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car review

If you're a salesperson flogging Chrysler vehicles, a consumer looking to buy, or just a curious bystander rooting for an underdog battling it out in a tough automotive world, an encouraging measure of progress at Fiat's Detroit partner is the 2011 Dodge Durango SUV.

The Durango, a pretty close relative of the next Mercedes-Benz GL-Class sport-ute, has the makings of a winner. The pricing, starting at $37,999, is right and that's before you mix in any factory and dealer discounts.

The power offerings are right, too. I am particularly fond of the 3.6-litre V-6 (290 horsepower/260 lb-ft) mated to a decent five-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive.

Yes, you can get a Hemi V-8 (5.7-litres/360 hp/390 lb-ft) but in the great majority of cases, that engine is overkill in the under-the-hood department.

You'll pay for it, too. The Hemi is a $1,900 option in vehicles where it's not standard (top-of-the-line models) and it uses a lot more gas, too. The V-6 is rated at 13.9 litres/100 km city and 8.9 highway, versus 16.6 city/10.1 highway for the V-8 even though the Hemi has a cylinder-deactivation system designed to let it run on four cylinders under light loads.

Then there is quality, long a worry with any Chrysler vehicle. The Initial Quality Study from J.D. Power and Associates surely has its limitations and flaws, but as a snapshot and early indication of progress, let's take note that the 2011 Durango finished as a runner-up among mid-size crossover/SUVs this year, tied with the Subaru Outback and just behind the Honda Accord Crosstour. Not bad. Not the whole quality story, for sure, but not bad.

The Durango is a three-row SUV with seating for seven and even in the base model a massive tow rating of 3,266 kg. It is the best-riding large SUV Chrysler has built and there's a reason for that: it shares the DNA of the Mercedes GL, a last remnant of the otherwise utterly disastrous, value-destroying, morale-nuking tie-up with Germany's Daimler.

Chrysler doesn't have much to thank Daimler for outside of the Durango, but this shared platform is, if nothing else, a generous parting gift in the wake of an otherwise nasty divorce. For the record, the Jeep Grand Cherokee also shares this platform and that's why that Jeep is so good, too.

I mean, the Durango is not riding on the front-drive basics of some distant cousin, as is the case with the new Ford Explorer, which if you do the family tree traces its roots to a late 1990s Volvo. No, the Dodge is built on top of a rear-drive unibody platform with independent suspensions front and rear. All good if done right and tuned properly by the suspension engineers.

The story here is worth a tip of the wrench. This Durango does not ride like a lumbering truck, not at all. Dodge engineers say the front-to-rear weight distribution is 50/50 and that explains why their rig corners pretty well. Balance matters, as BMW types will tell you of their devotion to 50/50 weight distribution.

I like the Durango's interior, too. Even the cheapest Durango has a well-formed-and-executed cabin, with lots of soft-touch materials and a good number of storage areas. You can get heated leather seats and all sorts of other upscale features and almost everything else under the sun and still not exceed $50,000, not including freight and taxes and fees. A Mercedes GL, the 2011 version, starts at $79,900.

If you go the Dodge route versus a similarly-sized Mercedes, you'll save tens of thousands without sacrificing functionality – other than the fuel economy and torque of the available Mercedes diesel engine. If Dodge is smart, it will find a way to put a diesel into the Durango. Fast. Diesels are the best solution for SUVs, no question.

Nonetheless, the Durango is entirely functional from a packaging perspective. The three rows of seats fold flat, the seats themselves are decently comfortable and the traditional instrumentation and controls are simple, therefore smart. The interior is pretty but unpretentious and there is plenty of cargo room. Dodge's Uconnect control system – to manage the likes of navigation and infotainment – is not difficult to master in a rudimentary way, either.

As for the design, I like it. Sure, the look is truck-like, but not in a scary way.

If Chrysler is to have a healthy future, the Durango is a solid template for upcoming models. The initial quality looks good, the fuel economy is competitive, the fit and finish appear to belong in the 21st century and basics like towing capacity have been covered nicely.

What's left? Dodge needs a diesel Durango and, like, yesterday. Fiat, are you listening?

Tech specs

2011 Dodge Durango Citadel

Type: Large SUV

Price: $49,995 ($1,400 freight)

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 290 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.0 city/8.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Toyota Highlander/4Runner