It's surprising what a decade or so will do to a reputation. In the '90s, the sport-utility vehicle was the bee's knees, a must-have for those who wanted lots of room, plenty of capability and a commanding view of the road. Today the sport-ute is a pariah — a gas guzzling beast that clogs our roadways and spews soot wherever they roam. While the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid might look like one of those beasts of burden from the past that befouls the environment and costs an arm and a leg to fuel, looks can be deceiving.
The 2009 Durango Hybrid is a different, more sophisticated animal — one that claims to boost city fuel economy by 40 percent and overall fuel economy by more than 25 percent. Some may scoff at an SUV that gets 20 mpg, but it's drastically better than straight gas-powered SUVs, especially in the city, and equivalent to plenty of V6 sedans we've tested. The average HEMI Durango can't even manage 15 miles on one gallon of fuel around town. Which is the better sport ute? We think the answer is clear. Plus, the Hybrid Durango is equipped with a HEMI, so power won't be a problem.
In an untimely and unfortunate turn of events, Chrysler announced in October that financial difficulties will force the company to close the Delaware plant that builds its Durango and Aspen large SUVs — both standard and hybrid versions — in December 2008. For those who want to invest in a limited-edition hybrid that could become an instant collector's item, this is your chance.
There is only one flavor of the Durango Hybrid, a high-end equipped, all-wheel drive Limited model with just three options: an $850 power sunroof, a $1,765 rear-seat entertainment system and a $455 towing package.
With the exception of three small Hybrid badges and 18-inch chrome wheels wrapped with Goodyear Wrangler SRA 265/60/18 tires, this new Durango's exterior is identical to its gasoline counterpart. If you're an introvert, stay far away because this SUV draws attention.
It starts with the imposing signature crosshair grille that melds into a short hood, which leads to a steeply raked windshield. The result is a close resemblance to the forward section of a Freightliner 3-ton truck. Add to this the exaggerated fender flares and "afterburner" taillights . . . well, you get the picture.
Under the Hood
So how can a 345 horsepower HEMI V8 boost overall fuel economy? It's mostly in the transmission. The Durango's electric continuously variable transmission (ECVT) is made up of two 60-kilowatt electric motors, three planetary gearsets and four fixed gears. Somehow everything fits in the same space as the standard five-speed automatic transmission.
Co-developed with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, the ECVT has two drive modes, thus the moniker "two mode" hybrid. Basically, it can run on electric motor only (as it does in reverse and for low-speed forward trundling) or it can use the electric motor to augment the big gas motor.
In the first mode, during stop-and-go and city drives, the Durango Hybrid can operate with electric power only, gas engine power only or a combination of both. Like other hybrids, the Durango shuts the engine off when the vehicle stops, and a gentle nudge on the accelerator pedal propels the big SUV with the electric motors only up to 25 mph for about two miles.
Juice for the electric motors is supplied by a 300-volt nickel-metal hydride battery pack tucked out of the way under the second-row seats. When the vehicle decelerates or brakes are applied, some of that energy is captured and sent to the battery pack.
In the second mode, the 5.7-liter V8 engine is the primary source of motivation with an assist from the electric motors if needed for passing, pulling up a long hill or towing up to a 6,000-pound trailer. The engine features Chrysler's Multi Displacement system. With a little practice on the go pedal, the big HEMI can be coaxed into operating on four cylinders at around 40 mph, and can do so for several miles while gradually increasing speed. On a fairly flat highway, it's not difficult to maintain four-cylinder operation at 70 mph.
For this review, Dodge provided us with a pre-production Durango Hybrid for a family vacation to Southern California. Though the Hall clan (six in total) had its doubts about the roominess of this handsome sport ute, they were dashed by the end of the 10-day, 2,527 mile round trip from Olympia, Washington. In fact, everyone praised the vehicle's size and amenities.
From a driver's point of view, the dashboard presents a nicely designed, no-nonsense layout. Big knobs and controls can be operated easily, the four-spoke steering wheel has a nice feel and front leather bucket seats are never uncomfortable. Snatching a water bottle or snacks can be accomplished without taking eyes off the road.
At 5 feet 4 inches tall, our daughter had no difficulty reaching the pedals or handling the big sport ute when it was her time to drive. She did, however, have a bit of a problem climbing in and out of the vehicle — there's no grab handle for the driver. Access to the third row is a simple affair: lift a lever on the side of either second-row seat and fold it forward. This opens up a good-size aisle.
I did a stint in the third row with my 14 year-old grandson Adam. He's 5-feet 7-inches tall and I'm 5 feet 11 inches, and after a couple hundred miles I didn't feel an urgent need to change seats.
Since this is the Limited edition of the standard Durango, our vacation ride had all of the comfort and convenience features: air conditioning, leather upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver's seat with memory, power front passenger seat, cruise control, a navigation system and Chrysler's MyGIG entertainment system.
By far, the grandkid's favorite feature was the optional rear-seat entertainment package with satellite TV (Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network). For the adults, the power-opening rear hatch was a godsend.
Chrysler has been on a push to upgrade the quality of materials used in its vehicles' interiors. Unfortunately, the Durango hasn't been upgraded, so hard plastic is in abundance. However, clean lines and tasteful details in the cabin at least make it an enjoyable place to spend time.
On the Road
The Durango Hybrid's bones are separate body and frame in the truck tradition. Despite that, it displays a degree of refinement that could endear it to buyers who aren't fond of trucks.
The majority of our miles were clocked on Interstate 5, where the Durango mimicked that of a passenger car, albeit an old-school big sedan — think 1993 Buick Roadmaster. In other words, it's a smooth ride that is never severely harsh. Also, the passenger pod is well isolated from road and mechanical noise, so it's quiet at highway speeds.
Body roll is present but predictable, and the vehicle has a stable feel overall. Steering feedback is reasonably good, with the big rig always going where it's pointed.
There are some quirks in the hybrid system to which drivers (and occupants) have to adjust. With all of the shifting power sources, surges and pauses occur as the vehicle goes through its transitions from electric mode to a combination of electric and gas engine, and then to full-on Hemi power.
EPA rated 19 mpg in town, 20 highway, we averaged 21.3 mpg on our journey. Considering that we added 1,300 pounds of people and stuff to the Durango's 5,600-pound curb weight, that's an impressive number.
Right for You?
In hybrid dress, the Durango has an MSRP of $45,340, including an $850 destination charge. That's $5,000 more than the HEMI-only Limited 4x4. However, there is an estimated $1,800 hybrid tax credit for those buyers who qualify.
If the Durango Hybrid's brash looks aren't your style, the more traditionally styled Chrysler Aspen Hybrid is just $140 more. But with either you'll find a navigation system that is not always intuitive to operate, and an onboard fuel mileage gauge that can't be reset to zero. This means you have to keep a written record of gallons purchased and miles driven for an accurate reading.
Today, full-size SUVs have moved to persona non grata status for most — but not all — consumers. There are folks who ferry around six or seven kids to baseball or soccer games, and those who load up lots of gear and tow a trailer for weekend outings. Their number totals about three-quarters of a million people.
The Durango Hybrid can meet their needs, plus deliver the fuel economy that is close to, or even exceeds, that of the much-touted crossover utility vehicles.
Larry Hall is the editor of Northwest Auto News Service and a freelance journalist based in Olympia, Wash. For more than 20 years, he's covered the automotive industry for numerous trade journals, newspapers and business publications.