A few months ago, Dodge released an advertisement called Long Lost Performance, set at a neglected, and weather-beaten oval racetrack, with hunks of rusting old race cars serving as the only reminder to a bygone era, and the bleak atmosphere is made ever more insufferable by the trademark gruff-voiced announcer bewailing the imminent demise of the American performance car and all their muscle and horsepower that we hold so dear. Then, all of a sudden, two brand-new Dodge Durangos come barrelling onto the racetrack, and with the help of an enthusiastic drum solo, the tone instantly changes to one of optimism and exhilaration, because, once again, vehicles designed to get your blood pumping are once again being made right here in the USA.
Now I share my colleagues’ admiration for Chrysler’s stunning ‘Imported from Detroit’ Super Bowl ad, and I appreciate Chrysler’s stance of humility in all these ads as they’re essentially admitting that the injuries borne by the domestic automobile industry over the last few years are largely self-inflicted. But for a seven-passenger SUV to come ‘rising out of the ashes’ to become a shining beacon of tire-shredding horsepower is stretching it a bit. Besides, Chrysler has a whole line of insanely fast SRT vehicles that would be much better suited to the task of delivering such a message.
Be that as it may, I was given the very special opportunity earlier in 2011 to be a member of the pit crew for the MJK Racing GT-1 Camaro as it ran in the Daytona Classic, an SCCA-sanctioned vintage sports car race weekend at the Daytona International Speedway, and my test vehicle for the week happened to be a 2011 Dodge Durango. This was going to be its chance to get a glimpse of what that world portrayed in that advertisement is really all about… by serving as the official pit vehicle for the race team for the weekend: carrying both crew members and equipment around the garages and Pit Lane and to and from the hotel. You know, being part of a team.
Though taking it on a hot lap around Daytona would probably have been much more fun… we all gotta start somewhere.
The Dodge Durango is so new for 2011 that it shares nothing with the model it replaces except for the name, and that’s a good thing. The outgoing Durango was based off of the since-departed Dakota pickup truck, and it had devolved into the Quasimodo of the midsize SUV class. Even Dodge’s new head of design Ralph Gilles called it ‘pig-snouted.’ But the new Durango has joined its main rival, the Ford Explorer, in getting with the times by adopting a unibody structure and finally letting go of its traditional body-on-frame platform. Since it actually shares its new backbone with the Mercedes M-Class, the Durango is now more refined and car-like than its predecessor, and has a European-ness that clearly results from Italian automotive conglomerate Fiat S.p.A.’s new role as Chrysler’s majority shareholder.
At the Daytona Classic, however, its underpinnings and corporate backing would be completely irrelevant. Having attended the Rolex 24 back in 2010, I was enthralled at how fast everything moved, be it in the pits or in the garages. Now, I was going to get my own glimpse of what it’s like to actually be a part of all that hustle, rather than just observing it as media… and I was going to need the Durango to help me every step of the way.
Since my official duties consisted of tires and fuel, anything pertaining to them whatsoever was my responsibility. Tire pressures, tire temperatures, and lug nut torque specs were all for me to worry about, as well as taking the fuel jugs down to the station and filling them up, and calculating how to put enough fuel in the race car to ensure that it finished the race but not so much that it was carrying around extra weight… all that stuff was running through my head. So, the last thing I needed to interfere with my thought process was having a pit vehicle that couldn’t accommodate a set of race tires or fuel jugs. Thankfully, the Durango carried all of that without issue, and made loading up a reasonably easy chore with a low deck height. If that’s all that is needed to be carted around, the Durango works perfectly.
The other highlight of using the Durango for a pit vehicle that weekend was its exceptional maneuverability. Though the new Durango is actually about an inch shorter than its predecessor, it is still a sixteen-and-a-half-foot-long vehicle. But it didn’t feel like one scooting around Daytona’s garage area; it felt more like a midsize sedan. Thanks to an extremely large range of steering motion, the Durango’s turning circle is 37.1 feet, the best in the midsize SUV class, and that made backing up to the garage or to the fuel station incredibly easy and, most importantly, quick… and as I can now tell you from experience, things need to happen quick in racing.
