Will the second coming of the Google TV platform stick? A month after LG launched the Google TV–powered G2-series TVs and just days after Sony announced its own Google TV streaming-media player, Vizio announced that it will offer its own Google TV set-top box—and at $99, it’s half the price of Sony’s.

Called the Co-Star Stream Player, the new Vizio box will arrive next month. The media player was initially announced at CES back in January.

Like other revamped Google TV devices, it will offer full Web browsing via Google’s Chrome browser, access to the Android apps market (now called Google Play), and the ability to search live TVs that are connected to cable or satellite boxes.

Like most streaming players we’ve seen, the Co-Star will include built-in Wi-Fi and support for 1080p video. The player will also support both Flash and HTML 5 and come with a universal remote with both a touchpad and keyboard.

We’ll be looking forward to seeing how the Vizio Co-Star stacks up to the Sony NSZ-GS7 Internet Player when we get both into our new streaming media lab. Stay tuned for our upcoming report.

RELATED:
Sony to launch new Google TV streaming media player
A quick hands-on look at LG’s first Google TVs

Sony, which was an early adopter of the first-generation Google TV platform, is giving it another go next month when it starts selling the NSZ-GS7 Internet Player, which will be priced at $199.

The box, which includes the updated version of Google TV we previewed in LG’s new G2-series TVs, will be released in mid-July, although Sony will allow pre-orders of the NSZ-GS7 starting June 25, 2012 at www.sony.com/sonygoogletv.

The company says it will also offer a Google TV-powered Blu-ray player, the NSZ-GP9, later this year at a price just under $300. The Blu-ray player will include voice-control capability. Both devices were initially announced at CES back in January.

The new NSZ-GS7 is much smaller and sleeker than the Logitech Revue unit, and it comes with a redesigned universal remote control that has a touchpad on one side and a QWERTY keyboard on the other. It also includes motion control for gaming, and a pre-loaded app will let users search for content on their connected TV.

The launch of Google TV back in 2010 wasn’t especially successful–the failure of its Google-based Revue player essentially caused Logitech to exit the streaming media business. Sony had a few Google TV products, but the platform never really caught on. But last fall Google updated the software, streamlining the interface, improving search, and providing access to the Android market, now called Google Play.

So far we’ve seen new Google TV products from LG and Sony, and Vizio is expected to join the fold this summer when it launches its own Google TV-powered add-on box. Google TVs from the company are expected later this year. There are also rumors that Samsung will offer some Google TV products–Blu-ray players and perhaps a TV series–later this year.

We’ll be giving the new Sony streaming-media player a try as soon as we can get one into our new streaming-media lab for testing. At nearly $200, the NSZ-GS7 is twice as expensive as many of its competitors, and four times the cost of the least expensive models currently in our labs. Stay tuned for our comprehensive reviews of the leading streaming media players on the market.

Some HDTVs now have the smarts to connect to the Internet to stream video and keep users up to date with social-network sites like Facebook. But there are a lot more features in the Samsung UN55ES8000, a 55-inch model in the company’s so-called “flagship line” of LCD TVs.

Consumer Reports’ lab technicians had a chance to go over the Samsung model for our latest Ratings of HDTVs. As you would expect from a top-of-the-line model, it’s packed with features. Not only is the Samsung UN55ES8000 a 3D-capable Smart TV with wireless Net connectivity, but it features a built-in camera and microphone for online Skype video chats. More impressive, it has smart controls, such as simple gestures to adjust volume and facial recognition.

How does the 55-inch LCD TV perform? Senior Electronics Editor Jim Willcox gave the lowdown to Dave Graveline and the listeners of his “Into Tomorrow” radio show. Listen to Consumer Reports’ assessment of the Samsung UN55ES800 on our podcast here.

—Consumer Reports

Every week, Consumer Reports experts produce a short audio segment that covers a wide variety of issues regarding consumer electronics and technology for “Into Tomorrow with Dave Graveline.” The recording featured on the Consumer Reports News Blog was aired on the prior weekend’s “Into Tomorrow” broadcast.

