Looking to drop the minivan mom (or dad) image?  This is your baby.  It’s the 2012 Dodge Durango R/T AWD.  Sure, it’s nicely styled looking from the back or side, especially with the 20-inch Aluminum wheels standard on R/T trim, but one look from the front lets you know that this is no glorified station wagon.  A look under the hood at the 360 horsepower, 5.7 liter HEMI V8 confirms it. There’s icing on this cake, too.  It’s got enough room to make the third row usable and leave some cargo space behind it as well. Plus, it’s a superb highway cruiser, as I learned on a last-minute road trip.

There’s no letdown in terms of safety, either.  The Durango is an IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012, receiving top marks in all their testing results.  It did well in the new government tests, too, earning a 4-star overall rating.  Of course, 3-row side curtain airbags and stability control are standard.  Optional safety features include forward collision warning system, blindspot warning, rear backup camera and rear cross path warning (imagine backing out of a parking space with a vehicle coming fast from the side where you can’t see it around the tall SUV parked next to yours).  Visibility is generally good, except out the back.  I wish the backup camera had been standard, so I consider it to be a must-have option in the Durango.  Handling is acceptable, though pretty typical for a larger midsize SUV.  I had no problems in an emergency maneuver when I was going about 45mph and suddenly swerved to avoid a momma duck and her 6 babies trying to cross the road, blocked from my view by a truck in front of me.  The Durango did receive only a 3-star rating for rollover from the government, but stability control should mitigate risk in most situations.  Braking is also quite good for a vehicle of this weight.

Driving it is a pleasure.  I had no problems getting a comfortable position with the seats or tilt/telescoping steering wheel.  On the highway, it’s pretty quiet at high speeds.  Cruising at 75mph, road, wind and engine noise are well muted.  Even with the low profile 20-inch rubber, the ride is quite good; soaking up bumps and handling curves without a problem.  All four of us on our road trip thought it was quite impressive in this regard.  Steering is not particularly tight and doesn’t give a lot of road feedback, but it’s easy to drive and provides enough assistance for lower speed turning.  As for acceleration, no issues there with the HEMI V8.  It gives a very authoritative growl when you step on the accelerator, exactly what you want with an engine like this one!  It also makes for plenty of towing capability, up to 7200 or 7400 lbs., depending on the trim level.  Off-road capability with AWD is enhanced by an automatic and low-range selector on the center console.  The 6-speed transmission, new for 2012, provided very smooth shifts and responded very well. This unibody crossover 2011-2012 Durango is a great improvement in almost every regard compared to its truck-based predecessor.

Inside, the cabin is nicely appointed with good storage all around.  The cloth R/T badged seats with [faux?] leather trim are very sharp.  The dash, controls and other trim were of high quality and I found no obvious issues with fit or finish.  The seats are good overall and were supportive enough to keep me comfortable for the long road trip, including 8 hours of driving one day.  They are perhaps a little firmer than I would prefer, but not overly firm like some other vehicles.  I had no issues with pairing my phone or streaming music via Bluetooth.  I really appreciated the mini-multi-information-display in the center of the circular tach and speedo.  That partially mitigates the somewhat cumbersome uConnect touch-screen interface on the main display in the center of the dash.  The optional Nav system worked OK, but I found that I was often turning one street too soon until I became familiar with the 3-step turn alerts.  First, you are told to “Prepare” to turn well in advance.  Then, you are told to “Turn”, often at the street before the one you want.  Then, right at the turn, you are told to “Turn NOW”.  It’s a little different than some other systems, but worked fine once I got used to it. My vehicle did not have the optional entertainment system.

Other notes?  EPA fuel economy estimates are relatively low for the Hemi V8.  Mine was rated at 13 city, 20 highway.  On our road trip, I averaged 21 miles per gallon.  I got closer to 25 mpg in construction zones where I was limited to 60 or 65 mph! That’s in part due to the system that operates more efficiently as a 4-cylider engine while you are cruising in ECO mode.  Around town, expect to get close to the 13mpg rating if you commute in stop and go traffic.  I managed 14-15 mpg in limited time running errands around suburbia.  Cargo space is good. Even with the third row in use, you get better than average room behind the third row.  With both second and third rows folded, you get a ton of space.  Plus, the second and third rows fold in sections for more flexibility.  I fit an 8 foot long piece of glass with the passenger side seats folded.  The power rear hatch works nicely, too, but it’s a bit short when opened so watch your head if you are close to 6 feet tall!  Keyless entry and start is a nice feature, as is the automatic climate control that worked well, too.

 

Child Passenger Seating:

 

The Durango is among the better midsize SUVs for kids, in both the second and third rows.  Starting with the second row bench, there are 3 seats standard.  The outboard bench seats have LATCH, while a third top-tether anchor is provided for the modest center seat.  The lower anchors are visible and easy to access.  The middle seat is not too narrow, so it will fit various carseats.  You can certainly do three-across or adjacent carseats with careful selection.  The main issue with the center seat is that a carseat installed there can conflict with the fold/tilt feature on the passenger side that allows access to the third row.  All three seats have head restraints, though the center one doesn’t adjust particularly high and the outboard ones are fixed and cannot be adjusted or removed.

