2015 Dodge Durango 040
“That’s a very nice truck,” said the uniformed agricultural inspector at the California Border Protection Station, eyeing the 2015 Dodge Durango that was taking my family home, southbound on U.S. 395 out of Nevada. Getting a compliment from a guy who watches thousands of cars pass by every day was unexpected but not unusual. During our week in the Durango R/T AWD, resplendent in Granite Crystal Metallic over red premium Nappa leather, I heard nothing but positive reviews from onlookers impressed with the sporty styling of the big SUV.
Dodge offers its 7-passenger Durango sport-ute in five different models. Base trims are fitted with a 290-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 and 18-inch wheels, an attractive package but not likely to prompt “oohs” and “ahs” from strangers. That type of attention, we found out, comes standard with the R/T trim and its brawny 360-horsepower 5.7-liter HEMI V8, 20-inch alloy wheels, dual chrome exhaust tips, HID headlights, sport-tuned suspension, and a lowered ride height that drives the performance message home with a visually aggressive stance.
When the R/T came my way, I was determined to avoid the usual week battling L.A. traffic and instead packed the family and our gear into the Durango for a few restorative days at Lake Tahoe, the alpine playground in that part of the Sierra that straddles California and Nevada.
Loading passengers and gear into the Durango is a cinch (the R/T’s slightly lower ride height allows even small kids to climb easily aboard). Up front is plenty of legroom, and the lightly bolstered and power-operated front seats include heating and cooling features. My test car was fitted with the optional second-row Captain Chairs, which are fixed in place, have two-stage heating and a recline feature but are not cooled. A mini-console with cup holders sits on the floor between the two passengers. Legroom in the second row with this configuration is tight for tall adults, an obvious compromise to the third row, but our moderately sized kids had no problem. Even after our long round trip, the entire clan expressed appreciation of the cabin’s overall comfort.
That third row is, well, habitable by the average adult, at least for short stints, but we didn’t need it and folded it flush with the load floor to gain space for our gear. The roof-hinged power rear tailgate made it easy to pack our six roller suitcases, a camera bag, two briefcases, and a plastic bag with two wetsuits into the rear cargo area, and even with all that stuff, my view out the back window was unobstructed. I must complain, though, about the location of the power-close button, located inside the rear driver-side pillar. Nobody expected it to be there, and it was blocked by cargo when the area was loaded. (Note: The key fob also opens/closes the tailgate.)
Our over 600 pounds of passengers and some 250 pounds of luggage and gear pushed the Durango’s 5,331 pounds of gross weight to well over three tons. Nevertheless, the muscular HEMI, boasting 390 pound-feet of torque, moved the R/T briskly off the line, trailed by a muscle-car exhaust note from those twin exhaust pipes. Power is transferred to the four wheels smoothly thanks to the excellent 8-speed automatic transmission (V6 models are fitted with a different 8-speed gearbox) that’s controlled by a rotary E-shift knob (just like in a Jaguar!). The automatic shifts nearly imperceptibly around town — its actions are only noticed under heavy throttle.
Most folk leaving Los Angeles for Lake Tahoe use Interstate 5 north to Sacramento and then proceed east to the lake via either I-80 or Highway 50. Those are the fastest routes but most of the way is as exciting as watching a puddle of water evaporate (well, if there were any water left to evaporate in California). Those who desire to make the trip as scenic as the destination take State Route 14 to U.S. Route 395, the historic road that runs up Owens Valley along the east side of the Sierra Nevada. At one point it cuts cleanly between the highest and lowest spots in the Lower 48 — Mt. Whitney and Death Valley — and on the way to Tahoe climbs to a lofty 8,036 feet of elevation at Deadman Summit. Stunning beauty is the payoff for a slightly later arrival, and those with time to spare will want to stop at Mono Lake to check out the strange tufa structures jutting from the blue saltwater.
The Durango R/T was nothing but pleasant on the open road. The smooth V8 was nearly inaudible thanks to tall gearing that drops the engine below 2000 rpm at cruising speeds, little wind and tire noise permeated the cabin, and ride quality was exemplary. The R/T’s upgraded Sport Suspension never wallowed or felt floaty, nor did anyone complain that it was too firm (believe me; my kids would have let me know). Yet, despite the word “sport” in the description, I wouldn’t call the R/T “sporty” by most measures of the concept. Cornering is stable, but the all-season Goodyear Fortera HL tires (265/50TR20s) are constructed for low noise levels and improved fuel economy, not for grip or cornering stability. When I pushed the Durango hard into a bend, the underwhelming rubber quickly reminded me I was in a utility vehicle (and a voice from the back reminded me I wasn’t driving a sports car).
On interstate and open highway with the cruise control set at 70-plus, the Durango covered hundreds of miles effortlessly and with surprising efficiency. Traditionally, 5.7-liter V8s are thirsty — the first-generation Durango’s 5.7 was rated at 12 mph city/17 mpg highway. A decade later, the engine is far less thirsty, earning EPA ratings of 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway — those numbers represent real improvements.
Credit Dodge’s fuel-saving technology, which automatically deactivates half of the cylinders when they are not needed, when the vehicle is cruising at highway speeds between 40 and 60 mph or under light load. Because I spent most of the trip with cruise control set between 74 and 79 mph, I rarely allowed the variable cylinder feature to work, but I still earned an overall highway fuel economy of 21.8 mpg — impressive, considering the vehicle’s size, mass, and the mountainous terrain.
Less impressive was the powerplant’s pull at high elevations. Any naturally aspirated engine forced to breathe thin mountain air would be affected, and the Dodge V8 had to haul a three-ton load, so it was challenged to overtake slow-moving trucks above 7,000 feet. I figure the engine was down more than 20 percent in power and recall frustration at being passed by forced-induction gasoline and diesel vehicles over the tallest passes.
However, the Durango is a nice place to sit back, relax and enjoy the view. I enjoyed driving the Durango R/T, and my family thoroughly enjoyed being passengers. Everyone liked Dodge’s 8.4-inch touchscreen Uconnect infotainment system (it’s so easy to use, though the WiFi feature didn’t work well in the mountainous terrain; neither did our mobile phones), and the new-for-2105 Beats by Dr. Dre audio system, with more than a dozen speakers and a nice thump of bass, thumped to a cavalcade of family sing-alongs.
Dodge also thoughtfully provides a three-zone climate control, with HVAC vents on the front dashboard, the end of the center console, and along the ceiling in the second and third row, which kept everyone temperate despite outdoor readings of 109° F at one point on the drive. Everyone was thankful, too, for the wide array of charging stations throughout the cabin, including USB, 12-volt, and a 115-volt A/C outlet behind the center console.
My brood of four people usually voices complaints, but in the Durango, they seemed unusually silent. Except for the door locks (“Why can’t we pull twice on the handle and have the door unlock?”) and the remote control for the Blu-Ray-compatible dual-screen video (“The remote should be white or silver, so we can find it at night.”), all were pleased with the Dodge Durango. As we pulled into the driveway, after putting nearly 1,000 miles on the SUV over five days, my daughter polled the family, and everyone — including myself — said they would repeat the trip in the same vehicle… again and again. That’s a strong recommendation: This tribe has “tested” dozens of vehicles over the past decade, and, believe me, they can be a tough crowd.