About Into Tomorrow
Now in its 17th year, “Into Tomorrow with Dave Graveline” covers the latest in consumer electronics and technology available today and into tomorrow. The show airs on more than 180 AM and FM radio stations around the U.S. and can be heard globally through various sources—including America’s Armed Forces Networks and podcasts of previous “Into Tomorrow” episodes.

When I recently went to check what 3D programming was on DirecTV, I noticed something unusual in the program guide: The n3D channel, which DirecTV launched in conjunction with Panasonic back in 2010, had no current listings.

Instead, there was a placeholder touting coverage of the upcoming London Summer Olympics this summer. Apparently, despite there being more 3D TVs in homes than when the n3D network launched, the companies involved decided to move to part-time 3D broadcast, leaving the Sony/Discovery/Imax channel, 3net, as the only full-time 3D network on DirecTV. (ESPN 3D is also a full-time channel, but DirecTV only airs it part time.)

I contacted DirecTV to find out whether the move was temporary or permanent. “While 3D adoption continues to grow and more programming is being developed, DirecTV has decided to move n3D to a part-time channel,” an executive emailed. “Our 3D customers will still enjoy a variety of 3D programming spanning across all genres from top 3D networks ESPN 3D and 3net.”

DirecTV, I was told, will continue to air programming on n3D, including original series such as Guitar Center Sessions, music concerts, and special events, including the upcoming Summer Olympics. “DirecTV will continue to look for new, quality 3D programming to acquire and deliver to our 3D customers,” the email continued.

As far as the Olympics, DirecTV says it plans to air both the opening and closing Olymics ceremonies in 3D, as well as select events, including gymnastics, diving, and swimming.

NBC, which is broadcasting the Olympics, told me that it will be offering 242 hours of 3D broadcasts (in conjunction with Panasonic, which is also a partner in the n3D channel) to various TV service providers, who then have to decide whether or not to take it. But the 3D coverage won’t be live; instead, they’ll be broadcast the day after they actually happen.

If you have a 3D TV and want to watch the Olympics in that format, you’ll have to check with your local TV service provider to find out its plans for 3D coverage of the event. We imagine that some time soon NBC will have a comprehensive list of all the cable, satellite and telco TV service providers that will be airing 3D Olympic coverage, although you’ll still need to check local listings for exact broadcast times.

And if you’re an Olympics junkie but not so interested in 3D, NBC will be live-streaming every single Olympics event at its NBCOlympics.com website.

We’ll keep monitoring the news for more information about 3D broadcasts to keep you informed. And we’d love to know whether you’re interested in seeing the Olympic 3D broadcasts, and whether the event might spur you into getting a 3D set if you don’t already own one.

Samsung has launched the Galaxy Player 4.2, a successor to its Galaxy Player 4.0 media player. After using a press sample on a range of tasks, I think this new Galaxy has made an already-fine player an even-better alternative to Apple’s iPod Touch.

As its name implies, this new model, called the Galaxy Player 4.2, has an LCD touch-screen that’s 0.2 inches wider than that of its predecessor, which fares well in our Ratings. Other improvements include a higher-capacity battery (1,500 mAh vs. 1,200 mAh) that promises up to 8 hours of video play, a six-axis gyro sensor for gaming, and two front-firing speakers for better sound without headphones.

At $200, the 8GB Galaxy Player 4.2 costs the same as an 8-gigabyte (GB) iPod Touch, which has a 3.5-inch display. That’s a good deal when you consider you can expand its capacity by up to 32GB via microSD card (which costs about $20). That would give you a 40-GB player for around $80 less than a 32GB iPod Touch, which costs $300 and whose memory can’t be expanded.

