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Austin, Texas — Dodge’s new flagship SUV, the Durango, is NOT built from the Dakota compact pickup truck, and that’s the biggest part of this big SUV story from Dodge. For the first time, the Durango SUV derivative is built from the big Dodge Ram’s mechanicals, with its own fully boxed steel frame, its own front torsion bar and rear coil-spring suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and a wider range of engines, drive systems, and models.
For the Durango, this is a clear quantum leap into the future. For the parent company, this is an entirely new platform that will eventually yield a new Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as a new Chrysler SUV, all of which makes the substantial investment worthwhile. Dodge has made a $180 million investment in the Newark, Delaware, assembly plant in order to build lots and lots of new Durangos.
Sizing it up
For openers, the new Durango brings sheer size to the Dodge SUV. It measures seven inches longer, three inches wider and more than three inches taller than the old truck. The new one measures a generous 119.2 inches in wheelbase, 200.8 inches overall, 74.3 inches tall, and 76 inches wide, with a useable, workable load floor height of 33.2 inches. The distance between the wheelhouses in the rear cargo area has been increased by almost three inches to 48.4 inches for added carrying capacity. Minimum ground clearance for off-road use is 7.9 inches.
The new Durango’s powertrain range includes, for the first time in this model, the 210-hp, 235 lb-ft, 3.7-liter V-6 for 2WD versions only; the 230-hp, 290 lb-ft, 4.7-liter V-8 for 2WD or 4WD; and the mighty 335-hp, 370 lb-ft, 5.7-liter Hemi. The 3.7-liter is matched to a four-speed automatic; the 4.7-liter and 5.7-liter are mated to a new five-speed automatic transmission. With Hemi power, the Durango has the ability to tow up to 8950 lb. and offers seating for seven passengers, which the previous model could not and did not.
There’s more to the Durango powertrain story. The 3.7 V-6 Durango comes only in two-wheel drive, so there is no transfer case. There is a single-speed transfer case for 4.7 V-8 4WD models, and a two-speed optional for the 4.7-liter and standard with the 5.7 Hemi. The single-speed transfer case has two modes, all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive locked, while the two-speed version offers four-wheel-drive low, four-wheel-drive locked, four-wheel-drive high, four-wheel-drive high locked, and all-wheel-drive, with a 2.72 low-range ratio. In both cases, the engine torque is biased 48 percent front, 52 percent rear. These offerings dwarf what was available on the previous Durango, as does the new Durango’s sheer size and carrying capacity for people, cargoes, and towing.
The down side, of course, is weight and fuel mileage. The V-6 EPA number is 16 city, 21 highway; for the 4.7 it’s 14/19, and for the Hemi 4x4 its 13/18. The curb weights range from 4671 pounds for the 2WD V-6 to 5079 for the Hemi 4x4.
Folding, tumbling, taking on the big boys
Positioned against formidable competition that includes Ford’s Expedition, GM’s Tahoe and Yukon, Nissan’s new Armada, and the Toyota Sequoia, the new Durango is bigger inside than most of its competitors. With its third-row seat folded and middle row up, the way the majority of three-row-seating SUVs are driven, the 2004 Dodge Durango has more cargo room than the Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition, or Toyota Sequoia, and a total of 102.4 cubic feet with all seats stowed, 68.4 cubic feet with the third row stowed. The new design features what Dodge calls a Fold and Tumble third-row seat that disappears into the floor so that bulky cargoes can be slid in and out easily.
2004 Dodge Durango LimitedEnlarge Photo
The Durango is offered in three models, ST, SLT, and Limited, a name borrowed from Chrysler and Jeep, with each of the three engines available in several models so as not to tightly restrict the buyer or cost him or her money they don’t want or need to spend.
The ST 4x2 starts at $26,565, the 4x4 at $29,350. The SLT 4x2 is $28,805, and the 4x4 $31,590. The new Limited 4x2 is $32,610, and the top-of-the-line 4x4 Limited comes in at $34,900. All prices reflect a destination charge of $645.
Along with the longer, wider, stronger hydroformed and fully boxed steel frame, at the very front, under the skin, the Durango has a set of truly innovative tapered octagonal front frame rail tips that fold up into accordion pleats during a frontal impact and distribute crash energy around and under the passenger cabin. The Durango can also be equipped with optional side-curtain airbags that cover all three rows of seats, making it one of only a few sport-utility vehicles on the market to offer this feature. All-disc power brakes with ABS, and of course, all-wheel drive count as more standard safety equipment.
