Already a commendable family vehicle with three rows of seats, the Dodge Durango gets even better for 2014 with improved fuel economy, an impressively easy touchscreen and voice control dashboard system and attractively updated interior and exterior.
There also are thoughtful details, such as a push button for the driver to remotely fold down the head restraints on the third-row seats, when the seats are unoccupied. And drivers freezing through this winter's bitter cold will lust for the Durango's quickly heating steering wheel. In the tester, it became nearly hot to the touch, not just lukewarm.
Also not to be missed: The Durango has best-in-class towing capability of 7,400 pounds with uplevel V-8. But even with a V-6, the Durango has more towing capacity — 6,200 pounds — than many other six-cylinder-powered SUVs.
But with four out of five stars in federal government crash tests overall, the 2014 Durango lags behind some competitors, such as the 2014 Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Explorer, both of which earned the top score of five out of five stars.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the base, rear-wheel drive, 2014 Durango SXT is unchanged from last year at $30,790. The lowest starting retail price for a 2014 Durango SXT with all-wheel drive is $33,190.
The SXT, SXT Plus, Limited and Citadel models of Durango come standard with a 290-horsepower V-6, while the Durango R/T has a standard, 360-horsepower, Hemi V-8.
Competitors include other mid-to-large-size SUVs with three rows of seats. But many competitors don't offer V-8s and most are front-wheel drive, not rear-drive. The front-wheel drive, 2014 Chevrolet Traverse has a starting MSRP, including destination charge of $31,670 with 281-horsepower V-6, while the front-wheel drive, 2014 Ford Explorer has a starting retail price of $30,910 with 290-horsepower V-6.
The 2014 Durango, introduced during calendar 2013, already has won favor with buyers. U.S. sales rose 42.5 percent in calendar 2013, from 42,589 to 60,727. It's easy to see why.
On the outside, the Durango's unmistakable, bold Dodge grille is refined, and new headlights and light-emitting diode tail lamps add new flair.
Inside, the generous-sized and comfortable front seats sit behind a new, modern dashboard.
In upper trim levels, such as the Limited test vehicle, the optional UConnect Access system adds a sizable and eminently usable, 8.4-inch display screen in the middle of the Durango dashboard.
This display is noteworthy for its large, easy-to-read icons and fonts and understandable and well-arranged menus. Even better, there are redundant, manual knobs and buttons for commonly used controls, such as turning the radio on and off and setting the interior temperature and fan speed. Also appreciated: The prominent "screen off" button just below the display, so a driver can eliminate the screen illumination when wanted, say, during nighttime travel. And Dodge did a great job grouping needed connections for phones and other accessories in one spot, at the base of the center console of the dashboard.
There, a powerpoint, a USB connection, an auxiliary input and more are all side by side and easy to reach above a roomy storage spot.
The ride inside the Durango was surprisingly quiet, and passengers conversed in regular tones — unless the 506-watt stereo system was on full blast.
The test Durango Limited had strong throttle response and good power from the 3.6-liter, double overhead cam V-6. This is the same base engine that was in the Durango in 2013, and it moved the nearly 5,000-pound SUV swiftly and strongly, with plenty of acceleration for highway merges and passing. Torque came on easily and peaked at 260 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm.
In combined city/highway travel, the test all-wheel drive Limited model averaged 19.2 mpg, which is a bit better than the federal government's 19-mpg rating. Even better, the Durango's top rating from the federal government of 18/25-mpg for a two-wheel drive model is much improved from the 16/23-mpg rating of a comparable, 2013 Durango. It's also higher than the government's 17/24-mpg rating for a front-drive, 2014 Traverse and front-wheel drive, 2014 Explorer.
With a 24.6-gallon gasoline tank, the test Durango could go nearly 500 miles on a single tank, at a cost of just over $80. Note the tank size is more generous than that in many other SUVs. The Explorer's gas tank holds just 18.6 gallons.
The 2014 Durango also has a capless filler, so drivers don't need to worry about leaving a gas cap back at the gas station pump.
The Durango's ride is remarkably composed for a vehicle that's nearly 17 feet long. The test Durango's suspension absorbed most road bumps. The ride, and body motions, were well managed. And while the Durango had a solid, strong feel about it, it did not handle ponderously, despite its size.
Note the Durango is 4.1 inches longer than the Explorer but 2.5 inches shorter, in overall length, than the Traverse.
The only thing that detracted from the drive experience was rear visibility. It is impossible to see what is close to the back of the Durango, and thick rear window pillars block side rear views. This makes backing up challenging, and while a rearview camera is standard on Limited and higher models, it is not available at all on the base SXT.