Pros: Serious power and towing capacity from optional V8, pleasant ride, three-row flexibility, handsome styling.

Cons: Five-speed automatic needs replacing, subpar fuel economy, third row is pretty tight.

Introduction

The 2012 Dodge Durango is the rare SUV that isn't just a tall station wagon with tough-guy styling cues. Based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Durango's rear-wheel-drive platform gives it real credibility as a workhorse, whether you're towing things or heading off-road. Yet the Grand Cherokee's carlike ride and handling are present here as well, so the Durango gives up nothing to the Ford Explorers of the world as a suburban errand-runner. Imagine that-an SUV that genuinely provides the best of both worlds.

Of course, the Durango isn't perfect. Its chief problem is the outdated five-speed automatic that plagues numerous Chrysler products. In addition to blunting engine performance, this transmission hurts fuel economy, as the Durango's EPA ratings are decidedly trucklike. Also, while the Durango's third-row seat is a handy feature, it's far from the roomiest you'll find.

But one look at the Durango's striking styling-or one prod at the V8 model's accelerator-m might be enough to sell you. If you want a real SUV without the usual compromises, the Durango is among the best of its breed.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Dodge Durango comes in four trim levels: SXT, Crew, Citadel and R/T. The SXT gets things rolling with 18-inch alloy wheels, tri-zone automatic climate control, a manual tilt-telescopic steering column, cruise control and a six-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input jack. The Crew adds rear parking sensors, a power liftgate, power front seats with driver memory, keyless entry/ignition, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity (optional on SXT), a nine-speaker audio system and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with voice-command capability, a rearview camera and 28 gigabytes of digital music storage. The luxurious Citadel tacks on 20-inch wheels, xenon headlamps, adaptive cruise control, heated and cooled front seats, leather upholstery, a power tilt-telescopic steering column and a navigation system. Meanwhile, the sport-themed R/T loses some of the Citadel's standard luxuries but gains a sport-tuned suspension, "digital suede" upholstery, various sporty styling cues and of course the 5.7-liter V8 engine (which is optional on Crew and Citadel).

Notable options include a sunroof and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.

The Durango's front seats receive lovingly detailed descriptions in Dodge's press materials, but we haven't found their support or comfort particularly memorable-except for the Citadel's Nappa leather front seats, which were memorably hard. Glancing around the cabin, the Durango driver will find clear gauges, sensible ergonomics and a conservative dashboard design by current Chrysler standards. Materials quality is satisfactory, if not class-leading. Note that the optional 6.5-inch touchscreen is the only one offered, so Durango buyers will miss out on Chrysler's excellent new 8.4-inch touchscreen.

Second-row passengers have little to complain about in the Durango, though if they want to nitpick, they might point out that some other SUVs have higher second-row seating positions. The third row is a different story: -cramped in every dimension for adults (remember, the Durango is basically a stretched Grand Cherokee), it's nonetheless handy if you need to drive a bunch of kids around.

Cargo capacity measures about 17 cubic feet behind the third row-a useful amount-and improves to 48 cubic feet with the third row folded down and 84.5 cubic feet with the second row stowed as well. The latter figure is on the small side for a big three-row crossover, but let's be honest-you can still haul a whole bunch of stuff in a Durango.

Technology

The base Durango SXT lacks standard iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, which amounts to a clear demerit in the year 2012. The big technological story, though, is the available 6.5-inch touchscreen display, which is a refugee from an earlier era at Dodge. On the bright side, this system features a hard drive, so you get plenty of built-in space for your digital music. However, the interface is graphically simplistic and sometimes unintuitive. It's functional enough, but if you try the 8.4-inch touchscreen in the Charger sedan, for example, you'll definitely wish the Durango offered that system instead.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Durango's standard engine is a 3.6-liter V6 that registers 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. Those are competitive numbers, but what they conceal is that the Durango's V6 doesn't really start cranking out the power till the rpm get pretty high. That wouldn't be an issue with an eight-speed transmission, say, like the one the Charger uses with this engine. B-ut the Durango V6 gets an old five-speed transmission with tall gearing that saps the V6's energy.

Standard on the Durango R/T and optional on Crew and Citadel is a 5.7-liter V8 that churns out a ""that's more like it"" 360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a very similar five-speed automatic, so it's subject to much the same critique, although the V8 obviously has more low-end torque, which helps somewhat. Also, this transmission has six forward ratios in the driver-selectable manual mode only (Dodge dubiously calls the transmission a six-speed on these grounds), so if you want to get a little more out of the engine, you've got the option to do it yourself.

The Durango can tow up to 7,400 pounds with the V8 and 6,200 pounds with the V6, figures that easily eclipse those of car-based crossover SUVs like the Explorer. Fuel economy suffers, however. With rear-wheel drive, the Durango returns 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway with the V6 and just 14/20 mpg with the V8. The V6 can be paired with a full-time all-wheel-drive system, which drops fuel economy to 14/20 mpg. The V8 is eligible for a four-wheel-drive system with a low-range mode-a 13/20 mpg combination, according to the EPA.

Safety

The 2012 Dodge Durango comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags.

In government crash-testing, the Durango garnered an overall rating of four stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts, five stars for side impacts and three stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deemed the Durango "Good"-the highest possible rating-in every category.

Driving Impressions

The Durango traverses bumps gently and remains quiet at highway speeds. This is a large vehicle, though, and you'll never forget it from behind the wheel. Still, the Durango handles better than something this size has a right to, especially with the R/T's performance-oriented suspension. Among tough rear-wheel-drive SUVs, the Durango's driving experience stands out as one of the very best.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Explorer - Recently redesigned and now based on a front-wheel-drive car platform, the Explorer has become a full-on crossover SUV. It's not as utilitarian as the Durango, but it's certainly more fuel-efficient.

Chevrolet Traverse - The Traverse offers a comparatively hulking cargo bay, and its V6 drivetrain is perhaps a smidge better than the Durango's. Forget about stuff like off-roading or serious towing, though.

Jeep Grand Cherokee - If you don't need the Durango's third-row seat, we strongly recommend checking out the reinvented Grand Cherokee, which is basically a smaller, nimbler version of the Durango with a nicer interior.

AutoTrader Recommends

It's hard for us to recommend a vehicle with fuel economy of 14/20 mpg, so as much as we love the 5.7-liter V8, we'd have to go with the moderately more efficient V6. Make ours a Crew-we think it's worth the stretch over the rather Spartan base model.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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