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Road Test: 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

If there was ever a vehicle that portrayed what may be the ultimate paradox it may be the 2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid.

And, yeah, that thang’s got a Hemi, too.

Take one full-size SUV that has three rows of seating, can tow up to 6,000 pounds, boasts 385 horsepower from a 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi engine and toss in a two-mode hybrid setup to boost in-town gas mileage and provide 20/22 EPA estimates from the 27-gallon gas tank and you’ve got the Durango Hybrid. During the past week, the trip computer registered 20.4 miles per gallon overall during more than 600 miles of mixed driving.
That figure, of the estimates guessed by many who offered sympathy at the size of the land-locked Leviathan on wheels, surprised everyone at its relative miserly way.

2009 Dodge Durango with highlighted Two-Mode Hybrid System

Utilizing a two-mode hybrid setup, the big Durango takes advantage of a fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System (MDS) technology. Total output, when combined with the advanced two-mode hybrid system, is 400 horsepower and 380 lb.-ft. of torque – the most powerful hybrid SUVs. This mechanical magic results, according to Chrysler, at a 25 percent increase in city mileage and 40 percent overall.

The hybrid system, which was developed with General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and BMW, delivers a “two-mode” full hybrid system by integrating proven automatic-transmission technology with a patented hybrid-electric drive system.

The two modes in the hybrid system result from low- and high-speed electric continuously variable transmission (ECVT) modes. During the two ECVT modes, the system uses electric motors for acceleration, improving fuel economy, or for regenerative braking to utilize energy that would normally be lost during braking or deceleration. The energy is stored in a 300-volt battery pack for later use. The system’s two modes are optimized for city and highway driving. The setup includes four fixed gear ratios for “efficiency” and power-handling capabilities.

The first mode is designed for low speeds and light loads. In this mode, the vehicle can operate in three ways: electric power only, engine power only, or any combination of engine and electric power.

In city use, up to about 20 mph, Durango runs off battery power, sounding like an oversized golf cart until the Hemi kicks in.
The second mode is used primarily at highway speeds. The second mode provides full power from the HEMI when needed, such as passing, pulling a trailer or climbing a steep grade. Durango’s 380 lb.-ft. of torque is more than enough for low-end grunt pulling.

A controller determines when to use the first or second mode and shifts the torque as needed.

A 300-volt battery pack powers the system without crabbing interior room – which is cavernous to say the least. A rectifier located under the hood converts AC to DC in order to power conventional 12-volt accessories, including interior lighting, climate control and the audio system.
The MDS system shifts the engine from using all eight cylinders to four, depending upon the power required. A light green hard-to-see and read dash light displays a needle showing when the economy is at its best while cruising.

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

Though Chrysler, aka Dodge, claims the MDS shifts back and forth seamlessly, and a CVT transmission is supposed to provide seamless shifting up and down the band range I found otherwise.

MDS did not work behind the scenes without interfering with the ride, noise or being noticeable. Neither did the CVT. This was surprising because other vehicles with similar setups rode and drove as advertised. Instead, I found that slower traffic along Route 33 and through Market Square caused Durango to constantly hunt and search for the right speed and setting. Disengaging or changing it up was noticeable and disappointing.

Despite its largess – which is another disappointing factor since it was originally introduced in 1998 as the perfect midsized SUV – measuring nearly 18 feet long and weighing 5,553 pounds empty, Durango was rather light on its feet, aided by power rack-and-pinion steering. Of course, turning or parking in any parking area will be a challenge, but is aided by the rearview camera in the tailgate.

To support a vehicle of this size one needs 18-inch standard tires and a stiff suspension for its fulltime 4×4 ability. Thus, the independent front suspension and rear coil springs with a solid rear axle provided a torsionally stiff and somewhat jarring ride when it came to rough road and railroad tracks. Much more vibration was transmitted into the cab that I had expected and found acceptable given today’s standards.

2009 Dodge Durango Hybrid

There’s little to want in the way of options in Durango and it comes loaded with a price tag as big as its profile: $44,540 with $800 additional for delivery. Toss in a tow package, power sunroof and a rear seat video package and the sticker soared to $48,410 for a vehicle that might have been a technical marvel 3 or 4 years ago but is viewed with disdain today.

For someone with a large speedboat, horse trailer or family that skies and needs the 102.4 cu. ft. provided with the rear seats folded down, (68.4 c.f with the seats up) it’s a workhorse.

But for the company trying to find its way back to what made it what it was when the Bobs – Eaton and Lutz – ran it, an oversized Durango and a hybrid edition Hemi are the wrong mixes at the wrong time.

2009 Dodge Durango Specifications As Tested

Engine: 5.7-liter HEMI® Hybrid, OHV, V-8 with Multi-displacement System (MDS)
Power Output: 345 hp @ 5300 rpm
Torque: 380 lb.-ft. @ 4200 rpm
Electric Motor Output: 87 hp
Torque: 235 lb.-ft.
Type: 2 AC synchronous electric motors
Voltage: 300 V max
Battery Power Output: 40 hp
Voltage: 300 V
Type: Sealed Nickel-metal hydride
Total Power Output: 385 hp
Emission Control: Dual three-way catalytic converters, heated oxygen sensors, electronic EGR and internal engine features
MILEAGE: 19/20 mpg (city/hwy)
Transmission: Two-mode Hybrid
Wheelbase: 119.2″
Length: 202.1″
Width: 76.0″
Height: 73.6″
Base Price: $44,540
Delivery: $800
Options: $3,070
As tested: $48,410

2009 Dodge Durango Photo Gallery