2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid Review
By Chris Haak
On the market since 2004, the current Dodge Durango in and of itself isn’t a terribly impressive vehicle; it has questionable handling, a plastic-centric interior, big-on-the-outside, small-on-the-inside engineering, terrible fuel efficiency, poor resale value, and an awkward look. The Durango (and/or its cousin, the Chrysler Aspen) also is a vehicle that may be on Chrysler’s model-elimination chopping block in the next year or two as its Newark, Delaware assembly plant is slated for closure. Sales of the Durango have fallen off a cliff during 2008, also. Sounds like a perfect time to reinvigorate the old guy with a 50% city fuel economy improvement, doesn’t it? I spent the past week in a 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid, provided by Chrysler, to find out just how well this thing works.
Since you’ve obviously read the headline before reading even this far into the review, you are well aware of how Dodge managed a 46% city fuel economy improvement from the Durango – by fitting it with the sophisticated, well-regarded (yet expensive) two-mode hybrid system co-developed with BMW and GM. GM has been installing its version of the system into its Tahoe Hybrid and Yukon Hybrid SUVs for a full model year, and has seen nearly zero sales success from it, so Chrysler tried a few tricks of its own based on GM’s less-than-stellar experience in marketing vehicles that occupy the same market segment as the Durango and Aspen do.
The biggest differentiator between GM’s approach and Chrysler’s approach is that GM has attached a significant price premium to its hybrid system – between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on how you’re counting and who you’re asking. Even with substantial fuel economy improvements relative to a conventionally-powered model, the hybrid premium takes a very long time to reach the breakeven point (at which gas savings pay for the additional cost of the hybrid system). In contrast, Chrysler has priced its Durango Hybrid at a less-than-$5,000 premium. The price difference between the conventional and hybrid Dodges is easier to calculate than it is for its GM competitors because Dodge eschews many of the expensive weight- and fuel-saving tricks that GM uses with its hybrid SUVs. Aside from some fairly subtle fender badges and a single badge on the rear hatch, there is no visual cue that the Durango Hybrid is anything other than a non-PC “regular” V8-powered Durango. GM installs an aluminum hood, lightweight seats, smaller 12-volt battery, a high-efficiency 6.0 liter Atkinson cycle engine, a more aerodynamic front clip, and several other tweaks. The result is that the four wheel drive Tahoe Hybrid is rated at 20 miles per gallon in both the city and highway (21 city/22 highway for the two wheel drive model), while the Durango Hybrid (available only in four wheel drive) is rated at 19 city/20 highway. To be fair to GM, the Tahoe is a larger, heavier vehicle; the Durango starts with a 500-pound weight advantage, which is part of the reason Chrysler didn’t bother to “add lightness” to the Durango Hybrid; it offers competitive mileage figures without the additional cost, but at the expense of interior room relative to the Tahoe.
The two-mode hybrid system is quite sophisticated, and allows the transmission (which is the key part in the hybrid system for both this vehicle and most others) to function as either a CVT with two distinct ratio ranges (infinity to 1.70 from a stop, then 1.70 to 0.50 for high-speed efficiency) or as a traditional automatic transmission with four fixed forward gears. Powertrain control software decides what the best mix in terms of ratios or even which part of the transmission to use to maximize fuel efficiency. As the Durango Hybrid is a so-called “full hybrid,” it is possible to drive at lower speeds without the gasoline engine running at all, purely as a silent EV. This past weekend, when doing some low-speed parking lot driving with many pedestrians around, I was able to drive for about a quarter mile in 100% EV mode. In just that short stretch, with gentle throttle application, the hybrid’s battery gauge dropped from about 3/4 charge to 1/4 charge. Those hoping to drive halfway to work on a fully-charged battery can look elsewhere.
