Saturday, February 21, 2004

Super-sized and ready to roll

Revamped Dodge Durango drives as big as it looks

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

Dodge Durango

The new Durango is 7 inches longer, 3 inches wider and more than 3 inches taller than its predecessor.


Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels

What I drove: 2004 Dodge Durango Limited Hemi 2WD, four-door, seven-passenger sport-utility vehicle

Base price: $31,965

Price as tested: $38,090

Options on test vehicle: Trailer tow group, traction control, third-row split folding seat, side-impact airbags in front, head-curtain airbags for all rows, 3.92 axle ratio, Hemi Magnum 5.7-liter V8, power sunroof, heated front seats, running boards, Sirius satellite radio, UConnect hands-free phone system, rear-seat DVD system with wireless headphones.

Rating: mmmm

Summary: Super-size it. Durango moves into full-size territory

Drivetrain layout: Front-engine, rear-wheel drive

Engine: 5.7-liter Hemi Magnum V8 producing 335 horsepower and 370 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 119.2 inches

Length: 200.8 inches

Width: 76.0 inches

Height: 74.3 inches

Weight: 5,079 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 14/19

Warranty: Basic: 3 years/36,000 miles; powertrain: 7 years/70,000 miles; roadside assist: 7 years/70,000 miles.

Assembled in: Newark, Delaware

Safety: Dual-stage front airbags with occupant-sensing system, energy absorbing steering column, head restraints and three-point safety belts in all seating positions, LATCH child seat anchors, antilock brakes. Optional: front side-impact airbags, head curtain airbags for all three rows, traction control.

Cool: Hemi power, Ram-style exterior, handsome and roomy interior, hands-free phone system, adjustable pedals

Uncool: Abysmal fuel economy, bouncy ride

Accolades: MotorWeek’s “Driver’s Choice” award for best sport utility;” Detroit Free Press’ “Truck of the Year;” Truckin’ magazine’s “SUV of the Year;” “Best in Class” five-star rating from The Detroit News; named “Best Sport Utility” in the People’s Choice Award.

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After its 1998 introduction, the first-generation Dodge Durango was ready for a makeover. What had once been its trump card - a third-row seat that increased passenger space to seven or eight - was now commonplace among mid-size SUVs.

So what could Dodge do to make the Durango more appealing to the "young, active families" it sought?

Super-size it, of course.

As if taking their cues from the fast-food industry, Dodge designers not only made the Durango longer, taller and wider, they gave it three (more caloric) engine choices, and even put a "fast food" bin into the center console.

The new Durango is 7 inches longer, 3 inches wider and more than 3 inches taller than its predecessor, which effectively bumps it from a mid-size SUV to a full-size sport-ute. It's about the size of a Chevy Tahoe or a Ford Expedition.

With the third seat folded, Dodge says, the Durango has more cargo room than the Expedition, Tahoe or Toyota Sequoia. Cargo space has increased by 15 percent to 102.4 cubic feet.

The size increase didn't hit me until I had to hoist myself into my 2004 Durango tester. If it hadn't been for the optional running boards, I'd probably still be struggling to get in. I'm exaggerating, but my point is, the new Durango is big. The seats place you 1 inch higher than before, but it feels like a foot. When I pulled alongside a Toyota 4Runner on the freeway, I towered over it.

Hemi power

Even bigger news than the Durango's bigness is its newly available Hemi engine, a legendary, more efficient and powerful Chrysler design that's going to show up in lots of cars and trucks in the next few years. My test Durango had the hemi, which displaces 5.7 liters and generates 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. The hemi-powered, two-wheel-drive Durango can tow up to 8,950 pounds, which is a hefty load. The cost for all this grunt, however, is gas mileage to the tune of 14 mpg in the city and 19 mpg on the highway.

Families in less of a hurry have two less caloric and slightly less gas-consuming engines to choose from: a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 (16 mpg/city, 21 mpg/highway), and a 230-horsepower 4.7-liter V8 (15 mpg/city and 20 mpg/highway).

Refined styling

With its Dodge Ram-like front end and pronounced wheel arches, the new Durango looks snarlier than its predecessor. Move inside, and things get friendlier. The dashboard is handsome and rectilinear in design, with an eyebrow-like ledge hanging gracefully over the arched instrument panel. The controls on the center stack console are easy to use, and there are lots of bins and storage cubbies, including that aforementioned "fast food" bin.

The front seats are well bolstered, but I had trouble finding a comfortable driving position until I lengthened the optional power-adjustable pedals (so of course I recommend them). The second-row seats have ample leg and headroom, and they even recline, which is a relief to us adult backseat drivers, who occasionally like to snooze. The second seats fold and flip forward easily to provide access to the third-row seats, where accommodations are of the kid-sized variety.

Children will gladly sit in the way-back if you order the optional rear-seat DVD player with wireless headphones ($1,150). Other cool options include Sirius satellite radio ($325) and, later this year, a "UConnect" hands-free phone system with Bluetooth technology (no price yet).

Driving big

The Durango drives as big as it looks. After spending a month steering low-slung cars, I found the driving dynamics disconcerting at first. The steering felt slow-witted and required lots of hand-twirling for major turns. The brakes felt spongy, though Dodge says these new brakes (the same ones used on the Ram 1500 pickup), have decreased the Durango's 0-60 mph braking distances by 10 percent over the old model.

The Hemi engine had no trouble pushing the 5,079-pound Durango around town. This engine has lots of grunt, and a few times I screeched out of parking lots unintentionally. The hemi went about its business pretty discreetly, only making itself heard during heavy throttling.

On the freeway, the Durango had a tendency to wander, especially when I took my eyes off the road to adjust the air conditioner. During one stretch of slightly up-and-down roadway, the Durango got to bouncing so energetically, I felt like I was on a carnival ride. Maybe the Durango's solid rear axle with coil springs is to blame. The front suspension is independent, but most SUVs use that in the rear, too.

Prices on the new Durango (including destination charge) start at $27,210 for the rear-wheel-drive V6 model. A four-wheel-drive Limited with the 4.7-liter V8 starts at $34,900. The rear-wheel-drive Limited Hemi starts at $32,610. A four-wheel-drive Limited Hemi starts at $35,795.

These prices, Dodge says, are significantly lower than the 2003 Durango's prices. For instance, the new base model is about $1,000 cheaper than last year's base (but then a V6 engine wasn't offered last year, which explains some of the savings).

Domestic rivals charge higher prices for their rear-wheel-drive V8 SUVs. Chevy's rear-wheel-drive LT V8 Tahoe starts at $41,600, and Ford's rear-wheel-drive Eddie Bauer Expedition goes for $39,005.

Family get-away vehicle

Because of its size and weight, the Durango isn't well suited for daily jaunts around town. It's difficult to maneuver and park (speaking of which, it should be available with park assist beepers), and it burns through the petrol at a rapid rate.

But for on-the-go families who like to haul masses of humans and gear - and maybe even tow a boat - on weekend getaways, the Durango is very worthy of consideration. It even stops for fast food.

Contact Carol Traeger at

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