It wasn’t that long ago when Dodge was a truck powerhouse. Sure, things have been relatively quiet over there since Chrysler spun off its truck division into Ram in 2010, but it still has a ringer in the full-size Durango SUV. And yes, this generation has been on the market since 2011, and while it can’t hold a candle to the best-selling Ford Explorer — 129,107 sales versus 38,701 through June — it’s still one of the best-looking, versatile, and performance-focused people movers on the market. With or without the Ram lineup, the Durango should be enough to keep Dodge’s reputation as the home of Fiat-Chrysler’s big, rugged SUV, right?
Well, not quite. The Durango has some stiff in-house competition, and its name is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In fact, the Jeep is stiff competition for everybody; it’s just behind the Ford in sales, moving 100,737 units this year, and with Jeep growing faster than any American automaker, that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. And while it’s just as old as the Durango (though both models benefited from a 2014 update), the Grand Cherokee’s something-for-everybody versatility, and that go-anywhere reputation that comes with the Jeep brand, have helped it outpace its platform-mate, which is viewed as more of a one-trick pony.
The Durango has long gotten the “underrated” tag from we auto scribes, yet Americans would rather have the Jeep by a two-to-one margin. But how fair is that, and how different can FCA’s three-row SUVs really be? That’s what we’ll tackle this week in this installment of Buy This, Not That.
Tale of the tape
The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been a constant presence in American suburbs ever since Bob Lutz drove the first one through a pane of glass in 1992. Back then, it did wonders to revive Chrysler after one of its many financial crises; nearly 20 years later, the current Grand Cherokee helped do the same thing. Starting at the $29,995 rear-wheel drive Laredo model, you get a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, which is good for 295 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque, and genuine off-roadability. From there, you can option your Grand Cherokee in six other trims, including limited editions. From the Limited up (slotting just above the Laredo), engine choices become a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6 (which is good for 30 miles per gallon on the highway), and the 5.7-liter Hemi V8, good for 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. In the real world, that means you can tow a class-leading 7,400-pound boat with it and not have to worry about a thing.
If the Grand Cherokee has an achilles heel, it may be its price; sure, it’s plenty attainable in lower trims, but fully-optioned, you could drive off in a Summit or limited edition High Altitude model that comes dangerously close to the $60K mark. Regardless of whether your Grand Cherokee is just comfortable or downright opulent, there’s seating for seven, leather-trimmed thrones, and available Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive.
Despite not having the word “grand” in its name, the Durango is actually larger than the Jeep, with its wheelbase 119.8 inches to the Grand Cherokee’s 114.8. The Durango also looks far more like Dodge’s hooligans-in-crime Charger and Challenger than it does its Jeep platform-mate. The result is a handsomely menacing-looking SUV, from its purposeful-looking lower front grille to its boomerang LED taillights out back. Like the Jeep, it’s available with the Pentastar or Hemi mated to an eight-speed automatic, though the fuel-sipping diesel is notably absent. Inside, the Durango is a throwback to ’60s era Dodge muscle cars, namely in that there are acres of black plastic and chrome accents. The final result is a handsome one though; the interior sits seven in comfort while still offering the latest technology and a little performance to keep things from getting boring.
It may be relatively unloved, but where the Durango really succeeds is the price. It starts a few hundred dollars more than the Jeep at $30,495, but its performance-focused, range-topping Hemi-powered R/T model rings in at just $41,995, right about where the mid-tier Grand Cherokee Limited sits.
It’s hard to call the Durango a bargain because you’re getting a lot of truck — 5,200 pounds to be exact — for a not insignificant amount of money. We really wish FCA offered the EcoDiesel mill for maximum capability and fuel economy, but the Durango’s Pentastar V6 returns a comparable 27 miles per gallon on the highway, and with cylinder deactivation and variable valve timing, the Hemi returns 22, which isn’t terrible for its size. For a little (or a lot) less, the Durango offers almost everything the Jeep does, and the fact that it’s a seven seat people mover you wouldn’t be embarrassed to drive is icing on the cake. Even though they’re both plenty capable, we’re going to have to break with the Jeep-buying crowd here, and take the underappreciated Dodge.