Durango hybrid has plenty of power

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As if we need it, here's more evidence that the domestic auto industry is hurting: Production of the newest and most powerful gasoline-electric hybrid sport utility vehicles is ending this year, just a couple months after the vehicles arrived in dealer showrooms.

It's too bad, because the eight-passenger, 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid and sibling Chrysler Aspen Hybrid are roomy, capable, fuel-efficient by V-8 standards and full of utility. They're also the only hybrids on the market to have a Hemi V-8.

Despite the impressive 385 horsepower that the Hemi-hybrid powerplant system generates for the Durango and Aspen hybrids, these vehicles carry the best federal government fuel economy ratings for four-wheel drive, large SUVs in the country.

Their 20 miles per gallon in city driving and 22 mpg on the highway rating tops the 20/20 mpg of the four-wheel-drive 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade SUVs, which have 332-horsepower V-8s.

The Tahoe and Escalade also are offered in two-wheel drive, with mileage ratings of 21/22 mpg. The Durango and Aspen come only with four-wheel drive.

Hard-pressed by cratering SUV sales and financial problems, parent company Chrysler LLC is hardly giving the hybrids a chance, closing the Newark, Del., assembly plant that makes the Durango and Aspen hybrid by the end of this year with no plans to move production to another plant.

The hybrids are hardly inexpensive, with starting retail prices of more than $45,000. But they're bargains compared with other big hybrid SUVs. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail prices, including destination charge, are $45,340 for the 2009 gas-electric Durango and $45,570 for the 2009 Aspen hybrid.

In comparison, the 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid with two-wheel drive starts at $51,405, while the luxury-branded 2008 Cadillac Escalade hybrid starts at $71,685 for a two-wheel-drive model.

The test Durango hybrid showed its stuff in a 1,000-mile road trip, lugging boxes, suitcases and at times, a carload of adults. It can tow up to 6,000 pounds, too.

Everyone had comfortable space inside and good views out. We all bounded out after five hours of travel with no back pain or fatigue, and second- and third-row passengers pleasantly whiled away the time watching movies via the optional entertainment center.

There was a bounciness to the ride, since the Durango uses a truck frame and, with 18-inch wheels and tires, sort of shudders over some road bumps. Even in mild curves, there was noticeable head toss as the vehicle mass moved from one side to the other, and with it, passenger heads leaned, too.

Emergency maneuvers could bring momentary panic, because the high ride and weight -- more than 5,000 pounds -- of the Durango Hybrid created an unsettling sense that the SUV was about to rotate in a scary way.

But steady steering and electronic stability control helped keep it on proper course.

Power is the highlight of this SUV. At slow speeds, I moved silently through parking lots as the Durango operated on fuel-saving electric power. I had to watch pedestrians carefully because they had no audible warning I was coming up behind them.

The electric motors alone could provide up to 235 foot-pounds of torque right away for quick startups on city streets, and when the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 kicked in, the vehicle was as strong and powerful as any big SUV.

I loved how the Hemi engine's 380 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm just took over when I passed other cars effortlessly on highways. I never lacked for horsepower. I had to watch the speedometer closely because it was easy to move right along.

Other drivers didn't notice this was a hybrid, and why should they?

Other than the words "Hybrid Two-Mode Hemi" on the fenders and tailgate, there wasn't much to tell them this isn't a typical Durango.

Inside, it was much the same, save for a gauge in the instrument panel that shows a driver whether the hybrid system is charging, whether the vehicle is in economy mode or using all engine power. There also was a display screen that could be posted in the middle of the dashboard to show a diagram of power usage and generation as the vehicle traveled.

Shifts from the automatic transmission were smooth, and there was no hesitation or weirdness as the power shifted between electric motors and the Hemi V-8.

The only thing that passengers noticed was a high-pitched whine that emanated from the electric system. It was annoying enough that a passenger started to mimic it about four hours into the drive.

The Durango uses regular gasoline, so at today's prices, a fill-up of the 27-gallon tank is less than $54.

The Durango didn't have anything that showed average fuel economy, so I had to pull out a calculator to figure it myself: just over 19 mpg for a loaded SUV making good time on highways and city streets.

The tester had running boards, which came in handy to help everyone climb up and inside.

The standard rear camera and sensors were necessary during backups, though after rainy weather, I had to clean dirt off the camera lens in order to see clearly.

The rear cargo floor was up a ways from the pavement, so items need to be hefted upward. The Durango Hybrid offers 102.4 cubic feet of cargo space, with second- and third-row seats folded down.

SPECS

THE VEHICLE: 2009 Dodge Durango Limited, a four-wheel-drive, eight-passenger, large sport utility vehicle


BASE PRICE: $44,540


DESTINATION CHARGE: $800


PRICE AS TESTED: $47,330


ENGINE: 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with Multi-Displacement (Cylinder) System and two electric motors, producing 385 horsepower


TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable


EPA MILEAGE: 20 mpg city, 22 mpg highway


LENGTH: 202.1 inches


WHEELBASE: 119.2 inches


CURB WEIGHT: 5,609 pounds


ASSEMBLED IN: Newark, Del.


OPTIONS: Entertainment system, $1,765; Inferno Red Crystal Pearl paint, $225


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