First Test: 2011 Dodge Durango

After taking model year 2010 off, Chrysler's new shot-callers -- the Italians who run Fiat -- have sent a pile of cash the Durango's way. The people in charge also had the good sense to let Dodge engineers build the new Durango to a standard, not a budget. Sure, it's a unibody now, but the seven-passenger Durango remains unabashedly rear-driven and V-8-powered. The carryover 360-horse, 5.7-liter V-8 puts down 390 pound-feet, but the volume engine will be the new 3.6-liter V-6 offering 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet. For now, they're both handicapped by an old five-speed automatic, but a new eight-speed is on the way. Power flows to either the rear wheels or all four. A new low-range four-wheel-drive system is offered on V-8 models. Few model names will sound familiar to Durango fans, as the new vehicle uses trim levels called Express, Crew, Citadel, and R/T.

Dimensions are similar to the previous model's. The wheelbase grows by 0.6 inch, and overall length is shorter by 1 inch. The new Durango is only slightly narrower (0.2 inch), but sits nearly 4 inches lower. The track is 0.5 inch narrower in front and 0.3 inch narrower in back, ground clearance is down by 0.6 inch, and the fuel tank holds 2.4 gallons fewer gallons of fuel.

With the V-8 Ford Explorer gone, the Durango now claims best-in-class towing with the V-6 pulling an impressive 6200 pounds and the V-8 hauling 7400. The last truck-based Durango had a maximum towing capacity of 8950 pounds. Payload capacity is down as well, from a maximum of 1780 pounds to 1430. With 10-percent stiffer springs and shocks than its Jeep Grand Cherokee twin, the Durango shines on city streets or backroads, and achieves higher g on the skidpad, regardless of engine or powertrain.