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In ordinary circumstances, getting the chance to test-drive a new Dodge Durango SRT would be sort of a light-hearted venture — big SUV, macho look from every angle, a look supported by SRT suspension, interior, wheels and engine. Especially the engine.
We’re talking Dodge’s legendary 6.4-liter Hemi V8, basically the same engine that powers the overpowering Charger and Challenger members of Dodge’s hot-rod car segment. In the case of the Durango, the engine is
detuned a bit, by losing the supercharger and configured to send power to all four wheels in its all-wheel-drive layout. But calling it detuned seems unfair.
The Durango still gets tuning from the SRT specialists, and it hits the road with 475 horsepower and 470 foot-pounds of torque. As you can imagine, that sort of power sends the Durango off and running with the power of a sports sedan, and the thrust of a dragster.
Going back to my original premise, though, it would have been just fun and roaring under ordinary circumstances, but on Thanksgiving week in Duluth, Minnesota, there was nothing ordinary about anything. First came an 8-inch snowfall, in the form of a blizzard blown by winds off Lake Superior. Two days later, the “big” storm hit. This one started off in Southern California and carved a wide but artistic swath across
the Midwest, finally reaching its target at Lake Superior. The swirling winds hit 58 mph, and the city got an official 22 inches of snow. Out on the ridge overlooking the North Shore, where we live, we got just a shade under 29 inches.
This was heavy, moisture-filled snow — not the kind that makes for good snowballs, or snowmen, but the kind that feels that each shovelful might break the shaft of the shovel. As it turned out, we were driving our niece to the Duluth Airport for a 5 a.m. flight, which was delayed to 6 a.m., then 8 a.m., then cancelled, with her trip back home to New York switched to United via Chicago. We were ready to go, because I was going to be behind the wheel of the Durango, churning through any snowpile we might find. Wrong.
I barreled through our driveway, up and over the outer lip and onto the rural road that runs straight south to the Lake, two miles away. But as soon as I got to the road itself and completed my left turn, the big and powerful Durango was brought to a sudden halt right in the middle of the road. I tried to back up, we just spun. I tried to lurch forward, no go. Fortunately, at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning, there was no other traffic. I slogged back to the house and returned with two shovels, and my wife, Joan, and I went to work.
What had happened was that with no passes by a County plow, the 29 inches made a formidable cover over the entire road. We had pushed enough snow ahead of us as we exited our driveway to compress it into a virtual wall ahead of us, solid enough to stop us, with snow halfway up the stylish black grille. The ever-aware electronic sensors notified us that the front sensor was obscured. No kidding. It also warned us of an imminent crash on our right front, but it was only compressed snow. For most of an hour, we shoveled snow from under the Durango and both sides of each wheel.
I went back to the driver-assist segment of the diagnostic screen, and after looking over 20 or 30 possible settings, I spotted one, next to last, that said, “snow.” I clicked it. Not sure if it made any difference, probably only starting us up in second gear, but it gave me a dose of confidence, and I finally was able to coax the big beast, by rocking forward and back a dozen times, and we edged ahead.
The wonderfulness of all the bucket seat comfort and gadfgetry — including dragstrip launch control for the heavy-duty 8-speed automatic — was relegated to the back burner as we drove the two miles, with no idea of where either side of the road was. When I got down to the freeway, I pulled out confidently, because surely the
freeway that now makes up Hwy. 61 would be plowed. Wrong again. I pulled out to where the lane should be and turned right, and spun 90 degrees to come to rest sideways. Again, with nobody coming, I calmly straightened out and advanced, realizing that a freezing drizzle that hit first had formed a neat and smooth coating under those 2 feet of snow.
There had been no plows that had attended any streets except maybe four main roadways, and I guessed right about which ones as I climbed the hill headed for the airport. We go there at 8 a.m. and were not surprised that the flight had been cancelled. At least we could get breakfast before the 10:50 flight. Wrong again. Nobody who worked at the Duluth Airport restaurant had made it to work. Nor had anyone to operate the Delta desk.
