A different Durango

Friday, December 26, 2003

Birds do it. Dogs do it. People do it. Why shouldn't Dodge do it? Why shouldn't Dodge try to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack? There are dozens of SUVs out there. Ford builds five different SUVs. Chevy has as many. Even Buick has two different SUVs. Then there are all the imports. Dodge, with just one SUV, has got to be different.

The Dodge Durango is different! Bigger than the best-selling Explorer, but smaller than the popular Tahoe, the Durango is positioned to appeal to both mid-size and the full-size SUV purchasers. But the Durango is more than just a little bit bigger, or a little bit smaller, depending on your viewpoint. It's also an excellent traveling machine and a good off-roader -- two traits that are nearly impossible to combine into one vehicle. Dodge did it by giving the Durango a compliant suspension for a nice highway ride, and a low-range transfer case, good ground clearance and exceptionally short overhang at the front and rear for good off-road capability.

What it is

The Dodge Durango is all new for 2004. When it first appeared in 1998 it immediately attracted a loyal following, and the new version continues the basic styling cues. But it has been "biggie sized." The new Durango is 7 inches longer, 2 inches wider and more than 3 inches taller than its predecessor, which places it in the "full-size" category, among such notables as Chevy Suburban, Ford Expedition, and Toyota Sequoia -- all larger, heavier, and more expensive vehicles. How does the Durango stack up?

Initial impression

After living with the Durango for 24 hours I can tell you everyone who saw it was impressed with its looks. Bold, aggressive -- whatever you want to call it, it appeals to men and women alike. Nothing else looks like it. The front end carries over the daring styling of the old Durango, but the sides and tail end are new. Dodge calls the new taillights "afterburners," and I can't think of a better description.

Inside are three rows of seats to accommodate seven passengers. A ceiling-mounted DVD player is available, as is just about every other option you can think of. There's a lot of room in here -- a lot more than any mid-size SUV, more than some full-size units. Dodge designed the Durango with 48.4 inches between the wheel wells to easily fit building materials or large boxes. There are three trim levels -- ST, SLT and the Limited. The base ST comes standard with power windows, locks and mirrors; air conditioning; an AM/FM/CD stereo and cruise control. My test unit is the SLT, and it has some nice touches such as wood grain paneling, white-faced gauges, a power driver seat, rear air conditioning, fog lamps and a third-row seat that folds flat into the floor. The front seats are firm and very comfortable, providing good thigh support and nice lumbar bolstering. The middle row offers adequate legroom and reclining seat backs.

On the road

When I picked up the Durango from Auffenberg Dodge my salesman told me there was a Hemi-head engine under the hood, and my thoughts went back to those tire-smoking Dodge Challengers of the 1960s. Relax Leadfoot -- you won't be smoking tires in this new Durango. Although there are 345 eager ponies under the hood, they are always coupled to all four wheels. All four-wheel-drive Durangos are full-time four-wheel-drive. There's a knob on the dash that toggles between four wheel drive and low range, but you can't select two-wheel-drive. Those of you who don't like to play in the mud can order a two-wheel drive Durango, and save a few bucks in the process. But be forewarned -- resale value will suffer.

I'm not into abusing animals, but I have to admit it's fun to whip the horses in the new 5.7-liter Hemi Durango. This vehicle can tow a whopping 8,700 pounds, or carry you up the interstate with ease while getting 18 miles per gallon. The ride is quiet and composed, even over rough railroad tracks -- which we drove over twice just to make sure our impression was correct. The rear axle is suspended above coil springs, and the front suspension features aluminum alloy components that are 50 percent lighter than cast-iron pieces. A new five-speed automatic transmission is standard on any of the three available engines. I didn't have the opportunity to test Durango's off-road capabilities, but the automotive press gives it excellent marks.

At $36,040, as equipped with the Hemi engine, heavy-duty trailer towing package and numerous other luxury features, the new Durango will give the competition fits. Throw in the Ram's superior 7-year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty, and you've got the competition by the horns.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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