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.")

The R/T's role? "To be as close as you can get to a BMW X5 M without spending all that money," Gilles says. That's some goal. The X5 M is sub-5.0 second quick to 60 mph, and hot laps like a sport sedan thanks to computer-controlled suspension electrickery that includes active roll control and electronic shock control. But it also starts at $86,575.

Our handsome Charcoal Pearl metallic R/T AWD tester had a base price of $38,715, and even a slew of expensive options like a rear seat entertainment system, adaptive cruise control, sunroof, Garmin sat nav, and a back-up camera only pushed that to $43,400. That's about half the price of an X5 M. But the Durango R/T is more than half the car.

It's not super-quick in a straight line. The 0-60-mph time of 7.3 seconds and 15.5 seconds at 90.8 mph standing quarter mile are line ball with the Hemi-powered Citadel model we tested a month or so back - no surprise given the powertrain is exactly the same. But throw some twisties into the equation, and the R/T comes into its own. The test track numbers tell some of the story: The R/T pulls higher lateral g than the Citadel (0.79 vs. 0.76), is faster around the MT Figure 8 (28.2 seconds at 0.59 g vs. 28.3 seconds at 0.56 g), and stops better (117 ft from 60 mph vs. 125 ft). But what they don't tell you is how sweetly this thing flows down a winding road.

The steering is very good, nicely weighted, and pleasantly linear -- better, in fact, than the steering in our BMW 5GT long-termer. The steering feel and feedback is helped by a steering wheel rim that is much thinner -- and better to grip - than the clumsy, fat-rimmed wheel fitted to the Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as the sharp response of the low-profile tires. Our tester was fitted with the optional 265/50 R20 Continental CrossContact summer tires instead of the standard Kumho Solus KL21 all-season meats. Unless you live in the land of permafrost, they're the tire to have.

The ride is firm - you feel what's going on where the rubber meets the road -- but impact noise and harshness are comfortably suppressed. The long 119-in wheelbase helps damp any fore/aft pitch, and the stiffer springs and shocks deftly tame the body roll. The Durango R/T feels remarkably composed for a 5483-lb vehicle when hustled through the turns, and has excellent straight-line stability. That shouldn't come as a surprise, because this thing has good bones -- the basic platform architecture, including the four-wheel independent suspension, is from the Mercedes-Benz GL, our favorite Benz SUV.

The Durango R/T's weakest point is its yester-tech five-speed automatic. The first three ratios are too widely spread - third gear is 1:1 -- while fourth and fifth are overdrive ratios. The idea, obviously, is to improve highway fuel economy as much as possible, but the effect is to blunt the punch of the smooth 360-hp Hemi under the hood. Throw in a leisurely shift protocol, and the transmission always feels a day late and dollar short. Chrysler's new eight-speed auto, which will also see duty in the Charger and Challenger, can't come soon enough.

Leaving aside Cadillac's way more expensive CTS-V wagon, this is the only American load hauler apart from the 355-hp Ford Flex EcoBoost that's remotely interesting to the enthusiast now that the Dodge Magnum SRT8 is no more. And it can certainly haul a load - the long wheelbase allows for generous legroom in the second row, and third-row seating that is genuinely accommodating for adults. The Durango R/T fulfils Dodge's mission statement as the American performance brand in the Fiat-Chrysler portfolio. And Ralph's guys nailed it: It's a poor man's BMW X5 M that won't leave you feeling shortchanged.


2011 Dodge Durango R/T
BASE PRICE $38,715
PRICE AS TESTED$43,400
VEHICLE LAYOUTFront engine, 4WD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 5.7L/360-hp/390-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 5483 lb (51/49%)
WHEELBASE 119.8 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 199.8 x 75.8 x 70.9 in
0-60 MPH 7.3 sec
QUARTER MILE 15.5 sec @ 90.8 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 117 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.79 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.2 sec @ 0.59 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 13/20 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 259/169 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.26 lb/mile
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