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Durango enters the crossover zone successfully

I pulled up to a gas pump in the redesigned 2011 Dodge Durango and quickly discovered it had a locking fuel-filler door. Since the test vehicle didn't have an owner's manual, I began a scavenger hunt for the lock release.

I pulled up to a gas pump in the redesigned 2011 Dodge Durango and quickly discovered it had a locking fuel-filler door. Since the test vehicle didn't have an owner's manual, I began a scavenger hunt for the lock release.

Let's see. It's not on the floor on the left side of the driver's seat, where the Japanese always put it. I don't see it on the dash. Maybe I'll go back to the fuel door and start pushing and squeezing it again. No, that didn't work . . .

Finally, a good Samaritan emerged from behind the counter of the adjacent convenience store and joined in the search.

"Here it is," she said brightly, pointing to a button on the lower portion of the dash, to the left of the steering wheel.

I thanked her, pumped my gas, and got back into the Durango, feeling a tad humiliated. I mean, think about it: The veteran auto writer has to have an automotive problem solved by the lady behind the counter at the convenience store. I thought of sharpening the butt end of my long-handled socket wrench, and then falling on it.

Actually, the Great Fuel Door Release Problem was my only unhappy moment with the reborn Durango, which struck me as about as pleasing as a full-size crossover SUV can be.

The Durango, you may recall, was last seen in the 2008 model year as a traditional SUV with all the refinement that comes with a truck chassis and lots of hard plastic interior surfaces. It then lay dormant for several years while Chrysler played patty-cake with a bankruptcy judge.

Now, it has reemerged for the 2011 model year, completely rethought, with little in common with the old Durango except its name.

The new Durango is now a crossover SUV, thanks to its use of a carlike unibody instead of a truck frame. More precisely, it employs a stretched version of the unibody platform found in the excellent new Jeep Grand Cherokee. This platform incorporates a number of suspension components jointly developed by Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz.

The crossover architecture is just the tip of the renaissance iceberg. The new Durango is a more handsome vehicle, inside and out, more refined, endowed with more standard equipment, and available with a superior base engine, a 290-horsepower version of the 3.6-liter V-6 that Chrysler uses in its 300 sedan and 200 convertible.

There's also a 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 for the powermongers nostalgic for the Durango of old, but I found the base V-6 in the tester perfectly adequate. It got this big guy out of the chute well enough, proved an effortless highway cruiser, and kept the noise down.

Equipped with this engine, the rear-drive tester has EPA mileage ratings of 16 city and 23 highway. (Fitted with all-wheel-drive and the V-8, it drops to 13 and 20.) That's not great mileage, but for a lot of people with big hauling needs, it's worth the pump pain. Seven people can van-pool in the Durango. It will pull a 6,200-pound trailer with the V-6 and a 7,400 one with the V-8.

The roominess in the backseats of this vehicle is remarkable. I'm 6-2, and I've never dealt with a third row of seats that was this easy to get in and out of, and afforded this much legroom. If you are hauling stuff instead of folks, you can fold down the back two rows of seats and get 85 cubic feet of storage.

In all, the three rows of individual seats can be placed in 22 configurations. There's even one that allows Dracula to locate his casket in a bed of Transylvanian soil.

In addition to its roominess and quietude, the tester's interior reeked of good taste. The design was fresh and uncluttered, and the materials, like the soft, perforated leather on the seats, were of good quality.

The Durango starts at $29,195 and goes to $43,795 for the AWD Citadel. The rear-drive Citadel tester was $41,795.


2011 Dodge Durango Citadel (rear drive)

Base price: $41,795 (including shipping).

As tested $41,795.

Standard equipment: 3.6-liter V-6, five-speed automatic transmission, and extensive luxury tidbits, such as chrome-clad 20-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, and a navigation system.

Options: None.

Fuel economy: 16 city and 23 highway.

Handling: Well above average.

Engine performance: Quite adequate.

Styling: Civil macho.

Ride quality: Above average.

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent;

Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair;

One Ben, poor.