Admirers of the still-evolving Dodge Durango and the dealers who sell them say the SUV has the potential to become one of Chrysler’s most valuable vehicles as the auto maker continues to reinvent itself under Fiat’s tutelage.

However, even though the Durango, first introduced to the U.S. market in 2000, has a rarely mentioned third-row seat, it still travels in the shadow of its platform mate, the 5-passenger Jeep Grand Cherokee, a legacy vehicle that remains one of Chrysler’s best-sellers and, as of late, an alternative for import luxury buyers.

Chrysler sold 62,611 Grand Cherokees in the U.S. through May, accounting for 9.0% of the auto maker’s total deliveries in the year, including Fiat, WardsAuto data shows. An aggressive marketing campaign, recent upscale restyling and strong brand recognition have kept sales steady for the near-luxury Jeep.

“The consideration we're getting on the Grand Cherokee is second to none,” says Chuck Eddy, owner of Bob and Chuck Eddy Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Austintown, OH. “We’re seeing a lot of Lexus, Infiniti and Mercedes models on trade for them, and more consideration from the European and Asian buyer.”

But the Grand Cherokee’s success could be pulling sales from the Durango, which has added a mere 18,151 deliveries to Chrysler’s books through May, a small number consistent with its sales over the last year.

Durango’s best month in 2011 was June with 5,827 units, according to WardsAuto data. Its best month so far in 2012 was March, with 4,590.

Some dealers have no complaints about the Durango’s sales, insisting consumers have a clear idea of what to expect from the SUV. However, wooing new buyers has been challenging, they admit, because of the vehicle’s quality issues in the early years following its introduction.

“I think it would sell a lot more if it had a different name,” says Eddy, who remains confident in the product. “The Durango is the best-kept secret we have. I think (it) will eventually evolve into a more upscale product.”

Dan Hall, who owns Chrysler dealerships in South Bend, IN., and near Ann Arbor, MI, agrees, noting, “The biggest increase in our trade-in inventory is coming from BMW,” not only for the Grand Cherokee but also for the Durango.

Last year, Chrysler marketed the Durango with the slogan “The SUV is Back,” as consumers continued skewing toward cross/utility vehicles.

Richard Cox, director of the Dodge brand, tells WardsAuto the latest Durango model was designed for “what the current crossover customer is looking for” without ditching the ruggedness of a traditional SUV. As far as in-fighting with the Grand Cherokee, “They’re two very different vehicles in that regard, but you can’t go wrong either way.”

Interest in the Durango is growing, he says, particularly in California and Texas where sales are stronger. “We’re in the process of adding production capacity to meet demand for all of our models, and the Durango certainly fits with that plan,” Cox says. “At this point in time, we’re not able to keep up with the demand.”

Chrysler has emphasized the Durango’s storage options, towing capabilities, 7-passenger seating and the fact it offers four trim levels – R/T, Crew, Citadel and SXT. “You’re not sacrificing performance for comfort,” Dodge spokeswoman Eileen Wunderlich tells WardsAuto.

The choices of trim level allow auto lenders to offer varied lease payments for the Durango, another advantage for consumers.

“People come in (and) want the sportiness of (the Durango) and the versatility of the Jeep Grand Cherokee,” says Ted Teague, general manager of Allen Samuels Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Waco, TX. The Durango “is a great bargain.”

afoley@wardsauto.com