Comparison: 2011 Ford Explorer vs. 2011 Dodge Durango

One for the Head, One for the Heart

Jonny Lieberman
Jan 20, 2011
Ford and Dodge both launched all-new seven passenger SUVs within weeks of each other. Despite a tough economy, high gas prices, and the public's seeming fascination with greener, electrified cars, two-thirds of the Big Three feel strongly that a market still exists for the type of vehicles Americans fell head over heels in love with a decade ago. We'll go ahead and say three out of three, as GM will happily sell you a Chevy Traverse. But let's not digress.
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In the Dearborn corner you have the 2011 Explorer, once the USA's best-selling SUV, now reborn as a crossover instead of the more familiar body-on-frame truck. In the Auburn Hills corner you have the 2011 Durango, looking much leaner and cleaner than the last version, and now a CUV. We've haven't had the opportunity (yet) to line these two up for a full-blown comparison, but we figure we'd use our seat time in both to answer some questions. Chiefly, how do these two stack up?
As it turns out, within inches. The Dodge is not quite 3 inches longer than the Ford, though the Explorer is just over 3 inches wider. In fact, the Explorer is 3 inches wider (and about that much shorter) than its sister, the Flex. Both the Flex and the Explorer are based on the same Volvo-derived D4 platform that underpins the Taurus. Meanwhile, the Durango rides on the platform that sits beneath both the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Mercedes-Benz M/R/GL-Class. The Durango's wheelbase is 5 inches longer than the Jeep's, and a fairly substantial 7.5 inches longer than the Explorer's. Based off our time in not only the Explorer and the Durango but in the Grand Cherokee, the Dodge's extra inches between the wheels pays off with a more subtle and refined ride. We found the Explorer to be just on the hard side of comfortable.
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But where do those same extra inches go inside the cabin? The second row of the Dodge is a tighter fit than the Ford. The answer is the third row. Full-size adults (and their feet) can fit comfortably in the Durango's way back. Not so much in the Explorer, especially in the foot room department. You're also left wondering where the Explorer's extra width has gone. The cabin doesn't seem especially roomy, though there is a lot of space between the steering wheel and the door, for whatever that's worth. Put another way, the Ford's width gives it no discernable interior space advantage over the Dodge.
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Both SUVs feature all-new cabins. The Durango's interior is quite handsome and nearly as stylish as the new Charger. First and foremost is the new soft-touch, one-piece dashboard. It's excellent, and representative of what Dodge means going forward. The controls feel solid, the aluminum around the vents is actually metal, and the leather is a higher grade. Plus Dodge has banished the color gray from its interior color palette. Hurrah! One gripe: We wish Dodge would have also banished the nasty-looking last-gen navigation screen from its model lineup. Obviously, the fantastic-looking Garmin-based system found in the Charger and Journey will eventually filter down to the Durango, but it's a pity it's not here now.
The Explorer offers Ford's sophisticated MyTouch Ford system, and despite how dorky the name sounds, the more we use it, the more we like it. One nifty feature that's standard on the Limited trim package and optional on the XLT is the Sony-branded version of MyFord Touch. It replaces the normal controls with sharp-looking white-on-black touch-activated buttons. The Sony system is quite classy-looking and seems to work better than what comes standard. Then you have Sync, which just keeps getting better and better. It's close, and both vehicles are worlds improved when compared to their previous examples, but we'll give the interior win to the wide-body Explorer.
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You do notice the Explorer's extra girth whenever you try and park. The wider track directly correlates to a larger turning radius. There's just no getting around the fact that it's a big vehicle with an extra helping of blind spots, so expect loads of mall-centric three point turns. Parking sensors and a rearview camera help, though the almost constant beeping of said sensors could use a retune. Since every close call was met with a cacophony of "Beep! Beep! Beep! Beepbeepbeep! Beeeeeeeeep...." we found ourselves switching it off and just using the camera and the mirrors. The Durango on the other hand is quite car-like when it comes to maneuverability, and as a result parking the nearly 5,000-pound rig just wasn't an issue.
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One reason for the Explorer's huge stance is Ford's very real attempt to make the big marshmallow capable off-road. In some corners, the decision to put the new Explorer on a car platform -- instead of the more familiar body-on-frame -- elicited gasps of horror. The Explorer would be losing its off-road chops! The truth of course is that we're not a country that goes mud bogging en masse, though we do love to drive vehicles that look as if they could. Despite that, Ford knew the switch would be a sticky wicket, as the Brits might say. The result is a soccer mom-mobile that is capable of doing things 99% of said soccer moms would never dream of. Ford gave the Explorer a Land Rover-like Terrain Management system, and when you dial the knob one detent to Mud and Rut mode, it really is a capable off-roader. The Durango has no such system, and we'd guess the overwhelming majority of owners would never miss it. Besides, there's always the Grand Cherokee, though that truck is missing a third row.
