2012 Dodge Durango and 2012 Ford Explorer: Reports of the SUV's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Making "predictions" about the fiercely competitive automotive industry is at least difficult thanks to a new generation of bean-counters who can drown out the marketing and engineering sides. Such were the exaggerated claims of all this interest in saving Saab after General Motors kicked the Swedish sport sedan manufacturer to the curb.

With each swing of the petrol price pendulum so looms the future any large vehicle which has a proclivity for "liquid gold."

Recently we here at "Drive...He Said" spent time with two new takes on the SUV, the 2012 Dodge Durango Crewlux and the 2012 Ford Explorer Limited. While each of these new full-size crossovers defy strict pigeonholing, both are efforts to make the seven-passenger SUVs more car-like.

Is It A Truck or Isn't It?

With each of these family haulers being fitted with third row seating, the trick was to increase interior space without getting up to body-on-frame truck proportions and weight - i.e. Chevrolet Suburban. For 2011, Chrysler's popular mid-size Jeep Grand Cherokee was already on the operating table for a thorough make-over. So the Durango, it turns out, had a pretty good rear-driven unit body donor. Ford made a more radical departure by going to a front-drive car platform. Indeed, the 2012 Ford Explorer uses the company's D4 platform, which is an extensively lengthened, widened and strengthened D3 platform used by the Ford Taurus and originally developed by Volvo. Technically that makes the Explorer a "Crossover UV." Since there is lots of component sharing with their respective donors, the Durango is built alongside the Grand Cherokee in the Motor City; the Explorer and Taurus (among others) are birthed in the Windy City.

Passive / Aggressive

It just so happens that the truck-based Dodge Durango is the "plush baby" of this sport-ute duo. Refinement begins with the the new DOHC 3.6-Liter Pentastar V6 engine. The 4800-pound Durango [adding another 150-pounds for AWD] is a lot of poundage for the 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A hesitant 5-speed automatic, loves to upshift. The result is far less than neck-snapping acceleration with 0-60 mph runs of 8+ seconds, and reasonable 19 miles per gallon of combined fuel sipping. Occasionally overboosted steering is saved by strictly acceptable response offered by the muted 255/50-20 Goodyear Fortera tires. The Durango has lots of suspension travel and is damped for compliance, but it is hardly a heaving boat on the open seas. A commute in typically darty interstate traffic showcased effective distance-maintaining cruise control and four wheels disc brakes, without jostling occupant. During some nasty downpours we never felt at a loss for traction on the rear drive Durango. At one point, having planted one side into a muddy ditch, exiting the mire was uneventful, a credit to the traction control and tires.

The Ford Explorer, at least in our tester's all-wheel-drive XLT trim, is capable of... yet less content with... a placid excursion. Taught reflexes dare the master [or mistress] to explore the Explorer's limits. As eager a throttle tip-in, quick a steering response, grabby brakes and measurable resistance to roll and dive are not to be found in the Dodge Durango. The tall center of gravity feel of the previous generations of Explorer has all-but vanished in the new model. While the Explorer's ride is acceptable given 255/50 -20 occasionally-roaring Kumho Solus tires, rougher stretches can send the independent suspension into fits, resulting in a jerking steering wheel. Rough railroad crossings make the otherwise taut body quiver. The 4700-pound AWD Explorer's 6-speed automatic is an adherent gear locker making for relatively brisk movement, shaving a half-second off the Durango times. Still the high-revving 3.5-liter DOHC Duratec V6, good for 290 horses and 255  lb-feet of torque, is a noisemaker. Down on weight and up a gear-cog from the Dodge, the Explorer delivered an impressive combined 20 mpg. The optional electronic center diff. all-wheel drive on our test Explorer XLT features "Terrain Management." Turn the handy on-the-fly center console adjustment knob to either  Snow / Sand / Mud  and respective programs apply brakes, select transmission gears and adjust shift speeds.

Tactile Trumps Visual

Enter the cockpit of the Ford Explorer and behold the Son et Lumiere show. Depressing  the ignition button prompts the TFT instrument cluster and center stack  touch infotainment screen  to throw off bright white lights normally reserved for prison breaks. Once the light show subsides the driver's cluster features multi-colored graphics and interchangeable gauges and displays.  As does the center stack Ford Sync MyTouch screen. A Ford trademark set of power adjustable foot pedals, in combination with a power tilting and telescoping wheel should suit most builds. However, when it comes to front seat bolstering and pliability, someone at Ford went with "extra firm." Even the leather covering seat surfaces has a satin finish for grip. Dash trim blends into the door panels as nicely as in many premium sedans. Switches and buttons are arranged in elegant housings. The synthetic wood trim does a better job subbing for the real thing than the temp NFL referees. Less convincing is the imitation carbon fiber trim and the plastic steering wheel buttons. The capacitive climate buttons are neat until you accidentally swipe the wrong one. Then there is the "much maligned" MyFord Touch infotainment / climate interface. The glare susceptible 8" touch screen collects more fingerprints than the FBI at Langley. Among the best implementations of voice-independent command recognition  to date is welcome.  However, a purported ten-thousand (yes, 10,000) voice commands could only get as far as our selected audio source "artist" list when we were prompted to use the hard-to-reach screen to make an actual selection. Distraction free.....NOT. Our compliments to the Sony audio system, at elevated volumes maintains excellent soundstage and separation.