Taking a step back to the startup procedure, it’s refreshingly conventional, with just one twist. There is a key fob remote that actually requires you to push a button to unlock and lock the doors, with a regular metal/plastic key attached to its ring. To start the Durango Hybrid, just put the key into the ignition, turn it to the start point, and release. Lights on the dash turn on, as does the radio and HVAC fan, but if it’s at least a moderately warm day and the engine doesn’t need to warm up for the heater to work, the engine will not start. It’s a little unnerving, but a green READY light at the bottom of the speedometer assures the driver that it’s OK to put it into gear. One nice fuel-saving feature is that the air conditioning system is electrically operated rather than belt driven, so the passenger compartment can be cooled while loading children and cargo into the vehicle without wasting fuel, as long as the hybrid battery is holding adequate charge. On cold days, however, the heater will not work without the engine being warmed up. (The hybrid standard-bearer, the Prius, also has to run its engine on cold days to provide heat).
Once in gear, and assuming a safe, open road awaits you, standing on the gas quickly tells the powertrain computers that you mean business and you need all of the Hemi’s power plus couple of 87-horsepower electric motors to provide forward motion, not just the electric motors by themselves. That being said, there is a slight delay while the SUV figures out what exactly you plan for it. The Hemi emits the normal V8 burble, but once it reaches its ideal operating range for acceleration, it stays there (thanks to the CVT). That is, until the first CVT ratio reaches its maximum; that event is followed by an off-putting pause in acceleration, then a resumption from where it left off. It’s a very odd sensation, because neither a conventional automatic or single-spread CVT have anything other than very linear acceleration. There’s a big longer period of hesitation when calling the engine room for a kickdown and some passing power, but it moves with aplomb once underway – although completely releasing the gas pedal from being buried in the carpet results in an unnerving continuation of acceleration for a brief moment. Otherwise, transitions between modes are pretty much non-events and not easy to detect without specifically paying attention for them. Like other manufacturers of hybrid vehicles, Dodge provides a display of what the powertrain is up to at any given moment, including instant fuel economy. This display also shows how many cylinders are firing in the 5.7 liter Hemi V8 at any given moment; the Hybrid model’s highway mileage improvement of one mile per gallon is almost exclusively thanks to the ability of the electric motors to give a small boost to the engine when in four cylinder mode on the highway at a steady speed, allowing it to remain in “fuel saver mode” for longer stretches.
Power steering, as with all hybrids, is electrically powered rather than hydraulic. This means that it’s generally lacking in road feel (not that the Durangos with hydraulic steering are autocross-ready), but the upshot is that it operates with the engine turned off, and saves fuel when the engine is turned on by not sapping engine power via a belt-driven mechanism. The Durango Hybrid’s braking system is regenerative (again, as with other hybrids) followed by a conventional mechanical system for harder stops. The transition between these two types of braking is apparent, with a light pedal application initiating the regenerative feature and a harder application activating the conventional brakes. They were no better or worse in feel than in the other hybrids I’ve tested (Camry Hybrid and Prius), but certainly didn’t allow linear modulation as conventional hydraulic-only brakes would.
The Durango’s styling was updated for the 2007 model year to finally abandon the “big rig” design motif of both the first-generation Dakota-based Durango and the awkward-looking adaptation of that theme to the 2004-2006 model years. To me, the Durango’s best angle is the profile shot; my metallic black tester was sharpened by selective application of chrome, including its 18 inch wheels (I’d prefer 20 inch wheels, but at least these 18s were chrome-surfaced). The windshield is sharply raked, which helps mitigate wind noise and provides for a fairly modern look, but the overly-long front bumper doesn’t do much for me, nor do the weird bulges on the rear quarter panels that continue the circles on the surface taillight lenses to the side of the vehicle. The Durango’s cousin, the Chrysler Aspen, is actually not much more expensive, yet is mostly better looking outside (aside from its unfortunate hood strakes), and far better looking inside.