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One area where the Explorer really asserts its dominance over the Dodge is fuel economy. Rated at what Ford says is a class-best 25 mpg highway, the Explorer has a clear advantage over the V-6-engined Durango, which is rated at just 22 mpg. It gets worse if you should opt for a V-8 Hemi -- it only scores a 20 mpg rating from the EPA. For now the 3.5-liter V-6 is the only engine available in the Explorer, though next year a 2.0-liter EcoBoost I-4 will be available. It should make about the same amount of power and get better mileage, but cost a little more. Will Ford ever offer a V-8 option for the Explorer? We doubt it, but it wouldn't surprise us if they offered a more powerful engine. Either the 3.7-liter V-6 found in the Edge Sport, or (more likely) the 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6 that's in the Flex EcoBoost. All that said, from a sheer driving enjoyment perspective, the Hemi-fied Durango was by far the most fun to drive.
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When it comes to towing, the Durango has a clear advantage over the Explorer. With the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, the Durango can tow 6,200 pounds. The V-8 version can haul a pretty impressive 7,400 pounds. The Explorer can manage just 5,000 pounds, a clear disadvantage. A couple caveats, of course: Ford claims that most mid-size SUV buyers don't tow more than 5,000 pounds. People that do tend to purchase big trucks. Also, Ford claims that towing with the Explorer is easier than with the Durango, as the Explorer borrows Trailer Sway Assist technology from its F-150 big brother. Another really cool feature is the ability of the backup camera to zoom in on the trailer hitch. If you've ever spent any time trying to hook up to a trailer by yourself, you'll appreciate this feature. That said, the Dodge tows more.
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In terms of straight-up driving, we really prefer the Dodge. As mentioned, the Ford is fairly hard-riding and just not much of an athlete. The Dodge meanwhile has a much more comfortable ride and better reflexes. Turn the wheel in anger a few times and you'll quickly forget you're driving a near 2.5-ton, seven-seat kiddie-hauler. Surprisingly, however, the Ford's sort of the better athlete of the two. Compare the Explorer's 0.77 g skid pad performance to the V-6 Durango's 0.74 g. The range-topping V-8 Citadel model Durango managed a 0.76 g, but that's without AWD. The Explorer dusts off the quarter-mile in 7.9 seconds, compared to the Pentastar Durango's 8.8 ticks. The mightier Hemi-powered Durango isn't much faster, clocking in at 7.3 seconds. But the real story lies in our patented 200-foot figure eight, where we learn that the despite the Explorer's better performance numbers (so far), the slower, heavier, less grippy Dodge beats it by nearly half a second (28.4 vs. 28.8 seconds). The RWD V-8 is marginally faster still at 28.3 seconds around our cones.
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Which one is better? Until we do a full side-by-side comparison, it's hard to say. But spending time in each one does lead us to some theories, if not a conclusion. The Ford Explorer is the more logical mid-size, seven-passenger SUV. It costs less, gets better mileage, has more interior room, and a few novel safety features (the crash-preventing and undefeatable Curve Control and inflatable second row seatbelts) the Durango doesn't. Also, the Ford does have something that almost no other car can claim -- 96 percent name recognition (we'll assume the other 4 percent bought Lincoln Aviators). If you're using your head, you pick the Ford. However, if you're using your heart, the Dodge is the easy winner. While the Explorer is pretty good-looking, the Durango is downright dapper. Not that people buy SUVs for how they handle, but we can't stress how much we liked driving the Dodge, especially when compared to the more minivan-ish Ford. It's just a more appealing product. It's not smarter, but as Woody Allen said, the heart wants what the heart wants.
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  2011 Dodge Durango (V-6; V-8) 2011 Ford Explorer
Base price $29,195 $28,995
Vehicle layout Front-engine, RWD/AWD, 7-pass, 4-door SUV Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 6-7-pass, 4-door SUV
Engine 3.6L/290-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6; 5.7L/360-hp/390-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8 3.5L/290-hp/255-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
Transmission 5-speed automatic 6-speed automatic
Curb weight (f/r dist) 4889 lb (49/51%); 5307 lb (50/50%) 4660 lb (55/45%)
Wheelbase 119.8 in 112.6 in
Length x width x height 199.8 x 75.8 x 70.9 in 197.1 x 90.2 x 70.4-71.0 in
Track, f/r 63.9/64.1 in 67.0 in
Headroom, f/m/r 39.9/39.8/37.8 in 39.1-41.4/38.3-40.5/37.8 in
Legroom, f/m/r 40.3/38.6/31.5 in 40.6/39.8/33.2 in
Shoulder room, f/m/r 58.5/58.3/50.4 in 61.3/61.0/50.8 in
Cargo vol, behind f/m/r 84.5/47.7/17.2 in 80.7 cu ft (behind f)
0-60 mph 8.8 sec; 7.3 sec 7.9 sec
Quarter mile 16.6 sec @ 86.1 mph; 15.5 sec @ 91.8 mph 16.1 sec @ 88.6 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 120 ft; 125 ft 120 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.74 g (avg); 0.76 g (avg) 0.77 g (avg)
MT Figure Eight 28.4 sec @ 0.55 g (avg); 28.3 sec @ 0.56 g (avg) 28.8 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 16/22-23 mpg; 13-14/20 mpg 17/25 mpg
CO2 emissions 1.05-1.06 lb/mile; 1.20-1.26 lb/mile 0.98 lb/mile

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Dodge Durango

Fair Market Price
$30,143
Editors' Overall Rating
Basic Specifications
MSRP: $30,495
Mileage: 18 / 25
Engine: 3.6L V6
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