Since our niece’s flight had been cancelled, Delta had rebooked her on a United flight to Chicago and then LaGuardia — but that flight was also cancelled. While a line lengthened at the United counter, a nice young woman wearing the weather-proof suit of a gate attendant came by and said she would try to help people get rebooked via Delta. Her name was Elena, although I can’t be sure of the spelling. Now, I’ve had some excellent service from desk folks at Delta at the Duluth Airport, but never one as accommodating, friendly, and effective as Elena, who managed the magical rebooking, and got the change-carrier fee waived as well.
So our niece was on her way, with no further adventure. We, however, had to get back home, after trying unsuccessfully to find any of our favorite breakfast places that might be open. We were 0-for-6 before
we called the Boat House in Fitger’s Hotel. Great spot, and they were open. We got home and I parked the beautiful metallic red Durango by our mailbox, out on the road.
Our other project to complete the Thanksgiving Weekend was to get our son, Jack, on is way back to the Twin Cities. We had gotten him a good set of two tires to pu ton the front of his Mazda6, but we hadn’t been
able to find anyplace that would mount them, and we didn’t want him to drive back on old tires. That, however, is a separate story by itself.
Our testdrive Durango began life at $62,995, but loaded up with all the high-end features that an SRT commands, the sticker was $73,060. It did handle all the marginal tunnels that used to be streets for the
next few days. It was impressive and its stability and handling were outstanding, including the steering wheel paddles allowing manual control of the 8-speed.
The know-all sensors and computer stuff went beyond the norm. For example, at one point, a note flashed onto the screen where the audio and phone records had been and it notified us that a blizzard warning had been issued for Lake and St. Lois countries. We’re in St. Louis County, and such tips are invaluable, considering how many strange twists and turns of weather near the big lake can occur.
By the time the big plows came by on our road, our neighbor, Greg, had saved us from our half-day of shoveling becoming a full day. Greg has a snow-blower and an all-terrain vehicle with a plow, and he is an
artist with both. And he used both, one to do the preliminary work an the other to polish it off.
If the Durango has almost everything, my only suggestion might be for Dodge to add a plow. That would only make it a fair fight, if we could have blasted our way out of the driveway and down the road with 475 horsepower plowing 29 inches of snow in all directions.
PERFECT TIMING, PERFECT NAME
A lot of service outlets in the Duluth area were closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, and on through Friday and the weekend. Those that weren’t did so after the big snowstorm hit us with 22-29 inches. Our older son, Jack, had two nearly new Goodyear all-season tires, and it was like a perfect holiday story that he couldn’t find anyone at a shop who would mount the tires.
Meanwhile, several years back out in Los Angeles, a fellow named Donnell Kelly moved his family to accommodate his real estate business, and somehow he found is way to Duluth. He decided to open a
service outlet in West Duluth, way out Grand Avenue near the Duluth Zoo. It’s at 6920 Grand Avenue, and he named it “Good Timing,” which is a great name for a place that tunes engines and does everything from engine overhauls to, well, tuneups and timing. On social media, numerous customers had given the place glowing reviews.
We called, and Donnell said he was extremely busy, but he’d do it if we could leave the Mazda6 there for a few hours. We drove the required 25 miles to get there and found a basic, simple shop, and the lot was lined with cars. A lot of cars could mean slow service, but slow service leaves you with few, if any, customers. A lot of cars means you do good work, which attracts more customers seeking good work at reasonable prices.
Donnell was in the office, down at the end. He told me he does honest work, and knows that sometimes people come through traveling and are desperate to get work done and be on their way. That’s the way it is with tires, too, he said. When people need tires mounted, it’s usually near desperation for continuing on their trip, so he stays open past his 5 p.m. closing time so his five-man crew can accommodate those people.
“I tell people what their car needs, and that’s what I do,” he said. “I’m honest, and that means I can go home and sleep soundly every night, because I know we’ve done an honest day’s work.”
We came back at 5 and got Jack’s Mazda6, and the next day, he was all set to drive to the Twin Cities, but the storm hit in full fury and he turned around at Cloquet and returned to our home on the North Shore. We worried because it took him about an hour and a half to get back. Turns out, he stopped to help a fellow who had driven off Interstate 35’s whiteout shoulder. That’s my kid. Maybe Donnell could use another honest, good samaritan. It would be an honor to work for him.