JENNER, Calif. -- A series of soppy mud holes mark a soggy trace threading through towering California redwoods in mist-shrouded hills near Jenner, where the Russian River reaches the Pacific Ocean about 75 miles north of San Francisco.
Passage through all of this slippery goo turns into an easy task for a completely new rendition of Dodge's big-rig sport utility vehicle -- Durango.
This 2011 edition of Durango drives and rides like a luxurious sedan and feels as comfortable. Yet it also provides a surprising amount of cabin space with three rows of seats for up to seven passengers plus cargo room in the back bay along with go-anywhere attributes of a rugged SUV with optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction.
The typical sport-ute rides on a truck chassis with its body stacked on a flat platform. Because chassis and body are two separate parts, the joined structure is inherently weak and therefore twists and bends when set in motion, no matter how tight the welded joints. Such a design guarantees sloppy handling traits -- and a truck's rough ride quality.
Yet the new treatment for Durango ditches the usual body-on-frame structure in favor of a monocoque platform that unites chassis and body in a cohesive unit that's extremely rigid when set in motion.
A generous wheelbase length and broad wheel track set up a long and wide foundation for stability when turning.
And, unlike some wagons with a solid rear truck axle and crude leaf springs, Durango carries a fully independent suspension system -- short/long control arms in front and a multi-link design in back -- that produces a premium ride quality for passengers traveling on pavement or dirt.
The suspension system also enables front wheels to stretch high vertically for bumping over trail obstacles like rocks or tree stumps. And for clearing such barriers, the chassis rides 8.1 inches or more off the ground, depending on tire size.
Precise rack and pinion steering brings quick-response turns and produces a tight 37-foot turning diameter for maneuvering on road and off.
Dodge stocks the new Durango with a commendable array of standard safety systems.
Gear extends to side-impact air bags in the two front seats with active head restraints and curtain-style side air bags for three rows of seats, plus electronic vehicle controls such as ABS (anti-lock brake system), ASTC (all-speed traction control), ESC (electronic stability control), ERM (electronic roll mitigation), HSA (hill start assist) and TSC (trailer sway control).
Styling of the sheetmetal seems smoother and sleeker than previous Durango designs. You'll find strong muscular definition and taut but curvy lines that seem to negate the boxy styling of a typical SUV.
Durango's silhouette shows front and back overhangs crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes, with bold wheel arches on flanks and a windshield tipped to the extreme to enhance aerodynamic efficiency.
And that face with a horse-collar honeycomb grille marked in shiny cross-hair chrome looks familiar, as it conforms to the front-end styling for many vehicles in Dodge's garage.
Several trim versions also carry a roof rack with cross bars that stow parallel to side rails when not needed.
There's a pair of portals on each flank below what looks like one extremely long window stretching from the windshield clear back to the tail.
Also, a top-hinged liftgate at the rear swings high for access into the aft cargo bay.
Dodge forges four new trims for Durango with the Express, sport-tuned R/T, Crew and deluxe Citadel.
Express and Crew editions roll on painted aluminum alloy wheels capped by 18-inch 265/60R18 Michelin Latitude all-season black sidewall tires.
Durango R/T (the initials signify "Road and Track" in recognition of Dodge's muscle car heritage) stocks 20-inch polished aluminum wheels with dark painted pockets and 265/50R20 Kumho Solus KL21 all-season black sidewall tires.
Durango Citadel scores 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels and 265/50R20 Goodyear Fortera HL all-season black sidewall tires.
For powertrains, Durango 2011 offers choices of a fuel-thrifty V6 or a powerful V8.
Standard engine for all trims except R/T is the new 3.6-liter dual-cam Pentastar V6 with aluminum cylinder block and VVT (variable valve timing) controls.
It generates 290 hp at 6400 rpm with 260 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm.
Optional engine for Crew and Citadel models but standard for the R/T is a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 with VVT and MDS (multi-displacement system) to conserve fuel by clipping cylinders when boosted power is not needed.
It hits 360 hp at 5150 rpm with 390 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.
A five-speed electronic automatic transmission applies to either engine.
RWD (rear wheel drive) traction is standard but optional AWD traction is offered for Express, Crew and Citadel models with V6 and V8 engines.
For the V6, the MP3010 transfer case creates a single-speed full-time AWD system.
For the V8, the MP3022 transfer case makes a two-speed active on-demand AWD system with settings of AWD low locking, neutral and full-time active AWD.
Durango's roomy passenger compartment amounts to a comfortable space lined with stylish appointments.
The layout consists of a pair of buckets up front and second row bench broad enough for three but with indented sections for two. The back of the front passenger bucket folds forward to form a flat horizontal surface, and backs of the second-row seat, divided 60/40 into separate sections, also fold down flat. A third-row bench splits 50-50 with seatbacks that fold down to expand the cargo bay.
Dodge has built a bigger, better and more powerful Durango with the 2011 issues but brings all to market with keen price points which begin at $29,195 for the price-leader Durango Express RWD V6.
Durango R/T RWD V8 goes for $32,170, the volume model Durango Crew RWD V6 tallies to $33,195, and a Durango Citadel AWD V8 caps this series at $43,795.