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2013 Dodge Durango Review: Mopar Muscle with 3rd Row Seating

While the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is the big dog of the Chrysler Group SUVs, the Dodge Durango R/T is a great option for someone who wants a go-fast SUV with three rows of seating that wont hit the bank account quite as hard as the SRT Jeep.

The Dodge Durango and the Jeep Grand Cherokee are based on the same chassis platform and built in the same Detroit factory but to look at the two big SUVs side by side, you wouldn’t guess that these vehicles are so closely associated.

The Jeep is touted as more of an off-roading vehicle while the Durango is more of a “Street machine” but the most significant difference between the two is the fact that the Durango offers 3rd row seating that the Jeep does not. Those who want to go fast in a Chrysler Group SUV on a big budget are likely to favor the Grand Cherokee SRT8 but with a price starting north of $63,000 – the SRT Jeep isnt for everyone. However, the Durango R/T comes with a significantly lower price and while the Dodge SUV packs less power, the Durango R/T offers more fun to drive factor and attitude than any comparably priced SUV on the market today.

My test subject for this review was a 2013 model year Durango R/T with all wheel drive, the trailer tow package, the leather interior group, the “entry” navigation group package and second row captain’s chairs – a combination that brings the final price as tested to $44,790 with destination.

The Exterior

The Dodge Durango has a big, bold exterior design but the R/T package takes that to the next level from front to back.

The specific components of the Durango R/T package are most noticeable across the front end where a body colored grille with black filler, a super aggressive lower front fascia (also body colored) and a set of HID headlights with black bezels give this Durango a far sportier appearance than the rest of the model line. In fact, shy of the interior portion of the headlights and the badging on the rear decklid – there is no chrome on the vehicle where the other Durango trimlines are all heavily chromed out. Along the sides, the Dodge Durango R/T features a set of 20 inch aluminum wheels that are specific to the R/T package along with body colored wheel lip moldings, body colored side sills and body colored door handles. While the aggressive body dressing gives the Durango R/T a sportier stance, the overall height of the vehicle is lowered by about an inch so from the side – this Durango just looks a bit more slippery.

Out back, the Durango R/T continues with the body colored theme through the lower fascia (that is black on other packages) and in the trim piece that runs between the taillights (which is chrome on other packages). This gives the R/T a very sporty look from the back even with the large cutout area in the center of the rear fascia for the towing hitch and connectors. The subtle spoiler extending off of the roof over the dark tinted rear glass and the dual exhaust tips finish off this sport package nicely. The back end is the only place on the Durango R/T where I can find something to gripe about as I just don’t care for the big, bulky taillights. Fortunately, those taillights will be replaced after the 2013 model year and in the grand scheme of things – not loving the taillights is a very minor complaint about a vehicle.

I absolutely love the look of the Dodge Durango R/T and my only complaints are the lack of personality across the back end and the color…as grey just isnt my thing. Fortunately, the Durango R/T comes in a variety of bright colors for those who would prefer that and with the 2014 Durango coming with a new racetrack style taillight setup similar to what is used on the new Dodge Dart and Charger – the design of the 2014 R/T should be just about perfect.

The Interior

When you first open the driver’s door of the Dodge Durango R/T, you are greeted by a set of sport inspired bucket seats clad in black leather with red accent stitching. That black leather with red stitching is continued through the center console, the door panels and the rear seats for a very sporty yet plush looking interior.

As my interior was configured with captain’s chairs in the second row, the seating capacity is lessened by one person but those second row seats allow the rear riding passengers to enjoy the same level of spaciousness and comfort as the driver and front passenger – although only the folks seated up front gear butt warmers.

The Durango offers tons of space in every direction for even very tall passengers in either of the first two rows (and the driver) but an adult seated in the third row isn’t going to be quite a comfy as the folks seated further forward. The rear most pair of seats is great for smaller children or very short adults but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Durango R/T will comfortably seat 6 adults…but 4 adults and two small kids aren’t likely to have many complaints. Also, even with the third row of seats in the upright and locked position, the Durango offers a nice, roomy cargo area out back but if you need more cargo space, the second and third rows easily fold out of the way to provide similar horizontal cargo space to that of a pickup truck.

The 2013 Dodge Durango R/T does not come with the same super high end touch screen infotainment system that I have loved in a variety of other current Chrysler Group products but it does include a handsome 6.5 inch touchscreen surrounded by traditional buttons and knobs so whether you are into the touch screen movement or not – you shouldn’t have any qualms about changing the radio station in the Durango R/T. This infotainment system includes Garmin navigation, auxiliary input including iPod integration, Bluetooth and USB, a 40GB hard drive for music storage, Sirius satellite radio and a backup camera which are all controlled via the touchscreen, the buttons around the screen or by using the controls mounted on both the front and back of the leather wrapped steering wheel. The Durango R/T also comes with three zone climate control that is handled by the easier to use panel mounted below the infotainment screen. Unlike other systems (including newer Chrysler Group systems) that moved the HVAC controls into the infotainment system, the Durango R/T allows you to make changes to the climate control in one easily accessible panel…with no need to be changing pages on the touchscreen.

