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Executive Wheels: The Pleasure of Driving

Car reviews of the 2018 Dodge Durango SRT 392 and the 2018 Toyota Rav4 Hybrid


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My hobby of reviewing automobiles – driving new cars for a week and then writing about the experience – has been going on for 35 years, and the constant rotation of new vehicles out in front of my house has (well, long ago really) become something of a fascination among my neighbors. In fact, more than I knew. I’ve had a few people over the years tell me they walk by or drive by just to see what’s there, often going a few blocks out of their way. It has to do with the American love affair with the automobile; I long ago understood that I was living out one of my greatest fantasies in being a car reviewer.

The ultimate compliment came the other day.

A man walked by my house when I happened to be out front, and spoke to me by name and said I was the reason he bought his new car. He said, “Hi Jeff,” told me his name, and added, “I recently read one of your reviews and because of it I bought the vehicle.”

Turns out it was a review I wrote this summer for the 2019 Subaru Ascent, the brand new larger SUV that the famous line brought out this year. I gave it a rave review because I thought it was one of the best larger SUVs I have ever driven, and my neighbor agreed. I only drove it for a week, but he has had it now for almost two months and said he likes it more every day.

I try to be straight forward in my reviews. If I like the car, I am not bashful; but I am equally honest when I don’t like the car, and I have been brutal at times over the years.

The good news is cars throughout the spectrum are so well-made these days that there are few, if any, complete dogs out there. That, of course, wasn’t the case 30 years ago; there were plenty of dogs. Today, the make-or-break points are more subtle – price is a good measurement stick, as some great cars simply cost too much, as is competition within a segment, or little things like too-small mirrors or uncomfortable seats.

Increasingly problematic these days is technology that is over the top and too complicated – often on purpose, especially in more-expensive cars – that ends up being a distraction to the business at hand. But that may just be the point. They are all getting us ready for the day – in the not-to-distant future – when cars drive themselves, we only lease them for short hops or buy a subscription to a vehicle, whatever that means.

The love affair will be gone, alas, and the car will be just another commodity as easily dismissed as Sears.

Before that happens I thought I’d offer a couple of short takes on vehicles I had the pleasure of driving recently so that those of you considering a new car will have something to think about. I chose these two for now because they are both SUVs and both all-wheel-drive (what with winter coming.) The similarities end there, as you will see.

2018 DODGE DURANGO SRT 392

Everywhere I went with this beast, teenage boys and young men simply appeared, slack-jawed, mumbling something akin to “Wow.” Drool was everywhere. They looked at me with awe, and something of a “Can you handle this?” expression. It was at once ego-boosting and deflating.

No matter. Yes, I could handle it, and – trust me boys – you won’t be able to afford one of these until you are my age.

So that sums up my feelings of this mid-sized SUV. It was, at once, one of the more exhilarating driving experiences I've had in a long time, but when I finally looked at the price, all the air came out of my over-inflated balloon. I don’t care how fast it is – and it is – or how powerful – I didn’t call it a beast for nothing – or how wonderfully it was appointed – absolutely beautiful – or how well it drove – one of the best handling SUVs I have driven.

I am simply not going to pay $71,270 for a Dodge.

But my, oh my, it was a fun week.

Six adults in the three-row-seating Durango SRT went to Buena Vista, and all said the seats were very comfortable, the ride nice and quiet, and the two-toned, red/black leather interior superb. What the others didn’t feel was the driving, and I can attest it was wonderful. The road to BV – US 285 – is mostly a two-lane, high-speed highway, and on the weekend that means passing a ton of slow-moving RVs, trucks and grandmas.

No problem.

The 6.4-liter V8 Hemi with 475 horsepower in this beast makes passing a breeze – you feel as if the other cars are standing still. This vehicle will accelerate to very, very fast, well, quickly. And when you need it, the bright red Brembo brakes that give this thing a great look will help decelerate or stop on a dime with no problem.

This Durango SRT is just flat-out fun. Just so you know, there are seven driving modes in this all-wheel-drive vehicle: Street, sport, track, snow, tow, valet and eco. Why anyone would buy this vehicle and then drive it in Eco mode is beyond me, but what they should have called the standard driving mode is Beast. It handled city streets and highways with equal aplomb. The 8-speed automatic transmission was smooth. What you might give a second thought to is the gas mileage: 13 mpg city/19mpg highway/15 combined. But again, you don’t buy a Hemi because you’re going to drive around in Eco mode, literally or figuratively.

The Durango began life in 1998 built in Delaware on a Dodge Dakota truck platform. Chrysler dropped the vehicle in 2010 for year, and when it came back in 2011 in its third generation, it had become a sister vehicle to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, both built in Detroit. 