This new Samsung does, however, cut corners in some surprising ways. Samsung downgraded the rear-facing camera from 3.2 megapixels to 2.0 megapixels, and the display, which used to be a Super Clear LCD is now only a “plain” LCD. While both displays have the same resolution (800×400 pixels), Samsung admits the Super Clear LCD on the older player had fewer layers, which should give you a slightly better picture. I didn’t notice a difference when comparing old and new displays side-by-side. They both appeared rather brilliant—though not as sharp, of course, as the one on the iPod Touch, which packs more resolution (960 x 640 pixels) into its smaller screen.

And I didn’t compare prints from the camera. But our engineers will address such performance issues when they test the retail model in their labs.

Here are my quick impressions:

A phone without the phone. This model runs on Android (Gingerbread), which, via its Wi-Fi connection, enables it to run a wide range of apps and connect to Android’s impressive ecosystem of content. That Wi-Fi connection gives you access to your calendars, e-mails, and social-network accounts, map-based searches, GPS navigation, and video chats via the front-facing camera. The Galaxy Player lacks phone controls and access to cellular networks, but if you download an app like Skype, you CAN use this device as a phone whenever you have an Internet connection.

Controls. The controls of this Galaxy’s preinstalled music and video players are intuitive, providing lots of options for sorting your stuff through their virtual buttons. And you can always download other media players you may prefer from Google’s Play or Samsung’s App store.

The Galaxy Player 4.2’s permanent controls are identical to an Android phone. Along the bottom edge of the screen you’ll find the familiar home button, which doubles as a recent apps button when you press it for more than half a second. It’s flanked by the back-lit menu and back buttons, which are invisible until your finger touches them. That may irk some users. On the upper right hand side are the power/screen lock button, and the volume rocker button just below it. Both are easy to access. One quibble: The volume rocker button doesn’t work when the screen is locked.

Speakers. The two front-firing speakers are rather tinny compared to a decent pair of headphones, but decent enough for streaming music in the background or enjoying a movie or video game when no one’s sitting next to you.

Gaming. Google Play recently opened its Longest Day Deals, in honor of the summer solstice, offering a plethora of games for just 99 cents. But to get you started the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 comes with free game downloads from Electronic Arts: FIFA 2012 and Need for Speed Hot Pursuit.

Before you download these freebies, however, you should consider upgrading storage because each game takes up more than a gigabyte of space.

I found that Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, a car-chase game, made full use of the Galaxy’s gyroscope, which turned out to be quite responsive. You steer the cars by tilting the phone from side to side. FIFA 2012 was also fun. You control the players via a virtual joystick, which wasn’t quite as responsive. (Or it could be that soccer is just not my game.)

Battery life. With the exception of watching the two-hour movie I sideloaded from my computer, I spent most of my time with the Galaxy Player 4.2 streaming music from Pandora, Slacker, and Google’s cloud player. I also spent a fair amount of time on Facebook and Twitter, and streaming from YouTube. While performing these battery-beating activities, I could count on the player entertaining me about 2-1/2 to 3 hours before pleading for a recharge.

Bottom line: Like its predecessor, the Galaxy Player 4.2 is an impressive iPod alternative for Android fans, offering many of the same excellent options of its Apple counterpart for accessing its content from other devices. The larger display, compared with the iPod, is also a major plus for playing games and watching videos.

For more on mp3 players see our buying guide.

Based on the latest TVs we’ve been testing in our TV labs, some of the things we didn’t especially like in some of last year’s models—such as fair or poor sound quality and bulky, costly active 3D glasses—are no longer as big an issue with some manufacturers.

For example, most of the major brands that offer active 3D TVs, which use battery-powered active-shutter glasses, have replaced the bulky designs we saw in earlier generations with lighter, sleeker glasses. Several of the 3D TVs in our latest TV Ratings now come with these sleeker models, which our testers have found be much more comfortable to wear, especially for extended periods of time.

