This is the Durango that was never meant to be. A sporty SUV made no sense at all to the glorified accountants from Cerberus who ran Chrysler when the 2011 Durango was being developed, so it was never in the product plan. Ironically the bloodless moneymen were, on a purely rational level, correct: Attempting to turn a truck into a sports car is ultimately an exercise in futility. But the car business ain't a rational business. If it were, there'd be no BMW X5, no Infiniti FX56, no Porsche Cayenne.
With its dubs, slammed suspension, and raucous exhaust, the 2011 Dodge Durango R/T may be every bit as pointless as a Mercedes-Benz ML 63 AMG, but we should all celebrate the fact it exists, because it means the car guys are back running the show in Auburn Hills. You can debate the Durango R/T's relevance, but you can't dispute the passion behind it.
The R/T was only added to the Durango lineup late last summer, pushed, says Dodge CEO and Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles, by the team of young engineers assigned to create the road-biased SUV. (Off-road stuff? That's Jeep's role.) That's a lightning-quick development arc in an industry where you need sign-off from the design, engineering, durability, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and legal departments before you can change a single component on a new vehicle.
The R/T is available only with the 360-hp 5.7-liter Hemi, though you can choose between all-wheel drive and rear drive. It's easily distinguished from the rest of the Durango range by its black grille with body-colored surround, unique 20-in alloy wheels, new front and rear fascias, and black headlamp surrounds. In terms of the mechanicals, the ride height has been lowered 0.8 inch, and 15-percent stiffer front and rear springs have been fitted. The front shocks have twice the damping force of the standard units, while the rears have been boosted 20 percent. A half-degree of negative camber has been dialed in front and rear, and the steering revalved to match the sportier suspension and tire characteristics. (A 295-hp V-6 powered version called the Heat, featuring the same visual and suspension mods, but minus the third-row seating and rear HVAC unit to save weight, was revealed at the Chicago Show. It is, says Gilles "a shockingly fun handler.")