Thursday, July 31, 2008

Speed Read

First Impressions:
You know that guy that goes to McDonald's and orders two Big Mac Extra Value Meals and supersizes both of them and then gets a Diet Coke? This is his new ride.

  • 5.7-liter V8; two electric motors
  • 385 horsepower total
  • 19 mpg city, 20 mpg highway
  • 6,000-pound towing capacity

The Gas-Saving Gas Guzzler

Edmunds - Last month the New York Times pointed out that if it weren't for a loophole in the federal regulation of motor vehicles, the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid would be eligible for a hybrid-vehicle tax credit and also subject to a gas-guzzler tax.

Now, the folks over at the Times have not always been what you might call tolerant of sport-utility vehicles. In fact, around the turn of this century, when the SUV-as-commuter-car phenomenon was nearing its zenith, you could find plenty of folks around Detroit who were convinced the mighty Times was waging a Holy Journalistic Crusade against vehicles such as the Dodge Durango.

The truth is that the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid will be eligible for a hybrid-vehicle tax credit (estimated to be $1,800) and will not be subject to a gas-guzzler tax. When the gas-guzzler tax was instituted as part of the Energy Tax Act in 1978, SUVs and pickup trucks did not represent a significant portion of the mainstream and they were exempted from meeting the minimum threshold of 22.5 mpg (combined).

This inconsistency certainly says more about the federal government's inability to deal with reality than it does about the Durango Hybrid. (Or the Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon Hybrids, which fall into the same bizarre regulatory boat.) But, well, the government's simultaneous pat on the back and theoretical slap on the wrist does nicely highlight the paradox that this full-size, V8-equipped SUV represents.

Seriously, what the hell is this thing?

And Eat It, Too
According to the Dodge folks, the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid (and the 2009 Chrysler Aspen Hybrid) is a no-compromise vehicle. You can still have your big SUV, with all its towing and hauling capabilities and a huge chrome grille, and get 46 percent better city fuel mileage!

An enticing claim, but it's not exactly what you think. For example, a 46 percent improvement on 13 mpg is still only 19 mpg. This is a notable increase that's the result of sophisticated technology engineered by the four companies involved in developing the two-mode hybrid technology (BMW, Chrysler, Daimler and GM). But for all this investment, cost, complexity and weight, the bottom line here is still just 19 mpg.

That's a lot of fuel (and money) to be saved, yet this is not exactly a miraculous makeover of a boat-towing, people-moving SUV into a fuel-sipping Honda Fit. There are compromises to be made, and whether the compromises of the Durango Hybrid outweigh the benefits is going to depend on your circumstances and needs. Our early experience with this vehicle and past experience with the mechanically similar 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid make us believe this SUV hybrid is suited to a very small segment of the population.

Here's how it plays out.

Moot Ute
The traditional body-on-frame SUV like the Durango is not going away, but to say that it is diminishing in popularity is a pretty massive understatement. Both General Motors and Ford will be ditching their midsize body-on-frame trucks in favor of crossovers. And rumor is that Chrysler will be doing the same in the not-so-distant future.

As it turns out, the all-wheel-drive version of the V6-powered three-row GM Lambda crossovers (Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook) as well as the new 2009 Ford Flex deliver essentially identical combined gas mileage to the Durango Hybrid's without any expensive hardware, plus the AWD crossovers provide better highway fuel economy. The four-wheel-drive 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid (it's available only with 4WD) provides better city fuel economy than these AWD crossovers, but of course, the front-wheel-drive versions of the GM crossovers have an overall advantage in fuel economy.

(Incidentally, all of the vehicles we've mentioned here would be liable for a gas-guzzler penalty, were they not exempt. And a diesel-powered alternative would offer better fuel economy than either the Dodge Hybrid or the GM crossovers, but that's another story.)

Two-Mode Hardware
We've got to give Chrysler LLC credit for the way the two-mode hybrid components are discreetly packaged in the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid. The battery pack of 300V nickel-metal hydride cells resides under the second row of seats without compromising passenger or cargo room. The twin electric motors are mounted within the transmission case and take up no more space than a conventional automatic. The transmission also carries four gear ratios.

All this hardware developed by the BMW, Chrysler, Daimler and GM think tanks makes the Dodge Durango a two-mode hybrid, a label that the Durango proudly wears. At speeds up to 25 mph under light throttle load, the Durango can run on electric power only. It can also run on gasoline-engine power only. Or it can run on any combination of the two. At higher speeds, electric assist is used when needed.

Of course, since this truck can run on electric power only, it has to be fitted with electric-boosted steering, electrically controlled air-conditioning and electrically controlled brakes. All told, these and all the other portions of the hybrid pie add 300 to 400 pounds to the weight of a comparably equipped gas-only Durango. The result is a hefty 5,553-pound truck, a good half-ton more than a crossover.

Although GM added lots of aluminum (the hood, tailgate, front bumper beam and wheels) as well as lightweight seats to the 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid to reduce its curb weight, and then improved the big beast's aerodynamics with a bluff, low-hanging front fascia, the Dodge Durango Hybrid doesn't differ from the standard Durango in these respects.

What It Costs
All that aluminum in the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid costs money. But by changing only what needed to be changed to convert the Durango into a hybrid, Chrysler can offer the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid at just $3,600 more than a similarly equipped 4WD Durango Limited. At $45,340 including destination charge, the Durango Hybrid is substantially cheaper than the Tahoe Hybrid, as even the rear-wheel-drive Chevy goes for $50,490.