Another beneficial trend: Cheaper active 3D eyewear. Though it’s still possible to pay as much as $150 for a pair of active glasses—a common price even a year ago—most companies now offer less expensive models. Samsung’s latest TVs offer the least-expensive 3D glasses, at $20 per set. Also, active 3D glasses from Panasonic, Samsung, and Sony—as well as those from Xpand, a third-party supplier—now conform to a single 3D standard, so they’re interchangeable. That means you can grab your Samsung glasses and bring them over to a friend’s house and use them on his or her Panasonic TV, provided it’s also newer model. Unfortunately, last year’s glasses don’t conform to this new 3D standard.

Another positive development we’ve seen with some Samsung models is improved sound quality. One consequence of ever-thinner sets has been that sound quality on many TVs has suffered, but several new Samsung sets—including the PNE8000- and PNE550-series plasmas, and UNES6500- and UNEH5300-series LCDs in our latest Ratings—deliver very good overall sound while retailing their sleek profiles.

Other trends, such as more TVs with the ability to access online content—including streaming movies and TV shows—continue. We’re also seeing more sets with built-in Wi-Fi, making it easier to connect to home networks, and more with full Web browsers. Of the 11 newest models in our Ratings with Internet capability, nine offer a full Web browser, which was something of a novelty just a year ago.

We’re also seeing more sets with larger screen sizes. Our TV Ratings now have 11 60-inch sets (from LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, and Sony), plus a 70-inch LCD TV from Sharp (which just announced a 90-inch model).

If you’re in the market for a new TV, let us know which features you’re considering, and the size of the set you most desire. We’re also interested to know if a 3D TV is on your radar, especially since there will be 3D broadcasts of some of the upcoming London Summer Olympics.

To prevent your utility bills from rising along with the mercury, consider installing a programmable thermostat or learning how to use the one you have now. By tailoring your air conditioning (or heating) to your schedule, programmable thermostats can save both energy and money, but only when set correctly. Setting it incorrectly can actually cost you more. Here’s how to choose a programmable thermometer and maximize its benefits.

There are three types of programmable thermostats. To decide which one is best for you, think about your schedule and how often you are regularly away from home for extended periods of time. The government’s Energy Star program suggests the following:

  • 7-day models are best if your schedule tends to change day to day. They offer the most flexibility, and let you set different programs for each day—usually with four possible temperature periods per day.
  • 5+2-day models use the same schedule every weekday, and another schedule for weekends.
  • 5-1-1 models are best if you tend to keep one schedule Monday through Friday and have different schedules on Saturday and Sunday.

Some of the programmable thermostats tested by Consumer Reports in the past have been tricky to use. We are testing another batch now and will have the results later this summer. Energy Star has encouraged manufacturers to simplify set-up. Typically, a thermostat comes with four pre-programmed settings. Just sticking with those settings will result in significant savings but they may not match your schedule. Many models also come with such additional features as digital, backlit displays; touch pad, voice and/or phone programming; hold/vacation settings; indicators that tell you when it’s time to change air filters or signal that your system is malfunctioning, and recovery features that remember your last settings in the event of a blackout.

Only you can determine what setting gives you the most comfort. But, on average, every degree you raise your thermostat in the summer or lower it in the winter, saves two percent on your energy bill. To get the most from your thermostat follow these tips from Energy Star:

  • Install your thermostat away from heating or cooling vents or registers, heat-generating appliances or electronics, open doorways and direct sunlight.
  • When programming the thermostat, keep it set at a constant temperature for long periods of time, such as eight hours at night when you’re sleeping and the same period during the day when you’re at work.
  • When on vacation, set the hold button at a constant temperature.
  • Resist the urge to override your settings. Every time you do that, it costs you money.
  • If your home has zoned heating and cooling, install a programmable thermostat in each zone, especially if parts of the house, like a college student’s bedroom, are unoccupied for long periods of time.
  • If your thermostat runs on batteries, change them at least once a year.

But if all this seems like too much work and you want to stick with your manual thermostat, you can still realize savings by adjusting the temperature 5 to 8 degrees (up in summer, down in winter) when you leave in the morning.

