Dodge refines its "just-right" strategy with this upper-mid-size bruiser
When Dodge‘s original Durango debuted for the 1998 model year, it offered “just-right” sizing: more spacious than the ubiquitous Ford Explorer, more manageable than the full-size Ford Expedition. For 2004, the second-generation Durango arrived with the same mission–to cover the middle ground between popular segments. The current Durango is bigger and more powerful than the vehicle it replaced, and it’s still larger than the Explorer and less cumbersome than the Expedition. The Durango is offered in five flavors: ST, STX, SLT, Limited, and Adventurer, each bringing to the upper-mid-size-SUV market a compelling array of powertrain options and intelligent packaging borrowed from the Chrysler Group’s well-loved minivans.
Dodge stylists drew upon both the Peterbilt-inspired look of the original Durango and the current Ram pickup when designing the current Durango exterior, creating a tall, boxy vehicle with shortened overhangs, crisp edges, and a minivan-esque rear. Gazing out over that big-rig-style front end is an instant power trip (and, conversely, the view of that front end looming in your rearview mirror can be more than a little intimidating). Despite the driver’s elevated vantage point, however, outward visibility isn’t the best: An high beltline and tree-trunklike A-, B-, and C-pillars obscure large swaths of the view, which can make piloting the Durango–especially in city environments–more challenging than other midsize models. As with most large SUVs, loading people and cargo requires a fair amount of hefting, thanks to a high step-in and an even higher cargo-area liftover.
The Durango ST and STX feature standard seating for five; SLT, Limited, and Adventurer models include a third row (solid bench or optional 50/50-split bench) that ups the passenger capacity to seven. Unfortunately, the aft seat doesn’t quite fold flat, diminishing effective cargo space. From the driver’s seat, the Durango’s user-friendly dashboard layout recalls those of Dodge’s lauded minivans: instruments are bright and legible, and controls and switchgear are smartly arrayed. The materials used in the passenger compartment are durable if not luxurious, and fit and finish are fairly good, yet not quite at the level of those in Ford‘s Explorer and Expedition.
Boasting an exceptionally crashworthy structure, the Durango earned five stars for both the driver and the front-seat passenger in NHTSA frontal crash testing. The government rollover test awarded the 2WD model three stars and the 4WD model four stars. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard on all Durango models, and side-curtain airbags for all three rows are optional on all models. Electronic stability control is unavailable.
Shared with the much smaller Jeep Liberty, a 3.7-liter SOHC V-6 is standard on rear-wheel-drive ST and SLT models. Matched to a four-speed automatic transmission, the six-cylinder engine produces 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque–not much, considering the 4,800 pounds it’s asked to set in motion. Optional on rear-drive Durangos and standard on all four-wheel-drive models is a 4.7-liter SOHC V-8 that also sees duty in the Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Delivering 230 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque, the 4.7L is better equipped for the challenge of motivating the Durango, though it’s still unlikely to set hearts aflutter. For that, opt for the much-lauded 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Available on rear- or four-wheel-drive Durangos, the Hemi thumps out 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque, giving the Durango enough grunt to tow up to 8,950 pounds. Both V-8s are matched to an excellent five-speed automatic transmission that features an alternate “kick-down” second-gear ratio for passing traffic, particularly tough trailering situations, and steep-grade ascents. The basic four-wheel-drive setup features a single-speed transfer case, perfectly suitable for inclement weather and most rough roads. Those with serious off-road ambitions, however, would be better served by the optional full-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD setup, which features selectable low range and a locking center differential.
Like the big Ram, the Durango does its best to mask its yachtlike enormity with reasonably precise, convincingly carlike rack-and-pinion steering. Any urgent braking, accelerating, or changing of direction, however, provokes pronounced dive, pitch, and/or roll–no surprise, considering the Durango’s high center of gravity and prodigious mass, but it’s generally no worse than other body-on-frame sport-utilities in this class. On the open road, an independent front suspension and a solid-axle rear-end with Watts linkage nicely split the difference between truck-style brutishness and sedan-style civility. Venture off-road, and these suspension attributes provide a reasonably compliant ride, though a modest 7.9-inch ground clearance falls short of some competitors’.
The V-6-powered Durango is best avoided; its marginally better fuel efficiency is quickly outweighed by its general underhood inadequacy. The 4.7-liter V-8 is a worthwhile upgrade–a good deal more Durango-ready and just right for drivers who intend to use their SUV for commuting/shopping/people-moving as well as some light-duty towing and hauling. Serious users, however, should keep moving: The Hemi-powered Durango is the one for hard-core haulers. It’s decidedly quicker off the line and far more willing to transport everything plus the kitchen sink than its lesser brethren.
Those drawn to the Durango likely know what they’re getting themselves into: SUVs of this sort are heavy, bulky, and, even in their most basic form, thirsty. Of all Durangos, the Hemi-powered version is the true charmer, with a bounding, fun-to-drive demeanor that almost makes you forget how often you’re stopping at the pump. Proof that power has its price, a Hemi-powered, 4WD Durango will return a mere 13 mpg around town and 18 mpg on the highway–and only with a judicious right foot. Buyers without serious trailering requirements or off-road ambitions, especially those for whom the Durango’s array of clever interior features and user-friendliness hold the greatest attraction, may be better served by Dodge’s even-more-spacious (and far more easygoing) Caravan or Grand Caravan minivan, or by the upscale Chrysler Town & Country minivan. In choosing the right Durango configuration for you, look to the IntelliChoice Ownership Cost Value Ratings, as there are variances among trims and powertrains.
Merging impressive hauling and towing numbers with a high degree of user-friendliness, the Dodge Durango hits the sweet spot between mid- and full-size SUVs.
+ Optional 335-horsepower Hemi V-8
+ Smart, minivan-inspired creature comforts
+ Big-rig look radiates character and attitude
– Overworked base V-6 is best avoided
– Fuel economy, particularly with the Hemi V-8
– Big-rig look is a bit antisocial for some
Still fresh from its debut for model year 2004, the Durango rolls on with no substantial alterations. A new-for-2005 Adventurer model includes a host of outdoorsy fitments, unique aluminum wheels, a rubber cargo liner, tubular side steps, and a standard Thule rack with a choice of six connection systems.
Depending on trim level, Durango buyers can opt for such creature comforts as two-tone leather seating surfaces, power-adjustable pedals, Sirius satellite radio, and the innovative UConnect hands-free communication system, which features wireless integration with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system with a seven-inch fold-down display is also available, and one particularly worthwhile option on the Limited model is the excellent DVD-based GPS navigation system, which uses a tiny but easy-to-read, full-color display on the radio faceplate. Traction control and three-row side-curtain airbags are available on all Durangos, as are light- and heavy-duty tow packages and a skidplate package for off-roade