This is a tough market, with so many first class vehicles now running around. In this sea of mid-size and full-size SUVs, more and more vehicles are beginning to feel kind of "average" even though they may perform well in most attributes.
This describes the 2012 Dodge Durango in a nutshell. You might appreciate the smooth lines of its exterior and the still-cool crosshairs grille, and if you need seven seats and fantastic towing power it's probably the best vehicle on the market. But other than that, it doesn't stand out from the crowd as much as Dodge might hope.
That's unfortunate, because the current Durango is a definite improvement over the previous model, which was retired in 2009 when Chrysler closed its Newark assembly plant. Abandoning its truck-based roots, the third-generation SUV now shares its unibody platform with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, inheriting DNA from the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class SUV. As a result, the Durango is more in line with the tastes of today's consumers, the vast majority of whom are looking for a car-like SUV for on-road adventures.
With better styling, materials and build quality - a common theme for the revitalized Dodge brand - the Durango addresses the biggest concerns of its predecessor. As such, there's no particular area where it comes up lacking.
What this means is that the Durango is a solid vehicle, but may have trouble getting attention in this fiercely competitive market.
So what is it that makes you want to like the Durango? It's the potential. It has all the elements of a good SUV and it perhaps just need a bit of "oomph" to stand out, though I admit the R/T model with Hemi engine comes darn close to offering something special.
The exterior design work is solid and very pleasing to the eye. Like other new Dodges, the overdone bulges of the past have been replaced with smoother curves that show off the SUV's balanced proportions, making this a vehicle of which the designers can be rightfully proud.
Compared to the second-generation Durango, this one is far less massive and imposing - and that's a good thing. Instead of appearing like it wants to be a monster truck, the new Durango comes across as the family vehicle it's meant to be.
Inside, there's both good and bad news. The cabin is hugely improved and much more contemporary, with a simple, no-nonsense style and a tall dashboard that suits the SUV. However, the ongoing parts-sharing with other Dodge vehicles remains obvious, preventing the Durango from developing its own personality.
When it comes to build quality, the Durango puts its best foot forward. Though the base model remains a bit too plasticky, upper trims feature some of the better materials you'll find in this class of vehicle.
Most Durangos are powered by a 3.6L V6 with 290-hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, equipped with a five-speed automatic. The R/T model gains a 5.7L HEMI V8 with 360-hp and 390 lb.-ft. of torque, as well as a six-speed automatic.
Shared with the Grand Cherokee, the V6 is an excellent engine that generates 38 per cent more horsepower and 11 per cent more torque than the engine it replaced in the previous Jeep. However, while there's lots of power available, the heavy SUV feels sluggish off of the line. The V8 is obviously more spirited, but isn't worth the trade-off in fuel efficiency.
On the road, the Durango is confident, stable, and not too bulky (despite its size), with predictable handing and decent road feedback. Ride quality is generally good, but there's noticeable vibration at highway speeds.
Rear-wheel drive is available in the U.S., but every Canadian Durango comes with standard all-wheel drive. That drops the towing power a bit, but the Durango still posts best-in-class numbers in this category: 2,812 kg with the V6 and 3,266 kg with the V8.
Seven seats come as standard equipment, and for 2012 the Durango adds the option of two captain's chairs in the second row, converting it to a six-seater. Unfortunately, the front seats are overly wide and firm, offering minimal lateral support, and the optional second-row seats likely won't fare any better.
The interior space seems a bit smaller than expected, but the cabin has useful space all around.
Cargo space is a bit of concern, as the third-row seats take up a lot of space and - as is the case with many seven-passenger vehicles - go almost all the way to the back. Fold the seats away and the cargo space becomes merely acceptable.
The interior is otherwise well designed and functional.
Ranging in price from $37,995 to $50,295, the Durango comes in SXT, Crew Plus, R/T and Citadel trims. The V8 engine is only available with the R/T.
Standard equipment on the base SXT includes ABS, traction control, cruise control, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, fog lights, compass, exterior temperature gauge, tilt/telescope steering, six-speaker CD stereo and front/side/side-curtain airbags.
Additional features, available as options or on higher trims, include an auto-leveling suspension, remote starter, power liftgate, sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, distance-pacing cruise control, blind-spot sensors, parking sensors, power-adjustable front seats, heated seats, second-row captain's chairs, nine-speaker audio and GPS navigation.
Fuel efficiency for the V6 is rated at 13.0L/100 km in the city and 8.8L/100 km on the highway.
Excellent exterior design; improved interior; predictable handling; fantastic towing capacity.
Some minor annoyances.
The bottom line
A solid SUV in need of a few tweaks and a standout feature.
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