Dodge’s new Durango gets bigger, gains refinement and adds muscle

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Dodge Durango started in 1998 as an alternative to the mid-sized sport utilities, none of which came with a third-row seat in those days. Size wise it was also a good alternative to the full-sized harder-to-manage sport utilities such as the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition.
The 1998-2003 Durango, built on the Dakota pickup platform, fell just below full sized but it was bigger and had more interior room than those mid-size utilities such as the Chevrolet Blazer and Ford Explorer.  And it featured three rows of seats. It was a nice compromise, particularly when outfitted with one of two available V-8 engines.

The Durango, the only sport utility vehicle offered by Dodge, was a success. It had muscular styling, off-road capability and seating for eight people. Refinement was not one of its strong suits, however. It was a truck and it drove and rode pretty much like what you would expect of a truck.

After a six-year run, the original Durango has been replaced with an all-new vehicle that brings improvements in every area from ride, handling, performance, interior refinement and exterior styling.

It has grown, too, and now falls into the full-sized classification, no longer an alternative. And just so you know, we judge Durango on it merits, not exclusively on its size.

The 2004 Durango is still a true off-road truck-based sport utility, but it has a car-like ride on the blacktop and the Dodge design team brings a new measure of refinement and sophistication to the interior.

It no longer is based on the Dakota platform, but on an all-new platform dedicated exclusively (for now) to the Durango.

To say it is the best in class is not exaggerating. Two major automobile magazines, for instance, voted it number one in comparison tests in recent issues.
And Dodge has apparently been effective in getting the word out. Based on January figures, sales are up dramatically. There were 8,888 trucks sold the first month of this year compared to 6,209 in January 2003, a 43 percent increase.
Dodge has targeted the new Durango as much at the woman of the household as the man. Initial television ads have dramatically pointed this up as a wife tells her friends that she talked her husband into buying the Durango with its nice ride, quiet interior and rear DVD player. The husband at the same time is seen telling his buddies he talked his wife into buying the Durango with its powerful 335-horsepower V8 Hemi.

Dodge says there is something for everybody. And the Dodge boys are right. And despite the attractions for both male and female buyers, there are no compromises. Everything is first class, especially with the Hemi option.

The Durango retains the look that Dodge designers sought back in the late 1990s, but in a modern and progressive rendition. The signature cross-hair grille has been retained. A big-rig front-end look with aggressive wheel arches front and back and a steeply raked windshield give the Dodge a muscular, high-powered stance. The double headlights, exposed on the sides, and the double-barreled taillights add strength to the design.
The Durango comes with three engine configurations and in three trim levels starting with the well-equipped base ST, the upgraded SLT and the top-of-the-line Limited. Two-wheel and 4-wheel drive versions are available across the lineup.
The ST two-wheel drive starting at $26,565 comes with such standard equipment as power windows and locks, air conditioning, antilock brakes, CD player, cruise control and an occupant sensor in the passenger-side seat so the airbag will deactivate if a child seat is installed.

The obvious engine of choice is the all-new 5.7-liter Hemi V8 developing 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. In addition to offering satisfying performance, it has a prodigious maximum towing capacity of 8,950 pounds.

Other engine choices are a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 generating 235 pound-feet of torque and a 4.7-liter V8 making 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque that really leaves something to be desired when faced with climbing even a modest grade.

Our advice is that before making a decision to save some cash by buying the V6 or the non-Hemi V8, take it for an intensive test drive. Make sure it has enough grunt to satisfy your needs while pulling around more than 5,000 pounds of sport utility vehicle.
Our recommendation is to stick to the Hemi or the standard V8 if the Hemi is out of the question. Both the Hemi and the standard V8 are mated to 5-speed automatics. The V6 comes with a 4-speed transmission.
But once you’ve driven the Hemi it’s hard to drop back to the common fair. It transforms the Durango into a very satisfying ride. But it seems good is not without a downside. The Dodge V8 engines are rather anemic when it comes to gas mileage. The big V8 has been rated at 13 miles per gallon city driving and 18-mpg highway. That may be something to consider, as gas prices seem to hit record highs every month.

The new chassis boasts a fully hydroformed frame that increases structural rigidity and ride quality. And a stiffer structure usually means less squeaks and rattles as the miles pile up. Outstanding ride quality, a quiet interior and adept handling are the result of the strengthened frame. Our only complaint as we piled on the highway miles was that steering feel seemed a tad too light.

The interior of the Durango is spacious and user friendly. Cupholders and storage areas abound. A power point is located in close proximity to a large bin, perfect for a cell phone.

Brushed aluminum trim, nice-looking leather seats and high-quality plastics gave the interior of our Limited test vehicle an upscale look. Switchgear was easy to use and the cruise controls are conveniently located on the steering wheel.

The rear seat folds flat into the floor creating a large 68 cubic-foot storage area. With the second row seats folded down, storage increases to 102 cubic feet, about the same as the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition and more than the Nissan Armada. We did say it was big didn’t we?

Second-row occupants now have the comfort of seatbacks that recline. In our Limited model, rear air conditioning vents with fan were positioned at the back of the center console.

Two adults can fit into the third row for short trips. Entering and exiting has been made easier with second-row seats that fold up and out of the way.

Strangely missing from our test vehicle were overhead handholds. Our Limited model, which included full-time all-wheel drive as well as 4-wheel drive high and low, carried a base price of $34,900. Options brought the bottom line to $39,565. They included rear entertainment system, traction control, heated front seats, running boards, power moonroof and the Hemi engine ($895).

Prospective buyers who may have heard of Dodge transmission problems in the past will have their anxieties eased by a 7-year, 70,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The new Durango was indeed a pleasant surprise. Those people in the market for a large SUV would be remiss not to put it on their short list of vehicles to test drive before making their next purchase.