Picture this: I m loading groceries into a Dodge Durango as a woman walks past on her way to her Civic hybrid.My spidey sense tells me she s trying to hide her distain for the ute.It isn t working. That s really big. Thought they stopped making things like that, she says surveying ute. People still tow stuff like boats, snowmobiles and jets skis, I offer up. That would not be good for your Honda .

A light bulb switches on, her attitude softens. My dad towed his fishing boat with his old Ford pickup. It was really neat . Same thing with this I say only it holds seven people and has a DVD player .This actually gets a smile.

Loving to Loathe SUVs

People accept pickup trucks with their folksy Americana get-er-done image but sport utility vehicles picked up baggage as gas prices climbed to record levels.The poster child of excess, the toughest duty many of them ever saw in the 90 s was a dirt parking lot dropping off a couple kids at soccer pitch.

The SUV party ended fast and hard after people sobered up and realized they didn t need a big truck to haul Brandon and Tiffini to daycare.None was affected more than Durango.Dodge pulled the plug on it and sister Chrysler Aspen.

But now it s back.With a vengeance.The second generation was nice enough but the 2011 model clearly intends to impress inside and out.Gone is the lackluster interior, replaced with a simple but elegant instrument panel with bright clear gauges. Gentle curves flow through the body give that impression, the exterior designers were clearly drinking Coca-Cola in bottles, not cans.It s an attractive vehicle, Durango gets a lot of compliments.

A German Surprise

The sleek Durango looks like an All-American but underneath the svelte sheetmetal lays German lineage.It rides on the same chassis structure as Mercedes sport utes.The underlying platform was jointly developed for M and GL-Class plus Durango and Jeep Grand Cherokee, becoming the last vestiges of the Chrysler-Mercedes union. Compared to Grand Cherokee, Durango gets a wheelbase that s stretched by 5 inches, the whole vehicle grows by 10 inches in length to accommodate the third row of seats.

The powertrain is completely different from the Merc.My tester, a mid-level Crew model, is powered by the ubiquitous Pentastar V-6 that makes 290 horsepower here.The all-wheel drive system on my tester is completely automatic, the transmission is a five-speed with manual shift mode.Check with your Dodge dealer about your particular needs, there are two flavors of AWD with Durango.

There is a 360 horse 5.7-liter V-8 HEMI option but most buyers will be happy with the V6.It s smooth, sounds good and offers up solid acceleration. 0-60 happens in 8.5 seconds.

Durango is a refined cruiser, ride quality is smooth and comfortable without being soft and mushy. It s as nimble in the corners as a seven-passenger sport-utility could hope to be.Compared to Ford Explorer the ride is smoother and more comfortable.

Durango is no poseur. The V6 can tow 6,200 pounds, the HEMI V8 hauls 7,400. The all-wheel drive system is very capable but not for severe bolder hopping like brother Jeep Grand Cherokee.EPA rated fuel economy is 16 city, 22 highway, decent considering its capabilities.

Inside Story

The step-in height is a bit high for some but once in, Durango looks pretty good.Gauges are crisp, plastics have a quality feel, and so do the door releases.Chrysler s U-Connect system is not as sophisticated as, say Ford s Sync or BMW iDrive, but it s very easy to use so some will see it as a positive, not a negative.Phones and iPods are supported.A nine speaker, 505-watt sound system does justice to your music collection and you can store much of it on the internal hard drive.The Garmin nav system has a simple interface and the touch screen displays the backup cam.Would be nice if there was a downward view for hooking up a trailer when solo.

There are many places to stash things.Directional reading lights on the ceiling don t bother the driver at night.Having trouble seeing out the back?A button up front remotely drops the headrests of the third floor.That s a nice touch.

Three adults will be good to go in the second row.It s easy to get comfortable with a foldable center armrest and reclining seats.Nice that the drive shaft tunnel has a very low profile.There s storage for small stuff in the doors and pockets on the seat backs.Hooks on the seats are good for hanging bags and passengers can dial in their own temperature in the back. Crew comes with a 115v household type outlet and hook ups for a video game console are added when ordering the DVD entertainment system.

Second and third row seatbacks drop as expected to create a huge space plus the front seat folds forward to haul long things or act like a kind of tray for the driver.If something needs to be lashed to the roof, the cross rails stow in the roof rack s side rails so they re always ready for use.Also clever is a retractable security shade with extended ends that snap into place so it can be used in two different positions.

Unlike some sport utes, the second row tumbles out of the way on both sides to clear the way for passengers to move into row number three.Surprisingly two average sized adults will be okay in this space and the seat is raised theater style so visibility is good.

My only real gripe?With all the great features Durango has such as satellite television, auto high beams, rain sensitive wipers, keyless ignition, power liftgate and lighted cupholders it s surprising to find the seats in my tester aren t heated.

Why Keyless Rules

If you have your hands full, just keep the transponder in pocket or purse.Unlock the door by pushing a small little chiclet on the exterior of the vehicle and pull the door handle (or lift the latch on the hatch).It s that easy.Durango s tailgate is a little on the slow side and it doesn t like to be hurried.

With the third row usable, there s still a decent amount of room back here (four packs of TP) and under the floor there s a place to keep a computer bag out of sight.The third row drops very simply.With that done, Durango effortlessly swallows up 18 bundles of my normal test metric.That s a pretty big cargo hold.

Other utes that compete with Durango?There s Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada, and Ford Explorer.And yes, the Ford has less towing capability at 5,000 pounds but it s still very capable for many people.

A rear-drive Durango starts at 30 grand before incentives.The mid-line Crew model I ve driven for a week retails for 40 large.SUV s may not be flying off dealer lots the way they used to but for those who need to tow their toys, Durango is a compelling package.Chrysler products have another hurdle, a reputation for poor interior quality.That s a thing of the past but images die hard.If Dodge can get shoppers in the door, these vehicles should sell well in their class.Those shopping for a hard working capable sport-ute should put Durango on their test drive list.

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