Chrysler estimates that the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid will get 19 mpg in the city/20 mpg on the highway plus 19 mpg combined. The rear-wheel-drive Chevy — which is lighter by a few hundred pounds despite its larger size — gets 21 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Even the 4WD Tahoe, with its rating of 20 mpg city/20 mpg highway, gets slightly better fuel economy than the Durango Hybrid.

Meanwhile, you would have to work hard to get any of the GM Lambda crossovers up to $45,000. Doing so in the Ford Flex would be a little simpler. Either way, the Durango Hybrid's modest price premium reduces the time period in which fuel savings can offset the added cost, but this is an advantage only in relation to other body-on-frame SUVs, not crossovers.

Capacitors and Capacity
The hole card for the Durango Hybrid compared to a unibody, V6-powered crossover is its superior truckiness. In other words, this Dodge can tow more than any sissified crossover. The Durango Hybrid can yank 6,000 pounds — more than the 5,000-pound rating of the Chevrolet Traverse or the 5,200-pound rating of the Toyota Highlander, yet 2,700 pounds less than a standard 4WD Hemi-powered Durango. So the Durango Hybrid can tow a bit more than a crossover, yet substantially less than a standard SUV.

In terms of capacity — as in cargo capacity — things look even more muddled for the Durango Hybrid. A Chevy Traverse offers more maximum cargo space by about the equivalent of a
Honda Accord's trunk capacity, while the Ford Flex offers considerably less maximum cargo capacity. So if you're shopping with maximum interior space in mind, the Durango has the same compromises as any body-on-frame SUV.

Oh Yeah, the Drive
But the most important thing that limits the Durango Hybrid's appeal to us is that, for the most part, it drives like a Durango. The driving experience is best described by The Who, which coined the phrase, "meaty, beaty, big and bouncy." A new generation of car-based utes provides better ride quality, handling and braking. The level of sophistication achieved by these new utility vehicles makes us wonder yet again that so many people were willing to overlook the shortcomings of traditional SUVs for so long.

As far as the Durango Hybrid goes, all the shuffling of power sources at low speeds and changing throttle loads adds a confusing array of surges and pauses to the driving experience. This is also true of the General Motors two-mode hybrids and vehicles such as the Toyota Prius. So while this might not be a complaint that pertains exclusively to the Durango Hybrid, it's not exactly a welcome trait, either.

Once up and running, this hybrid feels just like a normal Durango. Just to remind you that this is, in fact, something special, the tachometer has been replaced with an analog power-delivery gauge that features segments that indicate hybrid, gas or electric modes, plus charging, economy and ready modes. This instrument isn't especially useful, as it swings back and forth without telling you anything specific. A schematic of the power flow (similar to that of the Toyota Prius) is displayed on a screen mounted on the center console, and it's a lot more informative, although blinking arrows and colors may be something of a driving distraction.

So What Is It?
So what the hell is this thing, this gas-guzzling hybrid? It's the result of the need to offer three rows of seats in a relatively fuel-efficient package that can tow a boat. The gains are impressive compared to the base model. And nobody is going to complain about getting better gas mileage, particularly at current prices.

But it's hard to imagine the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid as anything other than a niche vehicle, a slightly more efficient truck in a world that wants people-moving crossovers. Poor sales of the Chevy and GMC hybrid utes would seem to bear this out.

For most people, most of the time, there are better options currently available.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

(Play clip)
First Drive: 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

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A big sport-utility is not exactly the first thing most folks think of when you say "hybrid." (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Off the Road

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The Durango Hybrid (and the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid) come only with four-wheel drive to conquer the most intense gravel driveways. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - On the Road

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Once up and running, the Durango Hybrid feels pretty much exactly like a standard Durango, for good and ill. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - On the Highway

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Did you know that Dodge refers to the Durango's taillights as "afterburner taillamps?" Neither did we. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Towing a Boat

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With a maximum capacity of 6,000 pounds, towing is one advantage the Durango Hybrid has over crossover vehicles. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Hybrid Badge

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We appreciate that Dodge didn't plaster "HYBRID" all over the Durango, as Chevy did with the Tahoe Hybrid. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Engine Cut-Away

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The Durango Hybrid uses a 345-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 with cylinder deactivation. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Transmission Cut-Away

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Two electric motors and four fixed gears are crammed into a case the same size as a conventional automatic transmission. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Engine

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Dodge estimates that the total combined horsepower of the engine and the electric motors is 385. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Interior

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The interior of the Durango Hybrid is all but identical to that of a Durango Limited. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Instrument Gauges

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The tachometer is replaced by a gauge that isn't really of much use. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Front

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With a maximum of 102 square feet of cargo space, the Durango Hybrid can carry many lobsters. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Profile

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All Durango Hybrids are loaded to the gills with features like a back-up camera, leather seats and navigation system. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Grille

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Unlike the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, there's no way to tell a Durango Hybrid from a conventional Durango without reading the badges. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Driver's Side View

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The 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid. (Photo courtesy of Chrysler LLC)

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid - Rear

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This is one way to get three rows of seats, a tow vehicle and relatively decent fuel mileage. (Photo


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