2012 Dodge Durango

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Dodge’s new Durango Citadel is a splendid workhorse.

YOU MAY REMEMBER the old Dodge Durango the way I do: As a clumsy, truck-based ute, just one more member of that herd of motorized dinosaurs that roamed America, doomed to extinction by an oncoming comet called the Great Financial Contraction.

Yes, the old Durango crawled off to die in a tar pit somewhere, and was replaced a year ago by this, the new Durango.

Like its Chrysler Group stable mate, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the new Durango has benefited enormously from Detroit’s near-death experience, and from new direction by Italy’s Fiat.

May I say that the Durango is now what it should have been all along: a thoroughly competent workhorse that is also pleasant to operate, pleasant to be a passenger in, and even pleasant to look at. (I came out of a restaurant one night and saw it lit up under street lights, which accentuated some handsome but subtle creases in its silver-gray sheet metal.)

Only the third-row seat is somewhat unpleasant, but just for adults. The very fact that it has more seats than the Grand Cherokee now puts the Durango on the car-shopping radar of families with more than 2.4 children. As well as being comfortable and surprisingly composed, the big Durango drives smaller than it is.

Every time I glanced in the mirror, I was surprised to see how much vehicle was following me down the road.

There are four Durangos in Dodge’s 2012 lineup, all available with rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. So really there are eight models.

They range from the SXT 4×2 ($29,000) to this Citadel AWD, which starts at $43,000. Inbetween there is a Crew model and an R/T, and of course each step up comes with more toys. The SXT can be had only with Chrysler’s Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6, rated for 290 horsepower and 260 pounds of torque.

The R/T can only be had with Chrysler’s 5.7-liter V-8, with 360 horsepower and 395 pounds of twist. R/T is Dodge code for road/track, and designates a “performance” model.

In this case, it means the steering, suspension and exhaust have been made more sporting somehow.

The other two Durangos, the Crew and Citadel models, can be ordered with either motor.

The six-cylinder delivers 16 to 23 EPA miles per gallon, city and highway. The V-8 has a Fuel Saver feature that deactivates four of its cylinders when they’re not needed, but its efficiency is still just 14 to 20 MPG. Somewhat surprisingly, the V-6 gets hooked to a 5-speed automatic transmission, while the V-8 has a 6-speed. Functionally, one would expect the less torquey engine to enjoy the benefit of more gears, to keep it on the boil better.

Dodge apparently believes that if you pay more, you should get more gears as well as more engine. Both transmissions let the driver lock out the higher gears, which can be helpful when pulling a trailer up a long grade. Dodge says the Durango can be set up to tow a 7,400-pound load.

Our test vehicle was a Citadel V-6 with most of its option boxes ticked. It had a Media Center and satnav and many other nice things.

One day, I got a warning message: FCW blocked! The owner’s manual finally told me this meant that the Front Collision Warning sensor was obstructed (by snow, in this case).

From the key fobs to their drivetrains, there’s much commonality between the Durango and the Grand Cherokee. Seats, switches, many of the options, even certain trim pieces are shared. For all their genetic similarity, though, they’re different.

The Durango, even the tarted-up, bucks-up Citadel, lacks Jeep’s sophisticated off-road hardware, its deluxe cabin and tauter handling.

It’s the solid older brother who went to trade school, while the Grand Cherokee—better-looking, more athletic, and clearly Mom’s favorite—got the Ivy League scholarship. The Jeep is more refined; the Dodge is bigger (longer) and just as comfortable, but less expensive.