In this crossover-crazy world, makers of old-school SUVs are feeling the pinch to get with the 21st century and class 'em up. Ditch the truck frames, polish up the interior, and make it ride nicer. Give it a shave and a haircut, and perhaps even some "man-scaping."

Even a bad boy can clean up occasionally, and Dodge has taken this middle-ground approach with the new 2011 Dodge Durango. Yes, the ladder frame is gone in favor of a unibody borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee that's been stretched out a bit. Sure, the suspension is now fully independent, and the four-wheel drive is actually all wheel-drive, but there's still plenty of traditional SUV DNA under the new makeup.

For example, in this strange new world where the Ford Explorer has morphed into a front wheel-drive-based crossover with a turbo-four for a premium engine, the Durango remains unabashedly rear drive and still comes with optional V-8 power. The big, 360 horse 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 puts 390 lb-ft through a five-speed automatic transmission (an eight-speed auto is coming), then either straight to the rear wheels or to a dual-range transfer case offering full-time all-wheel-drive with a low-range gear for serious pulling power. Chrysler's new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, meanwhile, delivers 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft to the same automatic transmission and either the rear wheels only or full-time all-wheel drive (sans low-range).

Spend a few moments with your right foot buried in the Pentastar's throttle and you begin to question why they even offer a V-8 variant. This V-6 is not only more engine than most seven-passenger SUV buyers will ever need, but will obviously be the volume motor. Towing is one reason why you might opt for the V-8, as the bigger engine can tow 7,400 pounds. Though Dodge was quick to point out that the V-6 is capable of lugging 6,200 pounds around -- not bad at all.

By now, you may be wondering what makes the Durango different than its fraternal twin, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. So far, the drivetrain capabilities are the same and they even share the same 8.1 inches of ground clearance. But while the Durango does get load-leveling rear shocks, it doesn't get the Jeep's fancy air suspension. What it does get are shocks and springs up to 10-percent stiffer than the Jeep's for better on-road handling, not to mention a performance-oriented R/T model. In addition to being 10 inches longer than the Jeep and riding on a 5-inch-longer wheelbase, the Durango also features a number of electronic tricks to help its handling. They include electro-hydraulic power steering on V-6 models, an electronic limited-slip differential on the rear axle, trailer sway control, adaptive cruise control, and electronic roll mitigation for flatter handling.

The stretched wheelbase pays huge dividends for third row passengers. A pair of six-foot, 200-pounders could easily spend a couple of hours in the way-back without much discomfort. In fact, the second row seats offer only an inch or two more legroom.

Most impressive though, especially when compared to the last generation Durango, is the new SUV's ride and handling. The added length (when compared to the Grand Cherokee) improves the straight-line feel -- there's very little wobble and almost nothing to give away the fact that you're in such a large, heavy vehicle. Additionally, there's very little brake dive, even when you panic stop. And the brakes feel solid. Turn the wheel, and not only are you treated to a properly weighted tiller, but the Durango is almost happy about going around corners. You know what? Let's drop the word "almost." This Durango is one impressive truck.

While the mechanical work is all well and good, if there's any place the old Durango needed polishing, it was inside the cabin. You know it, we know it, and Dodge knows it. That's why it's been completely redesigned with higher-quality materials, tighter panel gaps, and fewer seams. Dodge even goes so far as to claim that the Durango doesn't have a base model, suggesting that the entry-level Express trim is equal to or better than other brands' mid-range trims. To make the point, Dodge loaded the Durango with optional Sirius satellite radio, Bluetooth streaming audio, hands-free calling, rear-seat entertainment and TV, and even mobile internet. On top of that, it seats seven yet can hold up to 84.5 cubic-feet of cargo with all the seats down. That's big enough to carry both a 6-foot couch and a coffee table inside the vehicle, Dodge claims.

Sticking with the interior, the Durango is quiet. Blame the vastly improved aerodynamics as well as the largely NVH-free yet loaded with high-strength steel frame. There's very little wind noise and a medium amount of roar from the 20-inch wheels and their accompanying rubber. The way Dodge tells it, the new Durango is a healthy compromise between less capable crossovers and luxury SUVs. Durango combines luxury vehicle quality and ride with SUV capability and crossover fuel economy, all at a price you can afford. Specifically, that price will start at $30,045 for the V-6 only Express, and climbs to $34,045 for the mid-level Crew. A CrewLux package is available for an extra $5000 with more options, or you can go all-out on a top-shelf Citadel for $42,645. Adding all-wheel drive to any model requires a $2000 upcharge. Pricing for the sporty R/T hasn't been announced.

While the Fords and Chevys of the world have gone full metro with their car-like crossovers and their limited off-road and towing capabilities, Dodge reckons there's still a market for blue-collar types looking to clean up a bit without going all high fashion. Are there enough buyers left who wear cowboy boots with a three-piece suit? We'll see.


2011 Dodge Durango
Base price $30,045-$42,645
Vehicle layout Front-engine, AWD/RWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engines 3.6L/290-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6; 5.7L/360-hp/390-lb-ft pushrod 16-valve V-8
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Curb weight 4750-5400 lb (mfr)
Wheelbase 119.8 in
Length x width x height 199.8 x 85.5 x 70.9 in
0-60 mph 7.5-8.5 sec (MT est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 13-16 / 20-23 mpg (est)
CO2 emissions 1.05-1.26 lb/mile (est)
On sale in U.S. January 2011

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