The seatbelt stalks on the outboard seats are shorter than average and rigid.  This is usually fine for installing most carseats, but can make it more difficult for some kids in boosters to buckle themselves.  The main drawback of the second row bench seat is that it is not adjustable forward or backward like some competitors.  This means you can’t adjust the legroom or space available for a rear-facing child seat in either the second or third row, but fortunately the Durango is big enough that the amount of room you have is decent in both rows. You can see that a rear-facing Britax Marathon 70 installed behind the passenger seat (photo, above left) gave plenty of legroom for me up front (I’m 5’10″ tall).  There is an option for second row captain’s chairs with armrests and a cupholder in the center.

Access to the third row is a two-step fold and tilt setup that may be difficult for younger kids to accomplish.  Once flipped, the access to the third row is wide enough for most adults, too.  The third row has two seats, wide enough for adults, but the legroom may not be sufficient for taller adults, especially on longer trips.  It’s definitely better than many other midsize SUVs, but like most, it has a raised floor that will keep the knees of taller passengers high off the seat.  It should be fine for a teen or a younger child in a booster. Plus, the shoulder belts are far enough back that younger kids can securely ride in backless boosters, as you can see with the BubbleBum (photo, right). There is no LATCH system in the 3rd row, but Dodge did provide two extra top tether anchors, something missing in a few competitive models.  That means that the third row is quite functional for kids and also smaller adults overall.  With a push of a dashboard button, the driver can even flip down the fixed third row head restraints for improved visibility.  Nice!

In the video above, I had a narrow Sunshine Kids (Diono) Radian in the center with a Britax B-Safe infant seat behind the driver in the second row.  There would have been plenty of room for most any other seat behind the passenger in a 3-across, but a booster might be preferred there if you do need access to the third row.  I also installed a Graco Argos in the second row.  It’s a taller combination seat and worked fine; even with the fixed head restraints there (photo, left).  Most front-facing seats, like the Recaro ProSport in the video, should fit well in the third row. Only the smallest convertibles would be likely to fit rear-facing in the third row, and then only in a more upright position suitable for older babies and toddlers.

Top Ten Likes:

  • IIHS Top Safety Pick for 2012; 4-star overall NHTSA rating
  • Second row wide enough for some 3-across seating
  • Arguably best/toughest looking midsize SUV
  • Highway fuel economy and range better than expected
  • Third row better than most midsize SUVs for child seating
  • Hemi V8 gives strong towing, acceleration and a nice growl
  • Available Blind spot, rear cross-path and  forward collision warning systems
  • New crossover platform with independent suspension gives comfortable, quiet ride
  • Above average cargo space behind second and third rows
  • Nice touches: fingertip radio controls on back of steering wheel, push button flip down rear head restraints, mini-MID display in between tachometer and speedometer, made in Detroit of primarily North American content.

Top Ten Dislikes:

  • 13 mpg city EPA rating (16 mpg with V6)
  • Mediocre rear visibility; Backup Camera not standard
  • 3-star rollover and front passenger NHTSA crash results
  • Relatively high step-in height
  • Second row seats don’t adjust fore/aft
  • Two step move and flip forward access to third row
  • uConnect system is functional, but not the easiest to use
  • Front seats are supportive, but a little too firm for my preference
  • Handling & steering improved, but still typical for a large and heavy midsize SUV
  • Quirks: can hit head on rear hatch, momentary turn signals take getting used to; Nav system voice guidance

 

Conclusion:

The 2011-2012 Dodge Durango is a great family vehicle.  It’s a huge step forward compared to the previous truck-based Durango.  Unlike smaller midsize crossover SUVs, there’s no issue with fitting older kids, teens or small adults in the third row.  It gets solid crash safety ratings and has a long list of available safety features and packages that should interest the most safety-conscious buyers.  I really enjoyed driving the new Durango.  If you do a lot of towing or off-roading but still want the safety and handling of a crossover, the Durango is arguably your best option in a larger, midsize SUV.  It’s a competent kid-hauler and a very nice ride on the highway, too.  In fact, the only real drawback with current gas prices might be the lower than average fuel economy ratings.  Fortunately, selecting a Durango trim with the V6 engine makes it a contender in that category without too much compromise for towing.  If you’re considering one of the larger midsize SUVs, the Durango should definitely be on your list!

 

Thank you to Chrysler and G.Schmitz & Assoc for loaning us the 2012 Durango R/T AWD for this review.  This vehicle had the optional package 24S with media center, GPS/Nav and Sirius radio.  With destination charge, the total MSRP is $$39,240.