|Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News|
Since its relaunch as a 2011 model, the Dodge Durango has been the large and largely ignored stepsister of its much-celebrated platform mate, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
While the Grand Cherokee scooped up awards and headlined Chrysler Group's marketing campaigns, the Durango soldiered on in relative obscurity, despite its role as the automaker's only three-row, all-wheel-drive vehicle.
With no marketing support, the Durango's sales languished. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne once described the Durango's role as a line filler that gave Grand Cherokee suppliers a break from around-the-clock production.
Other executives even talked about replacing the big Dodge with a big Jeep that would be nearly identical -- except for a seven-slot grille and trapezoid wheel wells -- and might command even more money from consumers.
But today, the Durango gets its own ticket to the ball.
Dodge is reinvesting in its highest priced vehicle, giving the re-engineered 2014 Durango a new transmission and interior electronics along with new exterior lighting and styling.
The three-row crossover will receive the same eight-speed rear-wheel-drive transmission as the 2014 Grand Cherokee. The new gearbox gives the Durango a 9 percent boost in fuel economy and a more pleasant driving experience than the five-speed transmission it replaces.
The Durango will have the same rotary shifter used in the Ram 1500. Coupled with an optional 5.7-liter V-8 engine, the new transmission means the Durango can tow as much as 7,400 pounds, or 6,200 pounds with the base 3.6-liter V-6 engine.
Inside, the Durango will get Chrysler's latest top-end Uconnect infotainment system as well as a new twin-screen Blu-ray/DVD entertainment package for rear passengers. It also will have a seven-inch customizable screen in the instrument cluster.
Outside, the Durango receives a new front fascia with a slimmer version of Dodge's split cross-hair grille, as well as a new tail that features the LED-lit racetrack design pioneered on the Dodge Charger. A new headlight design and an integrated tow hitch add to the makeover.
With the changes to the Durango, Dodge seems to be signaling that Chrysler's volume brand has no intention of quietly ceding the large crossover segment to a Jeep Grand Wagoneer that has yet to materialize. Indeed, Dodge brand boss Reid Bigland promises a full-scale marketing campaign for the Durango will start this year.
All I can say is that it's about time, because the Durango is too nice a vehicle to wither away in the Grand Cherokee's shadow.