The Dodge Durango R/T has a great looking interior that more than comfortably fits into the sporty theme of the R/T package with black leather and black surfaces throughout accented with bright red stitching. Unlike the exterior, there is some chrome across the dash, in the center console and along the door panels but that doesn’t serve to diminish the sporty feel – instead it works to give this performance minded SUV a high end luxury feel inside. The optional rear captain’s chairs add an extra element of comfort for rear riders so, the Durango R/T as I tested would be ideal for a family of four who likes to make long trips without the kids constantly digging their elbows into each other. The interior is roomy enough for four adults and two small kids, it looks great and it has the modern infotainment technology that you would expect from an SUV in this price class – leaving very little to ask for when configuring your dream Durango R/T.

The Drive

The 2013 Dodge Durango R/T is powered by the tried and true 5.7L Hemi V8 with 360 horsepower and 390lb-ft of torque. That power is sent through the standard 6-speed automatic transmission to all four wheels via the optional all wheel drive system that adds $2,750 to the final price. The R/T package adds a sport tuned suspension system that drops the SUV by almost an inch, heavy duty disc brakes, performance tuned steering and package specific 20” wheels.

All said and done, the Durango R/T offers great acceleration in all conditions, impressive stopping performance and surprisingly sporty handling without compromising ride quality. First off, the 5.7L Hemi in the Dodge Durango R/T offers great straight line acceleration with the help of the advanced all wheel drive system. No matter how hard you launch the AWD R/T, it grips and goes with a tremendous amount of authority whether it is a dry summer day, a rainy autumn day or a snowy winter day. Fortunately, I had a chance to drive the Durango R/T with some ice and snow on the ground and the Durango was sure footed and confident in harsh conditions.

While I was very impressed by the acceleration of the Durango R/T with all wheel drive, the rear wheel drive model is a touch lighter and offers slightly better performance so if I were to buy a Durango R/T today – it would be a rear drive model simply because I’m not someone who needs all wheel drive. In addition to being able to roar away from a stop, the Durango R/T also accelerates hard in the mid range which allows you to speed up quickly to merge into fast moving traffic or to blast around slower moving traffic on the open road.

Best of all, while the Durango R/T is designed to offer a fun, sporty drive, it can also tow 7,400 pounds when properly equipped. I didn’t have a 7,400lb trailer on hand to test the full limits of the Durango R/T but I was able to hook the Dodge SUV up to the same horse trailer (around 5,000lbs) that I use for all of my towing tests and it performed beautifully. I had no problems keeping up with highway traffic or accelerating smoothly and swiftly enough (as swiftly as is safe with live horses in the trailer) to be able to proceed from a stop in a manner that won’t have other drivers yelling profanities at me. While you do get some of the “echo” through the chassis that should be expected with almost any unibody SUV, the Durango didn’t feel strained at any point while towing my standard test trailer.

In terms of fuel economy, the EPA expects that the Durango R/T with all wheel drive will return 20 miles per gallon on the highway, 13mpg around town and 15 combined. I averaged around 13 miles per gallon but that includes about 50 miles with a horse trailer behind the vehicle and plenty of unladen miles where I was driving the Durango R/T like a vehicle with the “Road and Track” badge should be driven.

This is an SUV that just begs to be driven hard and when you put the hammer to the floor, the purr of the Hemi V8 is almost as exciting as the raw acceleration. However, all of that “hammer to the floor” talk has a pretty severe impact on fuel economy so if you like to drive fast, the Durango R/T will make you happy until you check your mileage.

The Dodge Durango R/T AWD is fitted with performance tuned steering and a sport suspension package that makes this big SUV a blast to drive both in areas with tight, sharp turns and the longer sweeping highway turns as well. Granted, the Durango R/T doesn’t corner like the Viper but in terms of large SUVs that can seat 6 and tow 7,400lbs – this is the best handling SUV I’ve driven next to the Grand Cherokee SRT8 (which wont seat 6). Best of all, the Durango R/T returns this fun to drive factor without compromising ride quality so even when you are cruising down the highway at 70 miles per hour – it offers a smooth enough ride to keep Grandma happy on a long drive.

The Dodge Durango R/T is the ultimate family sports utility vehicle with a smooth yet sporty ride, strong acceleration and the ability to hit 20mpg on the highway while also hauling 6 people and lots of cargo. If you routinely need room for more than four people and you want an SUV that offers real fun to drive factor – this is a vehicle that you should drive before making your next purchase.

The Final Word

If you want an SUV with three rows of seating with a sports car feel, a throaty Hemi V8, a muscular exterior design, the security of all wheel drive, a 7,400 pound towing capacity and the ability to hit 20 miles per gallon all for under $40,000 – the Dodge Durango R/T could be your ideal vehicle. Sport utility vehicles are often considered to be bland soccer-mom vehicles but the Durango R/T reminds us that an SUV can actually be sporty and powerful without losing the ability to haul the family across town or across the country in style.

If you want to have the fastest American SUV, you will need to fork out SRT money for the 470hp Jeep both those who want a performance oriented sport utility, room for 6 (or 7 depending on the interior layout) and the ability to hit 20mpg on the highway while staying closer to the $40k range – the Durango R/T is the most enticing option on today’s market.

Patrick Rall is a professional writer and photographer with a passion for all things automotive. Having grown up in his father’s performance shop, he spent extensive time at the oval track and drag strip – both driving and wrenching on various types of vehicles. In addition to working as a writer, Patrick previously worked as an automotive technician before moving on to a business office position with a chain of dealerships, and this broad spectrum of experience in the industry allows him to offer a unique look on the automotive world. Follow Patrick on TwitterFacebook and on Youtube.