Hot-rod Euro SUVs are great fun and all, but what if you’re looking for three rows and to spend about half the average base price of, say, the super-utes in this recent comparison test? You can rule out smaller two-row European SUVs such as the Audi SQ5, BMW X3 M, or Mercedes-AMG GLC SUV. And among three-row options, Audi’s SQ7 starts at $85,795, BMW’s X7 M50i commands $100,595, and the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLS 63 surely won’t be cheaper than the outgoing model, which stickered for $126,150. So you’ll be needing to buy American. May we suggest one of these two Yankee high-po utes, the Dodge Durango 4 SRT 392 or the Ford Explorer ST?
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You should know that a Ford Explorer ST with all the boxes ticked just tops $65,000 (from a base of $55,985), and the Durango 4 SRT 392 starts at $64,490 and can top out at more than $80K with enthusiastic box-ticking. So their prices barely overlap—until the generous rebates and incentives on the aging Durango kick in, especially now that all eyes are on its hugely powerful new Hellcat sibling. It’s also worth mentioning here that the new-for-2020 sixth-generation Explorer is slightly shorter in length, height, and wheelbase but larger inside in every dimension but third-row hip room than the third-gen Durango, which entered production in 2010. Let’s see how these two hot-rod Yankee-doodle three-row SUVs compare.
The V-8 Dodge weighs 642 pounds more than the Ford, which means that although it enjoys 75-hp and 55-lb-ft advantages in engine output, the burden each of its horses carries is only 0.6 pound less. Furthermore, Ford’s twin-turbo V-6 gets the added leverage of two extra automatic transmission ratios. We therefore expected the two to run a close race, but the Durango jumped out to a 0.3-second lead at 30 mph, and the gap only widened from there, ending up at 1.7 seconds by 100 mph. The 60-mph mark flashed by in 4.6 seconds for the Dodge, 5.3 for the Ford, with the quarter mile falling in 13.2 seconds at 103.5 mph for the Durango and 13.9 seconds at 99.9 mph for the Explorer.
Relative to their base variants, the Ford runs a solid 1.5 seconds quicker to 60 mph than an Explorer XLT with the 2.3-liter turbo-four, and the Dodge is fully 3.0 seconds ahead of its base V-6 counterpart. The Durango SRT legitimately hangs with similarly priced smaller performance SUVs such as the (5.0 seconds) and Mercedes-AMG (4.7 seconds). BMW’s $93,595 three-row X7 xDrive 50i with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V-8 also needs 4.7 seconds to hit 60 mph. Of course, the Dodge is still running a second behind our estimated pack average for this year’s super-ute showdown.
Both vehicles manage to generate stirring engine notes. That’s no small feat for the Explorer, with just three cylinders shouting through a turbocharger on each bank. But somehow the Ford manages to evoke a rowdy, naughty, high-strung race car vibe in the Sport drive mode. Dodge’s 392 sings a familiar muscle car tune, punctuated by those fun snorts and pops that happen when you lift off the throttle and the injectors send a few surplus drops of fuel through just for the auditory fun of it. The lighter Explorer never does this, which may contribute in a tiny way to its 5-mpg advantage in each EPA measure. Ford’s 10-speed automatic deserves a special shoutout for its exceptional Sport mode tuning. It faithfully holds lower gears whenever you dial up some g loads in a curve, and it is lighting quick to downshift when you call for full giddyup. It also helps that there are two more ratios to work with.
So much for the going, what about the whoaing? The Durango stomps the Explorer in the brake department. The 60-0-mph stats are close—110 feet for Dodge, 114 for Ford. What’s not close is how they feel. The Dodge/SRT gang fits proper Brembo monobloc calipers all around, boasting six pistons in front and four in back. Ford sticks with an inherently less rigid steel sliding-caliper design fore and aft, enlarging them and painting them red with the optional ST Street package ($995) and adding high-performance pads for another $600 on the ST High-Performance package. Our test and photo vehicles only had the former, but both Detroit Editor Alisa Priddle and I found the ST’s brakes to be disconcertingly grabby. They bite hard at the top of the pedal and then require more modulation than Dodge’s more linear Brembos. We both felt greater confidence bombing into a tight corner in the Dodge than in the Ford, which is counterintuitive when you consider the Durango’s 642-pound weight disadvantage.