With a fair amount of brightwork and more traditional analog gauges in the instrument cluster, the Dodge Durango has finally figured out how to suggest a modicum of sporty luxury. So what that the white-on-black-on-red gauges speak "up-dated" 1970's sports car? The center stack doesn't quite flow into the center console. And buttons have a certain agricultural character. But, hey, isn't this based off a light truck...of sorts? The schmaltz is broken up by a modern and easy to reach 6.5" U-Connect infotainment touch screen. If it's down on voice-command versatility to Explorer's MyFord Touch at least it isn't nearly as frustrating or glare-prone. The Durango steering wheel boss and spokes are less cluttered as the redundant audio controls are hidden on the dorsal side of the helm. It's a set-up whose implementation we initially questioned but have now come to respect. Eschewing sub-menu laden TFT displays and simplifying secondary control interfaces, the Durango provides just about as informative but a less distracting driving experience than the Explorer. Just by looking at the front seats in the Durango, you can tell they are going to be comfortable. And they are. Perhaps its the nice contrasted stitching on the leather that helps. These imperial thrones could sure use some added thigh support, though. The cabin also suffers from less-than pliant appearing pebble-grain plastics. Those that cover the back of the front seats are waiting to get scuffed. The sparse use of dark ersatz-wood grain inserts on the dashboard and door panels is probably is good thing.

Meant to Hold and Tow

For those seeking decadent second and third row accoutrements, they will have to look well upmarket from the Dodge Durango and Ford Explorer. Why is it that as you move rear-wards in utility vehicles does the level of finish slack off? As in interior pillar covers and trim resembling dungeon walls. Is it because because you need a place to punish miscreants? But we digress.

As in their respective front seating, though, the Durango gets the plusher upholstery. The Explorer's second and third row perches are more supportive, while yielding as much as boulders. Where the Explorer Limited features motorized third-row split seat-back folding, the slow speeds didn't amount to a huge advantage over the Durango's manual strap releases. In both these full size crossover-utes,  second row seats fold flat to super-extend the cargo floor. With 6"-inches of greater wheelbase the Durango's 84.5 cubic feet eeks out the Explorer's total cargo capacity by four cubes. Step down some 20" without any meaningful second-row door ground lighting from either CUV requires a lot faith.  An inch of greater overall height and a taller seat cushion give the Durango ever-so-the-slightest edge when it comes to third-row seating comfort.

For the nautical types the rear wheel drive platform gives the Durango a 1200-pound advantage over the front drive based AWD Explorer's middling 5000-pound maximum tow rating.

A Driver's Full-Size Cross-Ute?

Dario Franchitti would surely feel at home with the Ford Explorer's exotic power-train noises, grabby brakes, and fast steering. On long interstate cruises the Explorer's more easily upset ride and hyper-sensitivity to driver inputs may be harder for the masses to appreciate.  Those going by way of the Dodge Durango can travel about 465 miles on a tankful of 24.5 gallons of 87 octane unleaded, some 90 miles more than the Explorer's 18.6 gallons will allow. And they will arrive at their far-off destinations more refreshed. Although the Dodge Durango has the least "car roots" of this duo, at least it looks like the Dodge Charger. We are still scouring the car-derived Ford Explorer's design elements for something resembling the Ford Taurus.

Where it matters, our loaded rear-drive $41,500 Dodge Durango Crewlux tester was down in kit to the $44,700 Ford Explorer only by the extra powered axle, an aft panoramic moon-roof, and the power folding third row seats. Both feature the safety enhancement of Blind Spot Warning and the convenience of self-dimming high-beam headlights, but only the Durango was outfitted with adaptive cruise control. No $10,000 per passenger two-seat Smart for Two can match the median $6000 per pax cost of either these seven-passenger CUVs on the "Drive...He Said Price Per Passenger" scale.

As Mark Twain liked to point out, both the 2012 Dodge Durango and  2012 Ford Explorer assert that "reports of the SUV's demise are greatly exaggerated."

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    Hey, just found out about Drive HE/SHE said! Awesome! Keep up the great work. Cheers!

  • In reply to Gerry Boiciuc:

    Thanks Gerry,

    Hope you can keep on following our reviews and escapades, particularly when Jill gets inside her next trunk.

  • Your "Is it a truck or isn't it" subhead provides the answer to the headline's question of the SUV's demise.

    In that all of these are built on a car platform, the truck based SUV's demise seems imminent, if not already here. Unless one has real Jeep prowess, it is an overgrown station wagon. There seem to be two classes--the CR-V sized ones (throw in the Escape, Rogue and the like), and the full-sized ones reviewed here.

    Since I don't have a need for one, my only concern is that some mommy in the "smart and sexy Buick Enclave" almost ran me over in the parking lot because she was too busy to look out the vehicle or in the mirrors when backing out of a parking space.

  • Points well taken, Jack.

    We just returned from a road trip to the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee which assembles the new Passat sedan. Recently VW announced their intentions to produce a North American market exclusive crossover, which we expect to feature a third row.

    Care to guess which "car" will form the underpinnings?

    BTW, if it is any consolation, there were plenty of distracted driver's in "cars" who nearly ran "us" off the road on the 1300 mile trip.

    Look for an upcoming review of the car we took with.

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