Photos by Kevin McCauley/Texas Auto Writers Association
Full disclosure: I once ran social media operations at SRT, when Chrysler Group relocated a ragtag gang of amateur racecar drivers to an off-site building, breaking the division off into an independent brand. It was my job to embed myself into a community of passionate owners whose appetite for Street and Racing Technology was insatiable: amid predictable hourly calls for a Dart SRT4, I fielded Tweets asking for an SRT-branded stroller and Facebook wishes for a Durango SRT. An insider’s commitment to product planning secrecy is serious, so to myself or no one in particular, I chuckled at these charming daydreams, knowing neither would happen.
So little did I know.
I left before Chrysler’s corporate name change and the reabsorption of SRT into Dodge, never having to formally reverse the PR mantra that our division was genuinely independent. As it turns out, though, automotive friendships last longer than lines on a résumé, so I still enjoy a firsthand view of my favorite customers’ elation when horsepower-drunk Dodge brings their daydreams to life.
First, it was the Hellcat. Then, it was the Demon. Now, it’s the 475-horsepower Durango SRT: a real-life six-seater that tows 8700 pounds, and hauls more ass than nearly any super-SUV preceding.
Some high-end SUVs are borne of cynicism: Porsche created a cash cow at the cost of brand purity, and Bentley cashed in its timelessness to build its own inexcusably gauche behemoth. But the Durango SRT merely extends into the idealized ethos of the Dodge brand: muscle-car dyno numbers, coupled with the hallmark versatility of the Grand Caravan. Before anyone suggests the Durango SRT answers a question nobody asked, let me assure you that customers were indeed asking — even before America’s insatiable crossover boom.
Inside, the Durango’s mid-cycle refresh is perfectly on-par, with none of the questionable door or dash textures that beleaguered its predecessor. The 8.4-inch Uconnect navitainment screen serves as the centerpiece, easily navigable and the appropriate cost of entry. SRT Performance Pages set the system apart in the segment, with lap timers, 0-60 measurement and reaction time rankings. It’s all part-and-parcel — if this were the 707-horsepower Charger Hellcat or a red-keyed Demon in Track Mode. But it isn’t: it’s a hulking full-size three-row with seating for six in a pinch, removing all excuses for those who swore they’d never own a minivan.
Cycle through the screens to find the drive mode settings — a common scourge among this generation of drivers’ cars — and the Durango SRT effectively uses software and hardware to noticeably change the driving experience. In Street Mode, the ride is firm without high-frequency vibration, and active noise cancellation filters out booming from the exhaust when in cylinder deactivation mode. Honestly, it’s in this mode where the Durango SRT wears its colors best: all its power is on-tap, but comfortably managed; the eight-speed transmission’s shifts are lightning-fast but seamless, directed through paddles and clicked off in 320 milliseconds. As a shirt-wearing member of The Manual Gearbox Preservation Society, any admission of an automatic’s merits usually come with a grudging twinge, but I was genuinely enamored with the sheer smoothness of each shift in Street Mode.
Click over to Track Mode, and the transmission tightens to a 300-millisecond shift, with aggressive crispness that wakes you from any semblance of serenity. Throttle and steering response liven, and the Durango is ready to go: much like its Charger sibling, it seems to shrink in size at speed. Trademark Bilsteins begin to transmit more of the road surface with actual in-wheel feel, and the engine keeps all eight cylinders firing. SRT engineers selected a Brembo setup with immediate bite to put a stop to the fun, without the mushy pedal feel that robs some other SUVs of on-track credibility.
Not only did Dodge engineers take the Durango to the track, but differences in the front fascia and underhood air path allowed cooling efficiency optimization over the Grand Cherokee SRT. The end effect, according to Dodge, is more consistent laptimes over the course of a day of tracking the Durango — the same Durango you hauled your entire family in.
If the Durango SRT inspires daydreams of all-wheel-drive donuts, don’t do it — the engineer responsible for its overall synthesis flatly explained that four-wheel burnouts are outside its reliable scope of practice, too. But, in SRT engineering tradition, he encouraged full use of the Durango’s built-in simulated line-lock, proven through 100 consecutive dragstrip passes over two days of testing.
Where do the SRT letters belong in a world with dwindling interest in coupes and sedans? As the LX platform ages out of its umpteenth refresh, and parent company FCA retrenches into truck development, the infinitely expanding crossover market is the only segment with the volume and R&D resources to support a high-performance dalliance. Depending on the response of the owner community, there could be room for an even faster three-row vehicle — and we might just see that SRT-branded stroller someday after all.