to replace our smaller 1977 Airstream Argosy. With the "new" trailer's GVWR of 6,000 pounds, it was time for a tow vehicle upgrade from our 2010 Honda Odyssey. But since our household only owns one car (I drive CR's test cars daily), whatever we picked also had to serve as a refined commuter car for my wife with commensurate levels of passive and dynamic safety. The still-hanging-around-the-track Durango fit the bill nicely.

So far we're really happy with our purchase. The Durango/Airstream combination pulls like a freight train. Airstreams have independent suspensions and a low center of gravity, making them excellent towing trailers. In fact, twisty Vermont roads are actually fun, rather than nerve-wracking. Cabin noise levels for the Durango are a lot lower than those in our old Odyssey, making it a welcome road trip companion. I also really like the active cruise control and blind-spot/cross-traffic alert systems.

Admittedly, it's not perfect. Having driven a Grand Cherokee with the upcoming 3.0-liter diesel, I yearn for that. And the five-speed automatic isn't particularly refined. While the V8 got a six-speed automatic for 2012, I wish I had the ZF-designed eight-speed that will eventually appear in this platform. While the base V6 struggles to tow heavy trailers, the new transmission might make the V6 a decent performing option for my needs.

But to use a cliché, sometimes you go with the bird in hand rather than wait for possible midcycle changes. So far we're averaging around 18 mpg from daily commuting—far from great, but not a horrible drop from the 21 mpg we got out of the Odyssey.

While owning an early build sample of a highly optional-electronics-loaded, clean-sheet design is a gamble, first-year reliability has been good. Same goes for the Durango's Jeep Grand Cherokee platform-mate. We'll hope for the best, but so far, so good.

Tom Mutchler

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