The Samsung Galaxy S III is one of the most anticipated smart phones of 2012. After using press samples of the Sprint and T-Mobile versions of the phone (also available on Verizon, AT&T, and U.S. Cellular), I’ve concluded the buzz is largely justified.

The Samsung Galaxy S III is one of most advanced Android smart phones ever, with a giant, 4.8-inch high-definition display (1280×720); front- and rear high-definition cameras; a Siri-style voice-activated assistant; and an array of gesture- and sensor-based tools to help you access and share the content you create and capture on your phone.

Some of those tools, however, such as the voice-activated assistant and the Buddy Photo Share photo-tagging app, had a penchant for errors that quickly became annoying. But here’s more on what are generally laudatory first impressions of this latest Galaxy:

Fine performance overall. The phone comes with 2 GB of RAM and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor instead of the quad-core sported by its European siblings; Samsung insists are no noticeable speed differences between the two models. In any case, this sleek phone seemed ultrafast to me.

Overall performance is top-notch, and I had fun using many of the phone’s advanced features I previously previewed at CTIA. But the phone’s relatively hefty 2100 mAh battery quickly drained when using the nifty wireless content-sharing apps.

Display. The Galaxy’s 4.8-inch SuperAMOLED display was dazzling and sharp, and among the easiest to read in the blazing sun. The tiniest type on Web pages and documents appeared clear and smooth. Photo colors appeared brilliant, but natural. The display was quite responsive, in fact, too responsive on some occasions. For example, when preparing to take a picture, the camera’s on-screen shutter release would often snap a picture even before my finger touched it.

The Samsung Galaxy S III comes with a unique feature called Smart Stay, which uses the front-facing camera to monitor your eyes while you’re reading a Web page or other document to prevent the screen from timing out. The feature didn’t work as consistently as I would have hoped. Often, despite my constant staring, the screen would dim and even turn to black. The glitchy performance was most common in dimly lit rooms, but it also sometimes occurred on bright light, too.

Cameras. The rear-facing 8-megapixel camera had a short shutter lag. It also steals, successfully I thought, several nifty capabilities from recent smart phones from HTC: It can shoot a series of photos in rapid-fire succession while in camera mode, as well as snap a still picture at any moment while shooting a video. A mode I particularly liked was Best Shot, which takes a burst of eight pictures and then suggests the best one to you after filtering them though the phone’s smile detector and other sensors. You can also easily edit your movies on the phone. I was also impressed with the quality of pictures and videos taken with the Galaxy’s front-facing 1.9 megapixel camera, at least for portrait shots and personal videos.

Photo tagging. The Galaxy has a unique feature called Buddy Photo Share, designed to recognize the faces of people in your photos and link them back to your contacts. You have to tag subjects the first time you photograph them. After that, anytime you take a picture that includes them, Buddy Photo Share will attempt to identify them and give you the option of sharing the pics with those subjects.

Unfortunately, Buddy had trouble recognizing people during my trials, frequently connecting faces with incorrect names, including some of people who didn’t remotely resemble the subject. What’s more, Buddy Photo Share works even when you’re reviewing photos you’ve already taken in the gallery. As it does, it paints annoying little yellow squares around the heads of every subject in the shot, along with suggested name tags. Fortunately, you can easily turn this feature off in settings.

S Voice. This voice-activated assistant in some ways attempts to be like the Apple iPhone 4S’s Siri. That is, it’s supposed to be able to follow instructions in plain English. But S Voice often failed to comply with the simplest tasks, including setting up appointments or composing e-mails. I was able to use S-Voice to compose a text messages, but it was often slow and often cut me off after the first sentence, which was a bit frustrating. In short, S Voice has nothing on iPhone’s Siri.

