HEFTY HAULER: With 4,700 pounds of towing and available V8 power, the Durango is an SUV for those who can’t make do with a high-riding wagon.
HEFTY HAULER: With 4,700 pounds of towing and available V8 power, the Durango is an SUV for those who can’t make do with a high-riding wagon.
GEORGE KENNEDY

Oh, how the mighty SUV has fallen. There was once a time when low gas prices and growing families meant huge sales numbers for the vaunted sport utility vehicle. Relatively low production costs also meant automakers could earn profit from an SUV without gouging the wallets of Middle America.

But, alas, rising fuel costs, and an expectation that the vehicle the average consumer buys is actually safe, has led to the SUV becoming a less financially advantageous vehicle for both automaker and customer. The days of SUV dominance are now gone.

Automakers were forced to make a decision: Phase out their durable, truck-based SUVs, soldier on with an evolved version of the old formula, or adapt the familiar old name to the burgeoning crossover market. The SUV icon known as the Ford Explorer has eschewed its truck-based platform in favor of a car-based SUV. Chevrolet has hedged its bets with its government utility vehicle-of-choice Tahoe, staying with a truck-based setup. The 2014 Dodge Durango embraces the future of the segment with the latest in comfort and technology, but holds onto the attributes that make it more than just a high-riding station wagon.

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The Durango was introduced for the 1998 model year, and enjoyed a successful six-year run. Its replacement was not easy on the eyes; sales suffered and it was discontinued in 2009. After a hiatus, the Durango returned for 2011 as a far more fetching vehicle, sharing DNA with the award-winning Jeep Grand Cherokee.

For the 2014 model year, the Durango receives several crucial updates. In addition to the minor exterior revisions, the interior has been overhauled, and the old transmission has been swapped out for an eight-speed unit. These changes conspire to deliver a full-size, three-row SUV that may look the same at first, but feels like an entirely new vehicle.

The Durango has a unibody construction, but is a far cry from a crossover. The Jeep platform that it shares was originally designed when Chrysler was still owned by Daimler. As such, the underpinnings are also shared with the robust Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, a fact that a Dodge owner might be sooner to share than a GL owner.

The most notable exterior update is the “racetrack” taillight setup, with its 192 LEDs, but the cabin has many more improvements to list. The cabin features a new steering wheel design, center stack, center console, rear center stack, and seatback entertainment system. Some of these changes were enjoyed by the Jeep Grand Cherokee when it debuted for 2014, and the watchful enthusiast would have been wise to predict that these changes would make their way to the Durango.

While changing the shape of the cabin layout is all great, it is the addition of the TFT instrument panel and 8.4-inch touchscreen that makes this the most compelling SUV in the segment.

Meanwhile, over at Chevrolet, engineers have stretched the bounds of a truck-based platform, and next year, we’ll see how that fares. But for now, the Durango is more accommodating than the current Tahoe and more capable than the Taurus-based Ford Explorer.

There was some blowback when the Explorer went “soft-road” over “off-road,” but let’s be honest here—who was pulling up tree stumps with the previous generation Explorer? Its use as a family hauler is common knowledge, and law enforcement agencies have been purchasing for their fleets as well. Next time you are on the Pike, count how many Staties pass by in Explorers.

What the Explorer no longer has is the availability of V8 power. Its engines include a turbocharged inline-4, 3.5-ilter V6 and twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6. The latter makes 365 horsepower and is supposed to replace the V8 option, but those who have to haul trailers know there is “no replacement for displacement.”

To wit, the Durango comes standard with the award-winning 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, making up to 295 horsepower. The available 5.7-liter HEMI V8 develops 360 horsepower, and helps the Durango earn a tow rating of 7,400 pounds. The Explorer’s EcoBoost V6 makes more horsepower, but only produces 350 all-important pound feet of torque, compared to the HEMI’s 390 pound feet.

Meanwhile, current and future Tahoes come with one of two V8 engines. Only time will tell how long GM can fend off the impending EPA regulations, which will eventually make it impossible to avoid moving to smaller displacement engines. In the meantime, the Tahoe still is the towing king, with a rating of 8,500 pounds.

To take on those same EPA regulations, Dodge has employed a new 8-speed automatic transmission. It helps the Durango achieve 18/25 with the V6 and 14/23 with the V8. Consider another competitor, the Toyota Highlander. An all-wheel drive, V6 Highlander has the same fuel economy as a V8 RWD Durango, which has 90 more horsepower and 50 percent more towing capability.

As for technology, the next Tahoe will debut with Chevrolet MyLink, which is as good as any in-car infotainment system that we’ve seen. Dodge’s Uconnect is right up there as well, and lives in an 8.4-inch touchscreen that has a superior layout to most other infotainment systems. Meanwhile, the Ford Explorer’s SYNC and MyFordTouch continue to be a subject of derision for Ford. Here’s hoping the bugs will be worked out by next year.

The next generation Tahoe, current Explorer ,and 2014 Durango all have in the neighborhood of 80 cubic feet of cargo space when all rear seats are folded. They are able to move around roughly the same number of people and amount of stuff. But it is so much more complicated than that. You must consider who and what you are moving, as well as where you are headed. Perhaps the greatest outcome of this SUV-crossover evolution is that vehicles are no longer carbon-copies of each other; there now exists a vehicle out there that is perfectly suited to your needs.

If your needs are purely utilitarian and you commonly venture off the beaten path, the robust, truck-based underpinnings of the Tahoe will be ideal. If you seldom venture off paved roads and are looking for the best road mannerisms, opt for the Explorer. But if you want the best attributes of both of these vehicles, the combination of efficiency and capability found in the 2014 Dodge Durango makes it the way to go. It is a do-anything, full-size SUV, with muscle-car-inspired styling that you won’t find in the competition.