After day one, we had a fantastic day of racing, in which the MJK Racing Camaro set a record of doing its fastest lap ever around Daytona International Speedway. It was time to have a celebratory dinner, and it was also time for the Durango to switch roles: from hauling cargo to hauling people. For the first time in the model’s lifespan, the Dodge Durango now sports a third-row seat, and though the front passengers have had to give up a bit of legroom compared to the old model to compensate for it, the Durango took six full-grown men to dinner in comfort on Saturday night. Though there were a few grumbles muttered about the peculiar absence of grab handles on the headliner for everyone except the front passenger, the third-row seat is actually occupiable by adults, and everyone commented on what a nice truck the Durango had become.
Again, their praise should come as no surprise, as the 2011 Durango’s interior is a massive improvement over the old model’s dull interior and terrible ergonomics. The test vehicle was a luxury-oriented Citadel model, with goodies like leather, navigation, rear air conditioning, and radar-monitored adaptive cruise control. A blind-spot monitoring system was also checked on this particular Durango’s option list, which alerts you to a vehicle in your blind spot by both a triangle that illuminates in the outside mirror and an audible beep if you signal towards a lane that is already occupied. It works well, but it does have a bug that needs work: on occasion, if you’re making a U-turn, the system will detect the vehicle behind you as you’re making the U-turn and alert you to it, even though it’s not in your blind spot and you’re not in danger of hitting it.
Day two brought enthusiasm and a hope of a possible class win for the MJK Racing team, and we arrived early in the morning to begin preparing for the final leg of the Daytona Classic. But our enthusiasm was not rewarded unfortunately, as a mechanical problem forced our retirement from the race. Though it had beaten the record it set the day before and had a new fastest Daytona lap time, it was time for us to pack up and head home. As they say… that’s racing.
Packing up and heading home posed a problem for the Durango, as one of the crew members had to leave Saturday night, meaning his truck wasn’t available to carry equipment back to Orlando after the race. Thus, the Durango’s cargo-carrying limits were about to be tested. They were, and frankly, they weren’t very high. Though the Durango had effortlessly carried around a set of race tires and fuel jugs earlier in the weekend, we struggled to fit some shelving, two large canopy tents, a couple jackstands, and a mechanic’s stool into the Durango’s 84-foot cargo area. Like the overall length, that number is also smaller for 2011, and it shows. The race tires and fuel jugs had to find another way home, and the Durango had proven itself better at hauling people than cargo.
Whatever the Durango did haul, however, it did so with no signs of struggle from the drivetrain. Though the test model was equipped with the most basic drivetrain, the 3.6L 290hp Pentastar V6 and rear-wheel-drive, it handled whatever extra weight we saddled it with problem-free. It was furthermore impressive to note the Durango V6’s 6200-lb towing capacity and its respectable 0-60 time of 8 seconds flat and quarter-mile time of 16.1 seconds at 87mph. However, all of those numbers could be improved (as well as its 16.5mpg observed fuel economy) by a transmission with properly-spaced gears. The five-speed automatic in the test vehicle had such tall gear ratios that it only used the first two gears in the quarter-mile test. The venerated 5.7L 360hp Hemi V8 is also available, as is four-wheel-drive. That would be my drivetrain choice, as the Hemi utilizes the MDS cylinder-deactivation system, so the extra 70hp would only come with a minimal fuel mileage penalty.
Getting back to the original dilemma of whether the Durango is really capable of living out its fantasy as portrayed in the Long Lost Performance ad… there are rumors of an SRT8 Durango due out in 2013. That would be the real vehicle for performing both on and off of the track. For now, the Durango seems to do its best as a comfortable and now more upscale vehicle for transporting people, rather than stuff, and as the numerous pictures I snapped of it around various parts of Daytona International Speedway demonstrate…
… it looks fantastic doing so as well.
Price as tested: $41,795
0-60mph: 8.0 sec
¼-mile time: 16.1 seconds at 87mph
60-0 braking distance: 126ft
Torque: 260 ft-lbs
Fuel economy: 16.5mpg
Test vehicle provided by Chrysler Group LLC.
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