S Beam. Many of the latest Android smart phones support a feature known as Android Beam, a technology that uses NFC (near field communication), a wireless technology to beam Web links, contact information, and other small files between devices after you tap the two devices together. Samsung has upped the ante by pairing this feature with a Wi-Fi connection (via a technology known as Wi-Fi Direct) that enables you to wirelessly share much larger files, such as a hi-res photo or video, between two Galaxy S IIIs. The process took only a few seconds to set up, when the two Galaxys meet for the first time. Once they were paired, the feature worked flawlessly time after time.

Share Shot. This feature lets you connect several nearby Galaxy S IIIs, also via Wi-Fi Direct, to share still pictures (though not videos). You might use the feature at a party, for example, to save you the trouble of having to ask friends to e-mail you the pictures they took. Photos shared over Share Shot are reduced in size to about 1 megabyte, allowing them to be quickly beamed between phones. As our video review of the Samsung Galaxy S III (above) shows, this feature worked very well and was quite easy to set up.

TecTiles. My test phones came with TecTiles, postage-stamp-size stickers that can be programmed to have the Galaxy S III perform a variety of tasks when you tap the phone against one. TecTiles use NFC technology to transmit their signals. These tasks range from changing the phone’s wireless settings (for example, turning Bluetooth off and Wi-Fi on when you get home) to sending out text messages, such as a programmed confirmation that your kid is home. I’ll have more about TecTiles, which also work with other new phones, in a follow-up blog.

Bottom line: With its huge high-resolution display and futuristic features, the Samsung Galaxy S III can be considered the new template for smart-phone design, kinks and all. Best of all, despite Apple’s attempt to use legal action to block the phone’s U.S. premiere, it should be widely available when it goes on sale tomorrow at AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular.

Pricing at Verizon and Sprint with a two-year contract: $200 for the 16GB model; $250 for the 32GB model. AT&T’s 32GB model is a slightly cheaper at $239. Though prices for T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular are yet to be announced, I expect them to be similar. Storage for any of these phones can be boosted by 64GB via a microSD card (about $65 on Amazon).

If you had told me at the end of 2008 that I would own a Dodge Durango, I would have thought you were crazy. Chrysler was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion. The concurrent Durango had just received a softened suspension that made it drive like a Hemi-powered marshmallow with a Fisher-Price interior.

My, how times have changed! Chrysler is now healthy under Fiat ownership. The redesigned Durango is now a sophisticated SUV that shares its platform with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. And now CR’s 2011 Durango Crewlux V8 test car lives in my garage. I truly put my money where my mouth (er, keyboard) was.

Sometimes I wonder if Chrysler should have renamed this car, because when it originally came time to sell it from our test fleet, no one wanted it. After a dearth of interest in our internal staff sale process, we tried to trade it in. The Hemi made it a tough sell. Trying to trade it back to a Dodge dealer got a response of, “No thanks. We have plenty of new ones that aren’t selling.” Resale probably won’t be helped either by the announcement that the Durango will likely replaced by a reborn three-row Jeep Grand Wagoneer.

So CR held on to the Durango, putting it to good use for evaluating forward collision-warning systems and towing various trailers, including hauling our Nissan Leaf back from our Washington, D.C., office. It racked up 13,000 flawless miles without even a rattle.

And this is where I come in. My wife and I just bought a 2007 Airstream Safari SE 23-foot trailer to replace our smaller 1977 Airstream Argosy. With the “new” trailer’s GVWR of 6,000 pounds, it was time for a tow vehicle upgrade from our 2010 Honda Odyssey. But since our household only owns one car (I drive CR’s test cars daily), whatever we picked also had to serve as a refined commuter car for my wife with commensurate levels of passive and dynamic safety. The still-hanging-around-the-track Durango fit the bill nicely.

So far we’re really happy with our purchase. The Durango/Airstream combination pulls like a freight train. Airstreams have independent suspensions and a low center of gravity, making them excellent towing trailers. In fact, twisty Vermont roads are actually fun, rather than nerve-wracking. Cabin noise levels for the Durango are a lot lower than those in our old Odyssey, making it a welcome road trip companion. I also really like the active cruise control and blind-spot/cross-traffic alert systems.