You can get a Durango – with a V6 engine with 290 hp and rear wheel drive – for $29,995, and then there’s a 5.7-liter Hemi version, the R/T, with 360 hp, that carries a $43,745 base price in RWD.

The SRT, however, carries a base price of $62,995 – an aggressive price to go with an aggressive vehicle, I guess. My test-drive model was white, with a cool and very wide black racing strip that carried through the hood, the roof and the back, plus a towing group package (top towing capacity in the segment), added technology and safety equipment, and with $1,950 in destination charges the bottom line was $71,270. For that kind of money there is simply too many other choices out there – Lexus, Mercedes, BMW, Jeep, Land Rover – to think that Dodge can compete.

On the other hand, it was fast, comfortable, fun to drive, obviously well made, and turned a lot of heads. So you decide.

RATING: 3 ½ WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)


2018 TOYOTA RAV4 HYBRID

Okay, so there are really no bad vehicles on the market anymore, but there are some great ones, and this is one of those. I love, love, love, love this vehicle. I don’t remember driving a regular RAV4, but I am sure I have since it’s been on the market since 1994, but I can tell you that this fifth generation (the first year of it) RAV4 with Toyota Hybrid technology is wonderful. Very quiet, very comfortable, very nice looking, very powerful, very fun to drive, and with amazing gas mileage – 34 mpg city/30 mpg highway/32 combined, although I got better than this – this joins a small group of vehicles on my (short) list as the best for Colorado.

Not long ago, a year and half or so, I did a review on a Lexus called the NX (Lexus is the Toyota luxury division), and I rated it very high. I loved it. This RAV4 is the Lexus NX Hybrid. It looks just like it, it drives like it, it’s the same size. If you can get over the nameplate, you can get a Lexus badged as a Toyota and save a few bucks (like $3k on base price). Honest. I can’t RAVe enough about this vehicle. The first night we had it, we drove way up to Thornton on I-25 in heavy traffic, and everything about the experience was wonderful. The excellent sound system, the beautiful tan/black leather seating, the great brakes, the safety systems (lane departure, blind spot, etc.), the size – not too big, not too small – everything was great. I invented places to go so I could drive it. And then there was that October surprise snow storm, and I discovered the excellent 4-wheel drive, the amazing heating system, and heated seats. Loved it.

RAV4 stands for Recreational Activity Vehicle: 4-wheel drive, but it can be had in front wheel drive as the vehicle is built on the same architecture as Toyota’s excellent and venerable Camry. And the Hybrid system is, well, a Toyota hybrid: The company pretty much invented this for passenger vehicles, and to this day its power plant remains the top in the business.

This one featured a 2.5-liter 4 cylinder engine, coupled with the Hybrid Synergy Drive System, for a net system 194 horsepower that felt like half again as much. Hybrid cars often feel pretty beefy around town because the electric part of the system has so much torque, but this one felt powerful in every situation. It passed cars easily, accelerated quickly, and was so smooth with the CVT transmission at all times that I felt in complete control. And just so you know, Toyota is the leader in hybrid technology, as I said, but they also lead the pack on compact crossover vehicles: The RAV4 was the first of its kind, and now they are everywhere. This is why in everything – European, Korean, Japanese, American – most all of them look like Toyotas because they all  wish they were.

 

I take notes all week in my test drives, and the very first thing I wrote down with this vehicle was:

“A great pleasure to drive.”

That’s the bottom line. The RAV4 has the best console in the business: a place for everything and everything in its place. The separate climate control is quite easy to use without distraction. The sound system was excellent and also easy to use. It does, of course, have navigation, Bluetooth phone connections, a traffic and weather app, plenty of leg room in the second row, and abundant room in the way-back for gear or groceries or golf clubs. Also, the keyless entry and automatic liftgate in the back (which can be opened with the wave of a foot) are so easy to use.

The base price on this higher-end SE Hybrid model is $32,185, and on my test-drive model they added an Advanced Technology package, for $2,785, that brought a whole list of upgrades (JBL stereo) and safety tech  -- bird’s eye view camera, front camera, rear camera, voice recognition, etc. Stuff like pre-collision, lane departure, Toyota’s wonderful safety sense tech that covers all the bases, are standard on the SE. The bottom line, with $995 in destination charges, was $36,085.

The price is a little aggressive, of course, and there are many competitors out there that are worth a look – Kia, Hyundai, Honda, GMC. Bt I have a sneaking suspicion that the majority of people who test drive all worthy competitors will come to the same conclusion as I have: This is a wonderful vehicle, and I wish I had one.

 RATING: 4 WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR).

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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