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SAS'ed and Exo'ed Hemi Durango

Posted in Features on September 30, 2015
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Durangos and Dakotas of the '97-'03 era are great 4x4 platforms to start an off-road build with. They're easily affordable, and Dodge offered a V-8 powerplant in the midsize truck platform long before anyone else did. The frames are as wide as their fullsize counterparts (making it easier to swap on fullsize parts), and they're big enough for large adults to sit in. However, like most vehicles we like to build, there are some weaknesses. Firstly, they have '90s Dodge truck transmissions, which are loved by no one. And there was some ball joint recall on '00-later Dakotas/Durangos back in the day, but who's leaving the front suspension alone if you're building one? There were two Magnum V-8s offered (technically, they are three if you count the later generation 4.7L that replaced the 5.2L in 2000), and if you got the longer stroked 5.9L (gas), you suffered from head gasket issues more often than 5.2L owners did. Lastly, we've never heard anyone brag about their Magnum V-8's fuel economy. Even in a midsize truck, the Magnum V-8s were thirsty little dino juice drinkers, but anyone who's driven one will tell you that they are fun trucks with a lot of power to spare. And again, they're cheap—like less-than-$2,000-for-a-running-one cheap.

Steve Maxfield knows this only too well. He's built a number of Dodge 4x4s including some different Durango projects. Steve is the owner of Mega X2, makers of the six-door Ram and Super Duty conversions you might've occasionally seen in magazines or at shows. He and his stepson, Michael Smart, do the work out of their shop in Kanosh, Utah, turning regular crew cab trucks into six-door dreams for people with big families and/or large hauling needs. Being obviously familiar with vehicular customization and adaption, it's no surprise that Steve would know what to replace on a Durango platform, where to find the best parts, and how to do it as cost effectively as possible. That's how Steve came to build one of the sweetest Durangos we've ever seen with almost all stock Power Wagon parts from a wrecked truck. And we mean almost all stock parts; Steve's list of aftermarket parts consists of wheels, tires, winch, lights, hydraulic assist, and shocks. Everything else came from a Chrysler plant and custom work done by Steve and his stepson. That's half the reason that Steve Maxfield's DurWagon is so cool, setting aside the fact that this go-anywhere monster looks like more fun than we can shake four sticks at!

Specs

Vehicle: 2001 Dodge Durango
Owner: Steve Maxfield, Kanosh, Utah
Engine: 5.7L Hemi V-8
Transmission: Stock five-speed automatic (four gears plus overdrive planetary)
Transfer case: Stock Powerwagon
Front axle: Powerwagon AAM 9.25 with 4.56:1 gears and electric lockers
Rear axle: Powerwagon AAM 10.5 with 4.56:1 gears and electric lockers
Front suspension: Stock Powerwagon five-link welded onto Durango frame, including coil buckets and control arm mounts, 12-inch-stroke King 2.0 air shocks
Rear suspension: Stock Durango leaf spring with spring-over swap, 12-inch-stroke King 2.0 air shocks
Steering: Hydraulic-assist steering ram fed from ported Dodge steering box
Tires/wheels: 42-inch Pit Bull Rockers on 16 1/2-inch H1 HUMVEE beadlocks
Protection: Full belly skidplates made out of 3/16-inch steel, full 2-inch, 0.120-wall DOM exoskeleton, custom bumpers, and tire carrier integrated into exoskeleton
Other: Warn winch, bumper-mounted LED lightbar, roof-mounted LED lightbar, rock cameras connected to onboard monitor

The most noticeable change (aside from the 42-inch Pit Bulls and exoskeleton) in the frontend is the solid axle swap. Maxfield used a stock Power Wagon axle packed with 4.56 gears and the electric locker off a wrecked truck. The steering is modified and complimented, however, by a hydraulic ram-assist setup to help turn those massive tires. The front bumper is integrated into the exoskeleton and holds an electric Warn winch and three LED lights for night crawling.

The front five-link suspension is grafted on, directly from the Power Wagon, too. With the framerails of Durangos/Dakotas being almost the same width as the Power Wagon, Steve was able to retain stock geometry and reuse most parts of the stock short-arm suspension. Even the coil buckets from the Power Wagon were used, but 12-inch-stroke King 2.0 air shocks do control the damping now, though.

Under the hood lies a Hemi 5.7L engine, which was not stock equipment in a first-generation Durango but was in a Power Wagon. Integrating this engine and transmission package no doubt took more time than adding the Power Wagon axles and suspension, but it looks like it could've almost come from the factory this way—aside from the solid olive drab paint scheme.

The rear Power Wagon axle matches the front, with stock disc brakes, 4.56 gears, and an electric locker. Steve added a small truss over the pumpkin to attach a custom traction bar to keep the leaf-sprung suspension from twisting up. If you think the rearward-mounted LED lightbar under the body is slick, check out the tiny camera mounted on the truss over the pumpkin. That camera feeds back to a monitor inside the Durango.

The rear springs are stock Durango, but Steve has flipped the axle for a spring-over setup as opposed to the stock sprung-under setup original on the Durango. With the frame rails basically the same width as a Power Wagon's, Steve was able to simply bolt the 10 1/2-inch Power Wagon axle with new U-bolts and some small blocks after flipping the center pins. King shocks also reside under the rear of the Durango.

Full belly skidplates under the Durango are made of 3/16-inch plate steel. It definitely adds some weight, but it affords this Durango the ability to be driven over the absolute worst terrain possible with no fear of damage.

The entire exoskeleton is made out of 2-inch, 0.120-wall DOM tubing. Built into it are a spare-tire carrier, bumpers, and mounting tabs for a roof-mounted LED lightbar.

It is a bit hard to see out the back of a Durango on 42s with a giant spare tire sitting in the rear window, so Steve mounted a few different video cameras underneath the vehicle that feed to an overhead monitor that he can watch while he or Michael Smart maneuvers over rocks.

With a Hemi 5.7L engine adapted under the hood, there's enough power to churn those 42-inch Pit Bulls with the transfer case dropped in low range.

A spare Pit Bull tire resides on a custom tire carrier that Maxfield built into the exoskeleton. He's not expecting any problems with those 42-inch Rockers on HUMVEE beadlocks, but one can never be too prepared.

What's your tow vehicle look like? We're guessing it's not a six-door Mega Cab. It's amazing how small 37-inch tires look on a truck stretched that long!

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