Admittedly, it’s not perfect. Having driven a Grand Cherokee with the upcoming 3.0-liter diesel, I yearn for that. And the five-speed automatic isn’t particularly refined. While the V8 got a six-speed automatic for 2012, I wish I had the ZF-designed eight-speed that will eventually appear in this platform. While the base V6 struggles to tow heavy trailers, the new transmission might make the V6 a decent performing option for my needs.

But to use a cliché, sometimes you go with the bird in hand rather than wait for possible midcycle changes. So far we’re averaging around 18 mpg from daily commuting—far from great, but not a horrible drop from the 21 mpg we got out of the Odyssey.

While owning an early build sample of a highly optional-electronics-loaded, clean-sheet design is a gamble, first-year reliability has been good. Same goes for the Durango’s Jeep Grand Cherokee platform-mate. We’ll hope for the best, but so far, so good.

If you had told me at the end of 2008 that I would own a Dodge Durango, I would have thought you were crazy. Chrysler was teetering on the edge of financial oblivion. The concurrent Durango had just received a softened suspension that made it drive like a Hemi-powered marshmallow with a Fisher-Price interior.

My, how times have changed! Chrysler is now healthy under Fiat ownership. The redesigned Durango is now a sophisticated SUV that shares its platform with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. And now CR’s 2011 Durango Crewlux V8 test car lives in my garage. I truly put my money where my mouth (er, keyboard) was.

Sometimes I wonder if Chrysler should have renamed this car, because when it originally came time to sell it from our test fleet, no one wanted it. After a dearth of interest in our internal staff sale process, we tried to trade it in. The Hemi made it a tough sell. Trying to trade it back to a Dodge dealer got a response of, “No thanks. We have plenty of new ones that aren’t selling.” Resale probably won’t be helped either by the announcement that the Durango will likely replaced by a reborn three-row Jeep Grand Wagoneer.

So CR held on to the Durango, putting it to good use for evaluating forward collision-warning systems and towing various trailers, including hauling our Nissan Leaf back from our Washington, D.C., office. It racked up 13,000 flawless miles without even a rattle.

And this is where I come in. My wife and I just bought a 2007 Airstream Safari SE 23-foot trailer to replace our smaller 1977 Airstream Argosy. With the “new” trailer’s GVWR of 6,000 pounds, it was time for a tow vehicle upgrade from our 2010 Honda Odyssey. But since our household only owns one car (I drive CR’s test cars daily), whatever we picked also had to serve as a refined commuter car for my wife with commensurate levels of passive and dynamic safety. The still-hanging-around-the-track Durango fit the bill nicely.

So far we’re really happy with our purchase. The Durango/Airstream combination pulls like a freight train. Airstreams have independent suspensions and a low center of gravity, making them excellent towing trailers. In fact, twisty Vermont roads are actually fun, rather than nerve-wracking. Cabin noise levels for the Durango are a lot lower than those in our old Odyssey, making it a welcome road trip companion. I also really like the active cruise control and blind-spot/cross-traffic alert systems.

Admittedly, it’s not perfect. Having driven a Grand Cherokee with the upcoming 3.0-liter diesel, I yearn for that. And the five-speed automatic isn’t particularly refined. While the V8 got a six-speed automatic for 2012, I wish I had the ZF-designed eight-speed that will eventually appear in this platform. While the base V6 struggles to tow heavy trailers, the new transmission might make the V6 a decent performing option for my needs.

But to use a cliché, sometimes you go with the bird in hand rather than wait for possible midcycle changes. So far we’re averaging around 18 mpg from daily commuting—far from great, but not a horrible drop from the 21 mpg we got out of the Odyssey.

While owning an early build sample of a highly optional-electronics-loaded, clean-sheet design is a gamble, first-year reliability has been good. Same goes for the Durango’s Jeep Grand Cherokee platform-mate. We’ll hope for the best, but so far, so good.