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Ride and Handling
The Dodge’s engine is way more powerful than the Ford’s, its brakes are more serious, and sure enough, its tires are grippier and its chassis feels better damped and more responsive. Here again, it was tempting to imagine the heftier Dodge might be a straight-line demon and a bit of a palooka on the figure-eight or a twisty road, but in a word: nope. Or as Priddle put it, “Durango may be built like a linebacker, but it’s as light on its feet as a dancer. Explorer looks more like a refined dancer but is in fact clumsier on its feet.”
On the figure-eight, the brutish Durango lays down a 25.5-second lap with an average g-vector of 0.75, while the lighter Explorer ST trailed at 26.4 seconds and 0.72 g. The peak lateral g contest was also won by Dodge, at 0.89 versus 0.85. Substantial credit must go to Dodge’s “we know nobody’s taking this thing off-road, so just put summer tires on it” thinking, which gives us Pirelli P Zero run-flats. Meanwhile, the Michelin Latitude Sport 3 tires on the Explorer we tested make greater concessions to reduced rolling resistance (remember those great EPA numbers?) and improved wet traction, and the Pirelli Scorpion Zeros fitted to the ST model we drove in Michigan is more tailored toward all-season running. There’s also a difference in footprint, with the heavier Dodge wearing 295/45R20s to the Explorer’s slightly narrower 275/45R21s.
“I felt an instant confidence in the Durango that I did not feel in the Explorer,” Priddle said. “It has an interesting combination of lightness and nimbleness that the Explorer didn’t, whether performing a lane change or handling the curves on the drive route.” That’s impressive, given the weight difference in a truck with roughly the same footprint. I managed to exceed the limits of adhesion in the Explorer in the tightest turns at speeds that would not otherwise have had a passenger clawing for a grab handle.
The whole Durango driving experience is far more customizable than the Explorer’s. Your choice of driving modes includes Track, Sport, Custom, Auto, Snow, and Tow. Go for Custom and set the steering toStreet; Sport and Track just make it feel gluey. Beware the Track suspension mode—you feel every pebble and dimple. The ride is slightly less extreme in sport, but Priddle and I both found ourselves reaching for the Auto mode as soon as our adrenaline subsided.
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The Explorer’s Sport mode primarily impacts engine and transmission calibration. Ride quality is fairly comparable between the Explorer’s and the Durango’s Auto suspension modes. Both trucks ride firmer than their base siblings (or the Durango R/T model we long-term tested), but neither ride feels punishing until you firm up the Dodge.
Adding to the fun in the SRT are myriad displays and screens eager to depict all sorts of cool information, such as g-force circles, tallies of max lateral and longitudinal g’s for a particular run, power and torque meters and history graphs, and dragstrip performance stats—you know, the kind of stuff that no responsible driver has any business glancing down to look at in the middle of the type of maneuver that really makes those displays interesting. Maybe they’re for the benefit of trusting passengers?
By contrast, the Ford’s drive modes include Tow/Haul, Sport, Eco, Normal, Slippery, Trail, and Deep Snow/Sand. The Explorer’s only fun screens portray off-road info such as individual wheel torque distribution and pitch and roll angles, as if to justify the choice of those slightly more all-season-oriented tires.
So the Durango handily wins this category and can roughly hang with similarly priced Euro hot-utes like the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 (0.91 g, 25.2-second 0.75g figure eight).
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When comparing these disparately priced trucks, we endeavored to look past the Durango’s suede headliner, sewn and leather-wrapped dash, and carbon-fiber accents that comprise the $2,495 Premium Interior package (while totally reveling in the $95 red seat belts). But there’s no escaping the fact that the standard SRT includes a driver’s throne that’s way more comfortable and supportive than the chair in the Explorer. Both offer embossed logos, and the Ford gets nice contrast stitching, but SRT wins the day with grippy suede inserts, side bolstering that extends up to shoulder level, and richer padding.