One of the knocks on the old Durango was that it wasn’t very spacious, and the space that was there was compromised in some ways. That’s all changed now. The rear doors on the new Dodge Durango now open very wide, swinging out to 84 degrees from the body, to provide easy ingress and egress, and the second row rear seats now offer an optional seatback recline feature. For the first time, the second row passengers have their own dedicated set of climate controls.
Using the new, larger interior space and three-inch-longer wheelbase to its full potential, Dodge has added more comfort and convenience features to the Durango. A new factory installed DVD system, with wireless headsets, can play MP3s and run all the popular video game systems. The Durango also features an available 384-watt stereo system with rear subwoofer and available Sirius satellite radio.
Available on the upmarket Limited models is a redesigned HVAC control panel that features an Automatic Temperature Control (ATC) climate control system that uses a dedicated microprocessor and an infrared sensor mounted in the overhead console to measure the temperature of the driver and the cabin. Durango II is also available with a sunroof for the first time and a hands-free communications system with Bluetooth technology that will be available later in the model year. The system can recognize up to seven different Bluetooth-equipped cellular phones and responds to voice commands, using a microphone in the rear-view mirror and the stereo system’s speakers for safer, hands-free operation.
The interior décor of the new Durango is of a completely different and much higher order than the outgoing model. There is much more luxury inside in terms of materials used and designs executed, from the instrument dials to the combination of metallics, plastics, and fabrics, with plastic dominant on the ST, wood interior trim on the SLT, and brushed metallic finishes on the new Limited model. The new four-spoke steering wheel is as chunky and brawny as the rest of the truck, a pleasure to touch and use, and fitted with redundant controls for the sound system as well as cruise control. There’s more head, hip, shoulder, and legroom than we would have thought possible, in every seating position except the cramped third row.
Raves from the road
Driving the Durango in the Texas Hill Country around Austin confirmed our favorable first impressions. The Durango makes a statement about Dodge’s large SUVs that’s about as subtle as the statement the Viper makes about sports cars, with its short nose, giant chromed grille, and short overhangs front and rear. It’s big, it’s bold, it holds a lot of people and a lot of stuff, but there is far more to it than that. With this new SUV, Dodge has achieved a much higher level of fit, finish, and operating quietness than we are used to, and that, of course, is mostly attributable to the new boxed frame and the way that both the powertrain and the body are isolated from it.
We drove all three engines during our time in Austin, and we would honestly not recommend the 3.7-liter V-6 and four-speed automatic combination, which comes only in two-wheel-drive, to anyone living in hilly or mountainous country and hauling heavy loads. The engine works awfully hard under these circumstances, and the transmission is downshifting constantly to compensate. We found the 4.7-liter V-8 more than adequate for all-around trucking, and the 5.7-liter Hemi more than enough to get the big jobs done. Both transmissions worked smoothly and quietly, regardless of the size of the engine in front of them.
This Durango is a really solid piece of equipment. All the doors and the tailgate operate with a pleasant thunk and not a hint of tinniness. Over-the-road quietness, smoothness and comfort were quite good in all versions, with some wind noise generated by the big outside rearview mirrors, but little other mechanical, powertrain, or tire noise intruding on those inside the big new cabin.
We found the combination of suspension, steering, and brakes very rewarding to use. The power rack-and-pinion steering is nicely weighted and properly assisted for the size and weight of the bigger Durango, with plenty of low-speed assist for maneuvering trailers into and out of tight spaces. The combination of torsion bar front suspension and a newly designed coil spring rear suspension with a Watts linkage to control lateral axle movement gives a really nice ride quality whether the truck is on dirt, rocks, or Interstate highway, and the big tires are not as noisy or whiny as you might expect on such a substantial machine.
Dodge has very good reason to walk around with their shirt buttons popping. This new Durango is the best thing to come out of Dodge Truck since the Ram pickup ten years ago, and the best Dodge SUV in the long and storied history of the division, bar none.
2004 Dodge Durango
Base Price: $26,565–$34,900
Engines: 3.7-liter V-6, 210 hp/235 lb-ft; 4.7-liter V-8, 230 hp/290 lb-ft; 5.7-liter V-8, 335 hp/370 lb-ft
Transmission: Four or five-speed automatic, rear- or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 200.8 x 76.0 x 74.3 in
Wheelbase: 119.2 in
Curb weight: 4671-5079 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 16/21–13/18 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution
Major standard equipment: A/C, power windows
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles basic, five years/60,000 miles powertrain