Payne: Dodge Durango SRT is one racy workhorse

Posted by hpayne on August 23, 2017

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I’m riding shotgun with IndyCar veteran Gabby Chavez around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield Formula One track. In a Dodge Durango SRT.

On Turn 7 leading onto the back straight, the 5,510-pound, three-row SUV experiences “wheel-hop” as the extreme g-loads, adaptive dampers, high vehicle center-of-gravity and skill of one of the world’s racing elite overwhelm the sidewalls of the screaming tires, sending them hopping across the asphalt.

I just thought you’d like to know the limits of the Durango SRT. Because there aren’t many.

At $64,090 — or about the same price as a truck-based Chevy Tahoe or BMW M X430i sport crossover — the Durango manages to combine the skills of both into one brawny, athletic package. Imagine ol’ Farmer McDonald breeding an ox that would pull his plow during the day and then go into the town rodeo and compete against the horses in barrel racing at night.

With a 392-cubic-inch V-8 under its wicked air-scooped hood, the SRT is the most powerful three-row SUV ever, with 475 ponies and 470 pound-feet of torque. Hook it up to a trailer and it will tow up to 8,700 pounds — more than the Tahoe or any other three-row ute in class. Unhook the trailer and it’ll charge from zero-60 in 4.4 seconds and hit 138 mph in the quarter-mile in an astonishing 12.9 seconds. Pull up the third-row seats and Durango SRT will comfortably seat six with best-in-class third-row legroom for basketball players like me.

From the high-speed curves of Indy to the twisted country roads of Indiana to towing a boat, I explored the envelope of a weekend racer’s dream truck: a cool-looking vehicle that makes commuting fun, tows your toy to the track on Saturday and then takes three couples to dinner Sunday night to celebrate the win.

Only GMC’s Corvette-powered, 420-horse, magnetic-shock equipped Sierra Denali pickup can match the Durango SRT’s bandwidth — though that weapon favors mulch-transport over three-row people-hauling.

Taking the flat-bottomed steering wheel from Gabby in the Indy pits, I programmed the ute for launch control. Floored the accelerator with my right foot. Then, as the tach needle trembled at 3,500 rpms, I released the brake. Durango shoots down the pit lane like a boulder thrown from a catapult. Yes, this three-row SUV has launch control.

In the Age of the SUV, that’s a tempting thought.

For the consumer torn between three-row utility and sedan muscle, Durango offers the no-compromise solution. And it looks upscale to boot. For 2018, Durango gains a sexy, pouty-lipped mesh grille to complement its unique “race-track” LED taillights. In between are the distinctive hood scoops and heat extractors, bulged wheel wells, stylish rocker panels, black 20-inch wheels and 392 side badge.

As I throw the big rhino around Indy Speedway, I chose Track mode, which lets me send up to 75 percent of the driveline’s torque to the rear wheels for better grip. If this was January, I might choose Snow mode — one of seven available, including Eco (yeah, right) and Tow (more on that later).

Caning the Durango with brutal, mule-kick-in-the-back, 140-millisecond shifts, I hit 140 mph on the main straight before giant Brembo brakes hauled the triceratops back to earth. Given the Durango’s three tons of heft, it can be a brutish experience. But on public roads, these same elements make for an easy driver. In Sport mode, the upshifts are buttery-quick, with pleasing rev-matching accompanying downshifts.

The black leather-and-suede interior is not only comfortable but further blurs the lines between luxury and mainstream. This is an attractive, quiet, smooth vehicle. Above the stylish T-shifter is a UConnect console superior to anything in luxury this side of Audi’s Virtual Cockpit display. After weeks in cars with cumbersome rotary dials (Alfa Romeo) or Uconnect-wannabe touchscreens (VW Tiguan), the UConnect is easy to use and carefully detailed. I especially like the shelf below the touchscreen that allows for anchoring your thumb while you navigate the screen with your index finger.

And, unlike the Audi, the Durango’s touchscreen allows for better use of console space meaning there is plenty of room (well, not quite Tahoe room) for keys, French fries, smartphones and all the other accessories we Americans take with us in our cars.

Beauty and the beast come together nicely at the front of a 5,500-pound boat and trailer.

Use Durango’s backup camera to back up to the hitch, and the ute and boat are an attractive pair. Yet with 470 torques under the hood it still manages pickup-like towing abilities. Its 8,700 pounds is respectable next to the 11,700-pound, body-on-frame GMC Sierra’s spec — and well north of a BMW M X5 or Cayenne.

Stomp on the gas — no launch control this time — and the big V-8 effortlessly pulled the boat along.

Ditch the trailer and Durango feels like a sports car more than ever before. Include in that a guzzling 18 mpg according to the EPA. Want a fuel sipper? The torquey, Acura MDX Hybrid three-row will do nicely, but it can’t tow. SRT’s exhaust note makes a macho growl — courtesy of hanging around those Hellcatters — while the upshifts bark like a Porsche PDK.

Dodge offers a one-day Bob Bondurant driver’s school in Phoenix with purchase of the Durango SRT. I’d recommend it. Who knows, maybe Gabby Chaves will be there to take you for a spin.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2018 Dodge Durango SRT

VEHICLE TYPE

FRONT-ENGINE, ALL-WHEEL DRIVE, 6-PASSENGER

SUV

Powerplant

6.4-liter V-8

Transmission

8-speed automatic

Weight

5,510 pounds

Price

$64,090 base

Power

475 horsepower, 470 pound-feet torque

Performance

0-60 mph, 4.4 seconds (mftr);

towing: 8,700 pounds (mftr)

Fuel economy

EPA est. 13 mpg city/19 mpg highway/15 mpg combined

Report card

HIGHS

CAN PULL THE DOORS OFF MOST MUSCLE CARS; CAN PULL

A BIG BOAT, TOO

Lows

Thirsty for fuel; Apple CarPlay, please

Overall:★★★★

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