Yep, It's Got a HEMI

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2012 Dodge Durango R/T. All photos by Randy Stern

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2012 Dodge Durango R/T

When you put your foot down on the accelerator, what do you feel?

Do you feel, as Carole King once sang, "the earth move under your feet?" Or, do you feel the struggle between a gradient with the gearbox and the engine responding with panic? Or, do you care at all?

It appears we fall in the third option. Our right foot only does what it is supposed to – open up the floodgates for an energy source (whether it is petrol, diesel, a biomass mix or electrical current) to dive into the engine. It gives the transmission permission to run through the gears in order for the engine to catch up with a selected speed for proper motivation.

Of course, I live in the minority. We are the ones who truly care what happens when our right foot works the throttle. We want to feel the response when that happens. We want to hear the automotive equivalent of Wagner, Chuck D or Axl Rose. We want to sing Carole King’s lyrics at full volume.

The aural equation of music and an exhaust note is what separates an enthusiast from a normal driver. The tone of a Ferrari or an Alfa Romeo at almost full throttle is as sweet as a Pavarotti performance. The rumble of an old muscle car is just like a Jimi Hendrix solo. A modified sports compact is as hardcore of a Skrillex remix.

Considering all of this, what does a HEMI remind you of?

Maybe I should explain some things about what a HEMI is. When Chrysler was building engines for the World War II effort, they developed a cylinder head that had a hemispherical shape allowing for maximum spark and fuel mixture. They were tested on the P-47 fighter plane as well as the M-47 Patton tank. Though they were never put into combat, Chrysler took their experiments and applied them to passenger car engines. In 1950, the FirePower V8 arrived with the same cylinder head design. By the 1960s, the HEMI became a NASCAR legend – and a street fighter. At 7.0litres (426 cubic inches), the big HEMI was feared and challenged from all sides. It is still considered one of Mopar's finest hours. This lasted until 1971 when the HEMI was shelved for good – a victim of environmental protection.

In 2003, Chrysler reintroduced a variation of its famed hemispherical cylinder head chamber to a new V8 engine. Displacing 5.7litres, Chrysler brought back the moniker to denote a new level of V8 performance permissible in the modern horsepower war. At first, the Dodge Ram pickup had the first batch of V8 goodness. Today, it comes in two flavors – the 5.7litre V8 and the SRT massaged 6.4litre version. Mopar is considering offering a 7.0litre V8 version as an aftermarket option.

My exposure to the HEMI was limited between a lap each of the Ram 1500 pickup and the Chrysler 300 SRT8. Let us just say I was smitten, but I needed more of it. I was addicted to the sounds and performance of the HEMI.

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Supposedly, someone heard my want for more HEMI goodness. It came in the shape of the Dodge Durango R/T. The latest Durango has been with us for two model years now and provides a new level of swagger for the Dodge brand. The three-row crossover/SUV was a bold machine already. Perhaps my HEMI addiction would be nourished by this monstrous Durango.

Before I can answer that, the first thing you need to know about the Durango is its largess. Visually, it looks longer than its 200-inch length states. In truth, the Durango's length deceptive as Chrysler put more space in the cabin than ahead of the firewall. To access to this cabin, four very large doors open wide for seven people to pile into three rows of seating.

Up front, the Durango R/T sports an evil look – just like the current Dodge Charger. A huge crosshairs grille greets you with headlamps that could be mistaken for its large sedan cousin. The R/T adds ground effects below the bumper for a very low stance. To finish off the package, twenty-inch alloy rims give it a modern aggressive look.

The one drawback of the overall design was out back. The tailgate was not the problem – it opens wide to swallow a week's worth of beach vacation gear or a racing weekend somewhere. The issue was with the finish of the rear end. As dramatic as the front end appears to be, the rear should be more reflective of both brand design tenets and the R/T's aggressive motif. The painted plastic bridge between the taillights just does not cut it for the Durango R/T's expectations. The chrome finish on the Crew and Citadel models works much better for the Durango's rear design.

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Jump inside, and you are treated with more of the R/T's aggressive theme. A mix of black-red cloth, along with red-stitched black leather, welcomes all seven passengers on board. Room is classified as gigantic. Front seat occupants will get used to the right-sized and firm seating. There was some bolstering available to keep the driver in their seat. Second row occupants enjoy the same firmness as up front, without any bolstering. However, leg, shoulder and headroom were very generous, even for larger adults. If you think you could get adults into the third row – maybe smaller ones, but not everyone would be comfortable in the back for longer journeys.

