ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Dodge Durango SUV falls into a category pretty much all its own.
It’s neither full-size nor midsize, but something in between. Much like the now-departed Dodge Dakota pickup truck, it inhabits a middle ground which brings both benefits and demerits.
On the plus side, it is easier to maneuver in urban settings than, say, a Chevy Tahoe or Ford Expedition. On the minus side, it has less-expansive cargo and passenger room. But it does offer third-row seating.
Based as it is on Jeep’s runaway success story, the Grand Cherokee, you’d expect the Durango to excel in off-road chores, and you’d be right. But it also manages to avoid the “truckiness” of some of its body-on-frame competitors, due to its unibody construction shared with the Jeep.
That gives the Durango surprising on-road handling and ride qualities, especially with the sport-tuned suspension that’s standard in the R/T model, like our test vehicle. It also doesn’t hurt that the Durango shares some DNA with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, inherited back in the day when Germany’s Daimler, Mercedes’ parent company, owned Chrysler Corp.
There’s an unexpected solidity and confidence about the way the truck tracks down the highway. Even the steering, often a weak link in SUV and truck performance, delivers taut and direct responsiveness with a fair amount of road feedback.
The tightened-up suspension gives the Durango above-average cornering capabilities but not at the expense of the ride, which is firm but not jarring even over uneven pavement or potholes. This level of athleticism is unexpected in this type of vehicle.
There’s a choice of powertrain combinations, including rear-, four-, or all-wheel drive. Select between a 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 paired with a five-speed automatic transmission or a 5.7-liter V-8, good for a 360 horsepower, with a six-speed automatic (but the all-wheel drive comes only with the V-6).
The V-6 has it work cut out for it with the Durango’s 5,000-pound-plus curb weight. The V-8’s added power eliminates that issue, but drops the highway mileage from 23 mpg to 20. Still, the bigger motor is the obvious way to go, especially if you plan to do any towing.
Matching the Durango’s aggressive styling is a well-designed cabin, featuring plenty of upscale materials utilized in attractive designs. Our R/T had comfy sport buckets done in (optional) Nappa leather and featured a generous array of luxury, comfort, high-tech and safety features. Two second-row captain’s chairs replaced the standard bench seat, while the third-row bench offered unexpected room for two full-size adults.
The Durango’s special combination of attributes gives it a rather unique place in the SUV universe.