x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ugly and awkward turns curvy and stylish with new Dodge Durango

Road Test After a two-year absence, the Dodge Durango is not only better looking but it has found some soul.

The 2011 Durango has more soul than the previous incarnation. Courtesy of Chrysler
The 2011 Durango has more soul than the previous incarnation. Courtesy of Chrysler

Taking a series of sharp, winding bends on a narrow mountain pass at 140kph is a good way to see how well a car can handle. When you're doing it in a full-on SUV with two rows of seats behind you, you learn a whole lot more about the car.

Amid the sound of hellfire and fury from the rubber below, the lawyers of Physics, Dynamics and Mechanics LLP had been backing up their cease and desist order with some serious sideways inertia. The canyon below would have been breathtaking had the view stayed still long enough to focus the eyes.

Car launches take place all around the world, with manufacturers choosing the place most suited to their cars to show them off in the best possible light. Journalists usually share the vehicles in pairs and cover a lengthy route with the help of sat/nav and a roadbook.

But you can't always choose your sidekick, and sometimes he or she can be terrifying. Some writers have been known to roll cars, while others have found themselves zooming into the wrong country.

You would think that an automotive journalist would better understand the car under review; one of the first lessons they give you at car-writing school is to consider the car's purpose in real life, and then liken it to that. Just as you wouldn't take a Ferrari 599XX to Spinneys, there's no point going F1 in a Dodge Durango. In UAE terms, the car is built for the E11 cruise, the trip to the nail bar or occasionally an off-road picnic.

But, even while my cohort was making like Michael Knight in Southern California, there wasn't as much fear as one would expect flowing through the cabin. Of course, there was the baseline terror that comes from an unknown driver taking your life in his shaking hands, but other than that, the new Durango offered an air of calm, like an automotive Dr Phil.

Brand new after a two-year hiatus, the biggest Dodge has had more than a facelift: it now has soul. What used to be outright dowdy and maladroit in terms of looks is now curvy, stylish and very easy on the eye. This is borne out by an improvement in drag coefficient of 15 per cent over the previous incarnation, which, in fairness, did have the face of a Mack truck.

Both the Durango and Dodge Charger were designed at the same time and it shows. "We took the performance car mantra from our own backyard and applied the formula to Durango," said Joe Dehner, head of Dodge Design. My companion had obviously taken this to heart.

Although it still shares the chassis with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the wheelbase is now longer. The unibody structure has been strengthened, and this rigidity works well with all-new short/long-arm front and isolated multi-link rear suspension, aggressive shock rates and big sway bars to keep the Durango planted at speed.

While the exterior has been made more appealing to the 52 per cent of the population it missed before, the interior is 100 per cent up on the last edition. Where there was tough plastic on the doors, there is now smooth padding; the materials and design for the fascia and dash could have come from another world in comparison. This is what will really draw in buyers looking for as much comfort in a car as it has space.

Quality had always been an issue but now Dodge assures us that it has that in order, too. "The Durango was designed, developed and built with quality as a top priority," said Doug Betts, senior vice-president for quality, and you tend to believe him after an initial inspection. He added that engineers benchmarked hundreds of criteria to set aggressive targets for performance against the Durango's competitors. Panels fit snugly outside while the cabin materials have a long-term look and feel about them.

Of course, being a big Dodge, the Durango has a big V8 Hemi engine with 5.7L and 360hp. There's no news here, likewise with the transmission, which is the solid five-speed automatic. This all adds up to a package that, for the time being, is very much the equal of its competitors, which include the Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Explorer. But given that it is so different to previous generations of Durango, especially in terms of appearance and quality, some pundits have been tipping it as a class leader and the complete package will definitely bring buyers who have never before considered Dodge.

With a mountain on one side, a canyon on the other, another bend fast approaching and country music pumping out of the stereo, the car feels different, too. The pull of the Hemi matches the suspension's strength the surefootedness of the steering and the power of the brakes. Of course, it is not meant to go at these speeds around these roads, but it is good to know that the Durango is capable, even if I would much prefer to be somewhere else right now.

The Durango will go on sale in the UAE next month.