Dodge leads 2011 models with new Charger and Durango

Ask Ralph Giles, the head of the brand, and he’ll quickly tell you Dodge is about performance and value. The Dodge brand’s owner, Fiat, has given them their marching orders: be the clear holder of that identity in the U.S. market.  To do that, the company has fast-forwarded their mid-cycle changes to the Dodge Journey as well as bringing a new-generation Durango and Charger to America’s streets. But more than that, these cars must demonstrate Chrysler Corporation’s future. Designer boss Klaus Bosse says the biggest problem for Dodge was the brand’s interiors. For that reason, the Durango, Journey and Charger all get new interiors that are to reduce this criticism. Helpfully, the interior in Jeeps newly released Grand Cherokee was a step up, fitting the car more comfortably in the premium category for sports utes.

Working from the Cherokee’s interior, all three cars benefit. One difference is the use of soft materials – still plastic – for the instrument panel and other places you touch. The Dodge Journey gets a new interior and drive train and some slight changes to its exterior. The Journey’s new powertrain starts with the PentaStar engine, a 3.6-liter V6 that creates 283 hp. and 260 lbs.-ft. of torque. It’s now attached to a six-speed transmission and provides 20 percent more power than the previous model.

The suspension was also re-engineered for a more Euro ride. This is going to be more common in the Chrysler and Dodge brands as Fiat integrates their philosophies into their American subsidiary. There’s no longer a reason for American cars to be marshmallows, so expect this tautening to spread. A Euro ride isn’t harsher, but more responsive.

In the Journey, this was accomplished by changing settings and new, larger shock absorbers. The changes take compliance out of the steering and suspension. They’ve also worked hard on reducing noise, vibration and harshness. In this they’ve succeeded.

The Charger is completely new and that’s abundantly clear from its looks. While it has a more modern face, it is still menacing, something Dodge folks were proud of. They call the grill a “split crosshairs,” giving it a look, in the designer’s words of Superman’s chest.

There are big wheels on this car to plant it. The design is clearly Charger, but more flowing. The windshield is raked, and there’s a slightly lower beltline resulting in a bigger greenhouse. In back there’s a memorable tail lamp line with 164 LED lamps to remind of the iconic Charger rear end. This is especially true at night.

Klaus Bess came up with a great statement about design. He called the exterior what you have a love affair with, but the interior is the marriage.

It’s what – his words here – what you have to live with. So the Charger’s interior is soft to the touch, with lots of leather. The seats are supportive and comfortable. Something all of us find valuable in a marriage.

Fit and finish has been improved especially inside. The dash is much more modern and, frankly, noticeable. Less vanilla, there’s clearly an emphasis on making more of a statement.

The other completely new Dodge is the 2011 Durango and it’s really new, now based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee platform. So this generation Durango has a unibody-constructed body, as do other crossover utes, but has the toughness advantage of being a rear-wheel drive platform.

However it is 10-in. longer, on a five-inch longer wheelbase to keep it as a full-sized sports ute. That’s to allow for a third row. Dodge officials say that makes a significant difference in the market, because buyers who want three rows don’t even shop for two-row sport utes.

That being the case, the Durango should have a nice advantage in that it started as a smaller and more efficient sized crossover – the Grand Cherokee – and “grew” big enough to fit the bill as a three-row vehicle.

According to Mark Trossel, who designed the exterior, it’s got a really big face and really big wheels. I like that kind of designer talk. I actually understand what he meant.

Then he went on to talk about the design proportion that’s been a heavy focus for this design. You start with that big and a very short front overhang. Make the sides coke-bottle shaped, bulging outwards as the wheels, but tapering in the middle. Have the beltline slant to create some emotional content to the side view. Integrate the roof rack up top including hidden rails for both a cleaner look and better aerodynamics. Keep the back clean, with a body-color spoiler and taillights that get your attention.

It works for me. It is a good looking ute that doesn’t look clumsy. That’s high praise from me. It also is a “real” sports ute because it has off-road capability, but with a crossover’s flexibility.

The Durango has a much higher torsional stiffness in the body and reworked suspension, which is much more comfortable than a suspension designed for a truck. In back the suspension is a three-link system with a lower control arm. The suspension mounting is into an isolated cradle, for a more compliant ride.

Lots of new work, triple seals on the doors, electro-hydraulic steering greater isolation for the engine, reducing vibration and noise transmitted to the cabin. An independent rear air conditioning system comes on all models,

There are two engines, either the 3.6-liter V6 producing 290 hp. and 260 lbs.-ft. of torque or the 360 hp-Hemi V8 generating 390 lbs.-ft. of torque. The fuel numbers for these cars are 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway for the rear-wheel drive V6 or 13 mpg city and 20 mpg highway for the same vehicle with the Hemi. V6 versions weight 6200 lb. and the V8 models weight 7400 lb.

To prove it’s a truck with off-road capability, there’s a full-sized spare tire mounted underneath the rear cargo area. You simply don’t go off road with a limp-home baby spare.

Dodge officials see the company as a volume company trying to stand for something. The Journey and Durango show Dodge’s commitment to family transportation. In the case of the Charger, it is to be where you get an inexpensive – relatively – rear-wheel drive platform, something that’s the most American of automotive designs.

Thank you Fiat.

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