Executive wheels: A Jeep clone for a little less


Dodge got into the SUV marketplace in 1998 – pretty late in the game, seeing as how chief competitor Ford was setting sales records with the Explorer and virtually creating the SUV craze more than a decade earlier.

Based for two generations on the platform of the line’s Dakota mid-sized pickup truck Dakota (recently discontinued), today’s Durango is built on the same platform, and alongside of, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. I know why automakers do this – it saves money having a single architecture for multiple vehicles – but it has always sort of bugged me in that they end up being very similar vehicles.

When I first took the wheel, I was stunned at how heavy the Durango felt, very truck-like, with a very stiff ride throughout. After driving other SUVs, particularly the light, nimble ones from the Asian makers, getting behind the wheel of a Durango is immediately different. I didn’t like it at first.

But as the week went on, it grew on me – so much so that by week’s end, I was a Durango man. This vehicle is solid, handles well, and with the 5.7-liter V8 Hemi engine with 290 hp (rated 14 mpg city/20 highway) the Durango had some guts, as well.

My test-drive model was bright red, with dark-shaded 20-inch wheels and a dark grille, a combination that gave this vehicle an ominous, Darth Vader-like look. I liked it a lot, and it got a ton of looks. The big wheels are a plus in a vehicle like this – particularly if you favor off-road ventures – but I have a concern about these tires for someone who is basically just running around town; replacing them will be expensive. Cool, though; they hold the road and give the Durango an extra-safe feel.

The Durango handles as you’d expect: it is heavy and very truck-like, but it drives well with an excellent suspension that keeps the bumps to a minimum. But it’s no sports car, and like its cousin, the Grand Cherokee, it has a disappointing turn radius. On the other hand, in city traffic and on the highway the Durango with this Hemi engine is powerful and nimble enough to handle the ins and outs of modern city driving with ease.

Where the Durango shines is inside. My test drive model had power everything, keyless entry and all – plus all of the necessary modern technology to hookup all the iPhone/iPod gear people carry for music and connections. The vehicle features the typical Chrysler sound system array and screen access, which is very user-friendly. This Durango was equipped with blind spot and cross path detection, as well as forward collision warning – very useful after you get used to the lights (in the mirrors) and the beeping.

The base price on the Hemi-equipped Durango is $35,995 – relatively aggressive in the SUV marketplace. The base price on the SXT version, with a 3.6-liter V6 with 290 hp, is $29,795 (in rear-wheel drive). A leather package at $1,295 includes leather trimmed bucket seats (up front and in the second row), power and heated seats up front, 6” and 9” outside mirrors and memory for everything.

Another $705 upgrades the leather and adds it to the console and the steering wheel, and adds in ventilated seats (great in hot weather). A $895 package features a Garvin nav system, Uconnect for MP3/DVD/ and all that, plus Sirius Travel Link with a one-year subscription, a rear-view backup camera, and a ParkSense park assist system. For $795, they add Captain’s Chairs in the second row – a big plus, because not only are the seats comfortable, but they make access into the third row easy.

So the bottom line here is $43,555, a fairly aggressive price point for a Dodge, especially given the crowded competition in the SUV space, but there’s a lot to like here.

My only real negative to this vehicle is the gas mileage: 14 mpg city/20 mpg highway and an average of 16 mpg is pretty awful in the days of $3.50- to $4-a-gallon gasoline. I don’t worry too much about the cost of fuel on high end Lexus, Mercedes, BMW and Infiniti models – even high-end Jeep buyers — because I figure the people visiting those showrooms really don’t care. But the average Dodge buyer, I’m thinkin’, might think twice.