Chrysler's improved interior design and quality are evident in a very accessible instrument panel with easy to understand readouts and switches. From the soft touch materials to the clear instrumentation, the Durango is a very easy vehicle to live with. Wiper controls, turn signal and headlight beam control are situated on the left stalk only. The readout between the speedometer and tachometer provided a slew of readouts necessary for proper operation of the Durango – including oil temperature and pressure, transmission temperature and so forth.

Sound comes from the UConnect-controlled audio suite, pumping a beautiful noise through nine speakers throughout the cabin. Sirius satellite radio is one of the options aside from a CD player, a hard drive for music and images for the screen's wallpaper, and USB connectivity. The Bluetooth works extraordinarily well for phone connectivity. Despite some complaints from readers about this particular Garmin navigation system, I found no problems with programming the system to get me to where I need to be.

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Under the hood is the aforementioned 5.7litre HEMI V8 engine. It is easy to say how powerful it is – one has to experience it to understand why this engine is being touted as "the one to get." Right off the bat, there is 390 horsepower on tap, with 407 pounds-feet of torque under your right foot. If you push it hard, you will hear its roar. Once its roar is announced, then it becomes a quiet tourer. You never call any SUV or crossover a "tourer." It is simply impossible – except in the Durango R/T.

Variable-valve timing and cylinder shut-off balances the performance with some efficiency. Still, the HEMI's roar makes up for any so-called efficiency the engine needs to stay competitive in this market. A smooth-shifting six-speed automatic makes the V8's work simply effortless. The power is distributed to all four wheels with the option of a Low Range for getting through some tougher conditions.

On the road, this combination of HEMI thrust and quiet touring was channeled though a firm, but compliant and smooth suspension. Despite feeling large, there was a sense of maximum control when maneuvering through parking lots or around road hazards. The Durango R/T went about its business without a care by soaking up road imperfections and other hazards through its low-profile Kumho Solus tires and twenty-inch rims. There were occasions when some road feedback were transmitted into the cabin, but the Durango R/T dealt with these instances quite well.

Even with 5,133 pounds of SUV/crossover to haul around, the Durango R/T felt relaxed and at ease on the highway. You felt plenty of roll in the corners and banks, but the Durango controlled every move without fear.

The steering action felt heavy with its huge wheel, but it reacted sharper than most vehicles of its size and class. The Durango R/T tracked extraordinarily well. The brakes worked extremely well with linear and direct stops in both normal and panic stopping.

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One drawback of driving a large, heavy, V8-powered SUV/crossover is the impact at the fuel pump. The Durango R/T turned an average of 18.3MPG. That figure was better than I anticipated, but not surprising. All things being relative, that fuel consumption figure is quite good for a roaring V8.

One thing that would surprise any consumer is the price of the R/T. By now, I am used to presenting vehicles of its kind in the mid-$40,000-to-low-$50,000 range. The tester came in at just $40,480. One could equip this R/T further with a sunroof, a towing package, rear DVD entertainment center, adaptive cruise, and a different second-row seating set-up. That will scale the R/T's sticker up to $46,000 – right where most of the fully loaded larger crossover/SUV reside.

Overall, the Durango is a three-row crossover that is suited for every personality. If you are not digging the R/T, Dodge offers up the aforementioned family-friendly Crew or the extravagant Citadel. The truth is – the R/T is actually the better value of the three trims. If you equip a Crew with practically everything the R/T has – the HEMI V8 included – you will pay another $1,300.

The Durango R/T is made for a certain kind of driver. He or she is a person who loves the sound and fury of a HEMI V8, the heritage of Mopar's baddest machinery and the ability to cart family and friends across of miles of tarmac knowing they own every inch of the hard stuff.

You are absolutely right in concluding that the Durango R/T is more of a road-going, seven-passenger, three-row muscle wagon. I will even throw in a couple of more words to describe the Durango R/T: "Bold" and "Brawny." Come to think of it, those two words describe a muscle car to a "T."

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Frankly, this Durango R/T is a big HEMI-powered three-row crossover/SUV that also offers up another word to describe it: "Fun." You simply cannot have any fun these days without leathering the throttle to a big HEMI V8 engine. In a Durango R/T, you can simply forget about global warming and hipsters who look like a potential date – or, an ex. You are the baddest dude to roll up at your office or anywhere you take the R/T – even to a Mopar car meet.

When you see a Durango R/T coming towards you, be prepared to listen to the first track of Carole King's "Tapestry" album in your MP3 player. You will understand the power and the force of the HEMI V8 – even when it is quietly touring the countryside.

Personally, I need another fix of that HEMI's roar. That is always music to my ears.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Chrysler Group, LLC.

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