2014 Dodge Durango R/T RWD Review: What the big man drives

durango RT exteriorI’m sure that the Durango commercials starring Ron Burgundy have generated a lot of attention for the vehicle, but we’re old school; we’d prefer to hear about the features of the car instead of watching it get pelted by eggs. It does the Durango a great disservice, as this is a wonderful redo of Dodge’s midsize SUV. I won’t go into the Durango’s history; you can read that in the review of the Durango Citadel on CarBuzzard. We will tell you, however, that the R/T, which features the HEMI V8 engine, was a lot of fun to drive in this SUV.

durango badgeThe Durango is available in five trim levels, with the R/T as the most performance-oriented model (as much as you can call a big SUV performance-oriented). It’s built in Detroit, and might be one of the few models that won’t be Fiat-icized, since Italians most likely don’t understand Americans’ desire for the HEMI V8.

The Durango’s exterior design is definitely identifiable as a Dodge product, with the crosshairs grille. The R/T gets a bit more sinister look, with dark tint headlamp bezels, body-color exterior trim pieces, and a 20mm (almost an inch) lower ride height. On the R/T the headlamps are standard HIDs, as compared to standard LEDs on the rest of the models (except the top-trim Citadel, which also features HIDs). Our R/T was rolling on 20s, which fit the big SUV perfectly. We also liked the back end styling. Although massive, it doesn’t overwhelm the vehicle, and there are two 3.5-inch dual exhaust tips on the R/T when matched with the V8 powerplant. Lesser-powered Durangos will get the wimpy three-inch tips. (We can say that since our R/T had the beefier 3.5s.)durango rear

Make no mistake: just because the R/T is sporting a HEMI underhood, this SUV can do more than a lot of the competitors when it comes to work. The rar-drive R/T is capable of trailer towing up to 7,400 max pounds, which is considerably more than the Ford Explorer’s 5,000-pound tare. It’s also offered in all-wheel-drive as well as the standard rear-wheel drive, which keeps the Durango firmly in the “work it, baby” category.

Speaking of working it, the R/T with the HEMI is a fun vehicle to drive. It’s quick, which means you can blow the doors off a lot of MINI owners who think their snot is made of gold…and that’s why we like V8s, no matter what sheetmetal is wrapped around them. It’s even more satisfying in a big SUV, just to see the look on the surprised hipster’s face.

893775dodgehemibThe 5.7-liter HEMI V8 is a staple of the Dodge diet, and this one is anything but low calorie. It produces best-in-class 360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque, and only asks that you feed it with 89 octane instead of 91. It can, however, live happily on 87. As with everything in life, there are tradeoffs. You want power, great, but you won’t be seeing 41 mpg here. You will be seeing 14 city/23 highway/17 combined on the window sticker, however. We saw about 16 mpg on average during our week with the Durango R/T, but, remember, we were actually using the HEMI, not babying it as if it was a pious Prius. If you feel the need to protest the waste of fuel, leave this site and go read EV Today magazine. We will never apologize for an American V8, especially the HEMI, which is what we’re pretty sure powers God’s ride (Do you seriously think that omnipotent supreme being is tooling around in a Smart car?) Before you start whining and writing letters to CNN, the V8 does feature cylinder deactivation, which, during steady-state cruising, puts the engine in four-cylinder mode for fuel savings. And while I know Chrysler has to do this to appease the EPA, I still believe if you own a HEMI, you shouldn’t have to compromise at all. That’s why people drive EVs; so there’s more gas available for those who appreciate the rumble of a Mopar powerplant.

trannyThe complementary piece to the HEMI is the new eight-speed automatic transmission — with paddle shifters. If we don’t need a V8, we certainly don’t need an eight-speed automatic. Oh yes, we do! It’s a sophisticated piece of technology that helps save some fuel, and does an impressive job of sliding effortlessly between gears. We also like the rotary dial in place of the shifter. It takes a bit of getting used to at first, but it sure saves a lot of room.

With its lowered ride height, the R/T felt stable on the streets and highways, and provided good ride quality even with the 20-inch tires. Emergency lane-change maneuvers didn’t send the normal rush of adrenaline through the system as with many seven-passenger SUVs, and the steering was crisp for a vehicle of this size. For the most part, we just throttled away (with our HEMI) from the myriad potential bad-driver mishaps that occur every second on the hazardous freeway systems in Los Angeles.

durango dashInside, the Durango R/T is nicely appointed. We’ve mentioned this dozens of times, but the brand really has stepped up its interiors across the board. The UConnect screen is huge, and that makes it really easy to see and operate as we’re driving down the road eating a burger, putting on makeup, and drinking a soda. There’s plenty of room and plenty of storage for front-row occupants, and you won’t hear any complaints from second-row passengers, either. Tots will be happier than adults in the third row, but at least the 50/50 split-fold seats are there if you need them. All the seats fold flat for plenty of cargo-carrying capacity, and there’s decent room behind the third row with all the seats up. To make sure you know you’re in an R/T, those letters are stitched into the seatbacks, and include red stitching on the seams.

durango second rowOur test model R/T was loaded with features, including heated seats for the first and second rows, a heated steering wheel (which isn’t that important in Los Angeles, but is mandatory in Detroit), power seats up front, remote start, keyless ignition, and steering-wheel-mounted controls (we have always like the fact that Chrysler vehicles have the audio station/volume controls on the back of the steering wheel; quite practical and ergonomical). Our R/T test model came with the available Customer Preferred Package 27S, which added the rear-seat entertainment system, premium Nappa leather (quite nice), ventilated front seats, rain-sensing wipers, and automatic high-beam headlamps, among other items. Other options on the vehicle included blind spot and cross-path detection for $825, second-row captain’s chairs for $895, a power sunroof for over a grand, and the UConnect with GPS, HD radio, and more for an affordable $400. Starting with a base price of $38,995, and then adding on all the goodies, the R/T totaled $46,495, a price that might stop your heart in the showroom. But remember, you can say that your SUV does have a HEMI.

2014 Dodge Durango R/TWe’ve been fans of the Durango since it was born, and even did our best to defend it in its darkest hour (second-generation) because every brand should have a midsize SUV. The Durango sold almost 61,000 units in 2013. While it’s going to take triple that to unseat the Ford Explorer, this was its best-selling year since 2006. We’re glad Dodge decided to resurrect the Durango, and do it justice with good looks, great features, and a nice engine lineup, especially the HEMI…it just wouldn’t be a Dodge without it.