If you’ve been paying any attention to the automotive world, you probably noticed that the Dodge Durango hasn’t been around the past couple of model years.

At least I did. That might be because I spent over eight years living in Delaware, during which time the Durango was being built in Newark just across the street from the University of Delaware’s athletic facilities.

I’m not sure how many thousands of workers Chrysler employed at that factory, but it seemed like nearly all of them drove Durangos. Chrysler offered great employee discounts, and the Durango was regularly rated one of the best SUVs you could buy.

Since SUVs were all anybody wanted to drive at the time, it seemed like most of Delaware drove a Durango.

But times changed. Oodles of Durangos were dumped when gas pump prices soared in 2007 and 2008. More fell by the wayside as Chrysler furloughed and laid off employees as it struggled to stay in business.

By then, crossovers built on car-based platforms had begun supplanting truck-based SUVs like the Durango as America’s vehicle style of choice.

The Durango capsized and sunk in this perfect storm of circumstances. It was nowhere to be found for the 2009 and 2010 model years, and it seemed as if it would never be salvaged unless Capt. Jack Sparrow made it the quest of his next “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventure.

But Chrysler’s new ownership had other ideas. The company launched an entirely new Durango for 2011, this one built outside Detroit based on some Mercedes engineering and on a platform adapted from the new Jeep Grand Cherokee.

It was a plot worthy of a “Pirates” movie, but I’m not sure the film creators could have come up with such a satisfying ending.

The 2011 Dodge Durango is simply a superb vehicle.

That’s not to say it’s for everyone. Just as there are people who wouldn’t trade a stale bucket of movie theater popcorn for a ticket to the latest “Pirates” blockbuster, there will be readers who scoff at the new Durango.

Some will no doubt be outraged that I even reviewed the Durango.

To save them the trouble of sending emails and leaving voicemails, I’ll concede they’ve got a good argument. Few folks need a vehicle that is 16.5 feet long, weighs up to 2.7 tons, and guzzles fuel the way Capt. Jack’s crew swills rum.

At least that’s the case for V8-powered Durangos such as my top-of-the-line Citadel AWD test vehicle. It’s rated by the EPA to cover 13 city or 20 highway miles on a gallon of fuel, so you might need all of Capt. Jack’s booty to fill its 24.6-gallon gas tank.

At $4 a gallon, you’re looking at about $100 per fill-up. And you’ll need to fill the Durango roughly every 369 miles based on the EPA’s 15 mpg combined fuel economy rating.

If that makes you want to walk the plank, there’s an alternative. The standard engine in four of the five Durango models is Chrylser’s terrific 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Its 16 city/22 highway/18 combined MPG rating (for an AWD Durango) should get you roughly 74 miles farther on a tank of gas.

The tradeoff is acceleration and towing power. While many of my colleagues were impressed with the V6, which delivers 290 horsepower and 260 pounds feet of torque, it’s not a Hemi.

The 5.7-liter Hemi Chrysler uses in the Durango is a refined brute, a rugged but razor-sharp cutlass delivering 360 horsepower and 390 pounds-feet of torque. This engine manages to be both charming and menacing, just like Johnny Depp’s Capt. Jack character.

It is polished enough to run on only half of its cylinders (the reason it gets 20 highway mpg), smooth enough for a luxury vehicle, and yet potent enough to tow up to 7,400 pounds. It also can propel the heavyweight Durango from zero to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. That’s more than a second quicker than the V6 times reported in other reviews.

And while the V6 boasts a best-in-class tow rating, the Hemi nevertheless can outhaul it by 1,200 pounds.

That might not matter a bit to some. To others, however, it’s the difference between easily towing a large camper and winding up like a schooner struggling on a windless sea.

There also are plenty of consumers who couldn’t care less that the new Durango can comfortably carry five adults and two teens when outfitted with the 50/50 split folding third-row seat that is standard on four of five trim levels.

The Durango has a respectable 17.2-cubic foot cargo hold behind that third row. Cargo room expands dramatically as the second and third rows fold. Chrysler claims there’s enough room to carry a 6-foot couch and coffee table behind the front buckets.

You may never need a treasure hold that big on your barge, but those who do need a full-size SUV will find much more to like about the new Durango.

Take its exterior styling, for example, which has morphed into elegance without losing the macho, bad-boy persona that often characterized its predecessors.

Inside, Chrysler has created a cabin that should make even the most ornery buccaneer smile. Supple and supportive seating, high-quality materials and craftsmanship, and ergonomically effective design are evident throughout.

A cruise in the quiet and comfortable Durango is a pleasure whether you’re at the helm or just one of the crew. Passengers in my Citadel enjoyed standard Napa leather upholstery, reclining heated second-row seats, three-zone auto climate control with infrared sensors, and an awesome 500-watt Alpine audio system.

The captain gets treated to a heated power tilt/telescope steering wheel, adaptive cruise control, and self-dimming headlights.

But the real treat is piloting the Durango, a frigate-size ship that behaves like a sloop. Road feel is nothing special, but the rack-and-pinion steering is nevertheless nicely weighted and responsive.

A well-tuned, four-wheel independent suspension and unibody construction help the Durango dance deftly over wavy roads, tack sharply with minimal body lean, and track effortlessly on the interstate.

Its feels far more agile and maneuverable than it should, thanks in part to a turning circle just a shade over 37 feet. That’s pretty remarkable given the Durango’s stem-to-stern length.

That will mean nothing to those who don’t need a big SUV and never noticed the Durango’s two-year hiatus. But like “Pirates of the Caribbean” fans who joyously greet each sequel, SUV lovers in the market for a big boat should be lining up at their nearest Dodge dealer’s port of call to get their hands on the new Durango.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

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