The SRT steering wheel is more enthusiast-focused, as well, boasting big, silver shift paddles and thumb rests that are positioned just enough higher up on the rim to more comfortably allow thumbs to be positioned under them for pushing up when turning (as my Bondurant School instructors suggested). The bottom of the rim is ever so slightly flattened, as well, like those in its hot-ute competitors from across the pond. The ST gets smaller—though equally effective—black shift paddles and features a handsome combination of plain and dimpled leather with white contrast stitching.
Here again we must point out that even with the Durango’s swanky trim upgrade, materials found below the armrest line in either of these trucks belies their economy-minded base brethren—something you won’t typically find in the Euro hot-utes.
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Passenger and Stuff Hauling
As noted at the top, on paper the Ford boasts the savvier package, cramming 11 percent more people and cargo space into an exterior volume that’s essentially the same. Ford also provides middle-row sunshades and electric seat releases to allow entry to the third row, which any child could operate. The third-row seats power up and down, as well. But the Dodge is the more comfortable vehicle to ride in. As in the front, the middle-row captain’s chairs are suitable for, if not a captain, at least the next in command. They’re perfectly contoured and padded and offer considerable side bolstering.
Entering the Durango’s third row involves folding the backrest and dumping the seat forward, which will prove too big a job for small kids. Once back there, adults will find fewer inches of space but also a higher, more comfortable seat cushion that’s properly angled to provide thigh support. The Ford’s is too low and flat to stay out of the way of an electrically folding backrest. The Durango’s seat cushions and backrests must be raised and lowered manually using straps and handles in the back.
Another key differentiator is the rear center console. Dodge’s includes cupholders and a raised armrest bin with a clever lid that’s double-hinged to permit the middle- or third-row passengers access to its 110-volt plug and a third USB charging jack. Ford only offers a low, hard plastic console with an open bin and two cupholders, and inboard armrests are attached to the seats. Then again, this approach allows smaller kids to simply walk between the center seats to the rear bench.
In the way back, both offer underfloor storage, and Ford wins the day with a deeper full-width bin that even allows provision for storing a roller-blind cargo cover under the floor. A compact spare resides in a well beneath this. Dodge’s hidden cargo bin is just two-thirds the width of the truck, and its spare hangs under the body (and hence remains vulnerable to damage in the exceedingly unlikely case someone takes it off-roading).
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The Durango SRT comes closest to delivering the driving experience of a Euro hot-ute while providing three rows of seating.
A reasonably well-heeled family of six looking for a sportier ride to their lake house or to significantly up their carpool game, will find the Durango 4 SRT 392 to be a compelling choice . Its bulging vented and scooped hood, fat tires, and red Brembo brakes convey a swagger that its stonking V-8 all-wheel-drive powertrain is only too eager to deliver. Every touchpoint and screen display conveys the message that this is a muscle truck on a mission. It also manages to be more comfortable in all three rows, and despite the advancing age of its platform, Dodge has kept it current with the latest Uconnect 4 infotainment system and most of the latest available driver assist features.
Still, there are those who will regard the Durango SRT as too brash—a neck tattoo you can drive. For these folks, the much more refined-looking Explorer offers a significant upgrade over lesser Explorers and delivers within 15 percent of the Durango SRT’s acceleration, accompanied by its own unique snarl. Its dynamic handling envelope is 3-4 percent less extreme, but it offsets that shortcoming by promising slightly better performance in bad weather or off pavement, all while promising to drink about a . That’s significant. But then, we’re not put off by the neck tattoo.
2nd: Ford Explorer ST | Suave and sophisticated, spacious and fuel efficient, and a stirring performer when driven on its own. Here, it’s an awesome Leatherman knife at a gunfight.
1st: Dodge Durango 4 SRT | Sure, it’s heavy and old, but that can be your little secret when folks strap into its first-class seats for an epic back road blast.
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