Speaking of the interior, it’s smaller inside than you’d expect. As an automotive journalist who tests many vehicles throughout the year – and who is tall – I’ve become accustomed to my frequent struggle to properly install two child seats in the second row, yet have enough room so that my wife and I are comfortable in the front row. Some cars – the Lexus IS350, for instance – simply make that impossible. Others – such as the Subaru Forester – have spacious second row legroom, and make child seat installation a snap, even with the front seats adjusted so that tall folks are comfortable. Surprisingly, the Durango was closer to the IS350 end of the car seat spectrum than to the Subaru Forester end. I did manage to fit a rear-facing convertible car seat behind my driver’s seat, and squeezed myself in there long enough to drive a 150-mile roundtrip highway jaunt with the family, but once the trip was over, I was happy to remove the car seat and move my seat about four inches rearward, which was not physically possible with the rear-facing car seat installed behind it.
The center console is among the best I’ve seen in terms of storage cubbies and cupholders for the driver and front passenger; I carry a parking garage entry card and two eyeglass cases in every car I drive, and a nicely-sized square non-closing cubby just under the center stack held the eyeglass cases without requiring me to sacrifice the cupholders to the cause. Unfortunately, the glove compartment is too small to function as the traditional owner’s manual storage space; instead, it has to be stored either in a door pocket or outside of the vehicle.
Aside from the fact that it’s a member of a vehicle class (V8-powered, body-on-frame SUVs) that most buyers in late 2008 don’t want to touch with a ten foot pole, the Durango also shows its 2004-vintage age with an overabundance of shiny, hard plastics. These plastics were the norm in the truck segment five model years ago, but the competition – particularly GM – has really stepped up its game in terms of interiors, and the Durango just isn’t up to par with the competition in terms of interior design or materials. Dodge does get points, however, for implementing a fold-flat third row seat that does not require seat removal as do the Tahoe’s and Suburban’s third row seats for maximum cargo capacity. Cargo space with the third row folded is adequate, but with the third row in use, is incredibly small (which, again, is par for the class). If you have a large family and will need the third row for seating on long trips, plan on putting all of your family’s luggage on the roof or on laps. The cargo area behind the third row is so small that an umbrella stroller was a tight fit there this past weekend.
So, how’d the Durango Hybrid do in terms of fuel economy? Almost exactly as advertised! I got about 18.5 miles per gallon during my routine commute. I wasn’t babying the truck, but also drove it fairly conservatively, and there is stop-and-go city traffic, back roads, over 25 traffic lights, and a 70 mile per hour stretch of highway travel. On the aforementioned highway jaunt, the average economy climbed into the high 19s. These figures compare favorably with nearly every large vehicle – even sedans – that I’ve tested. The Lexus IS350, Lincoln MKZ, Mercury Sable, Toyota Sequoia – among others – all saw poorer observed fuel economy than did the Durango Hybrid, in spite of its 6,000 pound towing capacity and eight passenger seating abilities.
At the end of my week with the Durango Hybrid, I am happy to report that the two-mode hybrid system performed exactly as advertised. Chrysler has solved the problem of reducing fuel consumption in absolute terms of one of its vehicles (a Durango Hybrid averaging 20 miles per gallon will use 750 gallons of fuel every 15,000 miles, while a conventional Durango averaging 15 miles per gallon will use 1,000 gallons of fuel over the same distance. That 250 gallon savings is $875 at $3.50 per gallon or $1,000 at $4.00 per gallon). There are plenty of vehicles that have more passenger space and cargo room (Chrysler’s own Town & Country and Grand Caravan minivans come to mind) and that can tow more than 6,000 pounds (such as the non-hybird Durango and Aspen, or any other full-size SUVs and pickups that aren’t equipped with the hybrid hardware), and plenty of large vehicles that get similar fuel economy to even the hybrid version of the Durango (the Chevrolet Traverse crossover, for instance, has a more spacious interior and is rated at 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway without hybrid hardware). But there are few vehicles that have the towing capabilities, passenger capacity, and fuel economy in a single vehicle as does the Dodge Durango Hybrid. The Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid and GMC Yukon Hybrid can claim that they do, but at $8,000 more money, buyers have to decide if they want a nicer interior along with the rest, or if they want $8,000 in their pockets. I’m partial to the GM vehicles, but $8,000 is a big chunk of coin.
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