We divided our road time between the two V8s. The 4.7-liter engine is really good. It's powerful and really smooth. But it only gets 14/18 mpg in 4WD, using 87 octane, and the more we looked at that versus the 5.7-liter Hemi, the more we gravitated to the bigger engine.
The 5.7-liter Hemi delivers 105 more horsepower than the 4.7-liter while providing almost the same economy, 13/18 mpg with 89 octane recommended, 87 acceptable. For $895 more, the Hemi seems like a no-brainer; plus, it can tow up to 8950 pounds with the optional 3.92 rear axle, compared to 7400 for the 4.7. And the two-speed transfer case is standard with the Hemi, optional with other engines.
Hemi, by the way, refers to the overhead-valve, hemispherical combustion chamber design, and harkens back to the late '60s when the 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Dodge Hemi Ramcharger ruled. Chrysler modernized the design last year after it had been gone (but not forgotten) for decades.
Still, it didn't feel to the seat of our pants like 335 horsepower. The 5.7-liter felt a little more powerful than the 4.7-liter, but it wasn't a night-and-day difference. The double-overhead-cam 305-horsepower Nissan Armada we recently drove felt like it had more oomph than the 5.7-liter Durango. We'd like to see a drag race.
We were most impressed by the five-speed automatic transmission, which comes standard with both V8s. The shifts were incredibly smooth, totally undetectable between third and fourth gears up or down. It has a Tow mode, which holds the gears longer and will even downshift under deceleration, as might be needed with a trailer. It's cool when you come toward a turn at high speed and back off, and your automatic transmission drops a downshift for you.
When you need to use the brakes to slow down or stop, they'll be there. They're big vented discs (13.2 inches front, 13.9 rear) with twin-piston calipers in front, ABS with standard electronic brake force distribution, balancing the front and rear. Dodge claims they reduce the stopping distance from 60 mph by 15 feet, compared to the previous Durango. We gave them a good 70-mph panic stop, and they stopped the Durango steady and true.
Amazingly, despite the increase in size the new Durango is no heavier than the old one. That's because it was a clean-sheet design, with nothing borrowed from the beefy Ram truck as before. Designers also took advantage of new manufacturing processes. With the increased bending and torsional rigidity of the hydroformed boxed-rail chassis (nearly three times as stiff), a new independent front suspension and innovative adaptation of the 40-year-old Watts link rear suspension with coil springs (contributing to a rear end which is 40 pounds lighter and keeping the rear axle planted on the ground), the ride and handling are excellent, maybe even superb.
Within minutes behind the wheel of a 4.7-liter Durango SLT, we could tell the ride was way better than before, and it got no less firm and comfortable throughout our test. There's 12 percent more travel in the suspension. The rack-and-pinion steering provides a tight turning circle. We had a chance to toss the Durango around more than 100 miles of remote twisty roads in the Texas Hill Country, and it stayed on an even keel through some very hard cornering. The front end is 20 pounds lighter, and the short hood, driven by styling, required the engine to be set farther back in the chassis resulting in better balance.
We drove the Durango off-road and didn't hit bottom over the ruts in the dirt in spite of driving it aggressively over some rough terrain. We towed a 5950-pound trailer for about 30 miles, and decided you should get the 5.7-liter Hemi if you need to tow something that heavy. That's what we had hooked to the trailer, and the 4.7-liter wouldn't have been enough motor.
Safety innovations are significant: The two forward frame rails have extensions that fold like an accordion when crushed, reducing the jolt to the driver in a head-on crash; there's also an energy-absorbing steering column. And like the politically correct Volvo XC90, the frame crossmember just behind the front bumper is lowered to the level of a passenger car frame to reduce the chance of running up and over a car. The front air bags deploy with varying power based on the weight of the person in the seat.
We end this review with a crunch. Displayed at the Durango launch, on the lawn of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, was a red Durango that had been driven by Dodge's own crash-testers into a fixed barrier at 30 mph. Most of the damage appeared to have stopped at the engine. Government and insurance industry crash tests have yet to be done on the Durango, but, said one Dodge official, "We fully expect to earn five stars in everything."