2004 Dodge Durango

    A sneak peek at what could be another Dodge milestone

    Ken BrubakerPhotographer, Writer

    The Dodge family has always been light on SUVs, and the company's present lineup contains just one. This makes one stop and ponder: Why hasn't Dodge saturated its product line with hot-selling SUVs? The answer could be in this new Durango: Do one thing. Do it well. Make milestones.

    Things we've always liked about the Durango include its full-frame construction, growly V-8 engine, durable transmission, no-nonsense interior styling and not-too-big/not-to-small size. The good news is that all of these notable attributes of the previous Durango not only are retained, but are improved upon in this new Durango. In order, the rig sports an all-new hydroformed and fully boxed frame that follows a formula similar to that of the '02 Dodge Ram. This means far stiffer sections that contribute to crisper and more precise steering and handling. Under the hood, the four-wheel-drive versions come standard with a 230hp 4.7L V-8 engine or an optional 5.7L Hemi V-8 that generates 330 hp. If you choose the Hemi, you'll be getting 85 more horsepower under your right foot and a 10-percent fuel-efficiency improvement over the previous range-topping Durango V-8. No matter which engine you choose, you'll find it bolted to the 5-45RFE five-speed automatic transmission that features a dual-ratio Second gear and Tow/Haul mode. The Durango's all-new interior continues its predecessor's simple functionality without being gaudy. The interior is also larger, due to a lengthened wheelbase. With the third-row seat folded and middle row up, Dodge says the new Durango has more cargo room than Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia. Finally, even though the new Durango has grown by 7 inches in length, 3 inches in height and 3 inches in width, it continues to be not too big and not too small.

    Under the Durango is where things get even more interesting. We were pleased to see that the four-wheel-drive versions retain a solid rear axle with an 8 ¼-inch ring gear. Engineers say this was in the interest of improved durability, payload capability and best-in-class towing capacity. The new Durango does deviate from leaf-spring doctrine, however, and now uses coil springs. The rear also uses a Watts link, which centers the axle and reduces rear-end skate over rough surfaces. The Watts link also requires less space above the axle than some other axle-locating systems might, so it allowed engineers to lower the cargo floor, allowing for a large 48-inch opening between the rear wheelwells. In the front, a high-pinion 8 ½-inch ring-gear differential is used. The high-pinion diff helps create the clearance needed for the tight-fitting rack-and-pinion steering. Finally, in a bit of parts-bin engineering, the disc-brake system from the Ram 1500 was fitted to the Durango, and it reduces 60-0 braking distances by 15 feet as compared to the previous Durango.

    During several hours of driving time, we had the opportunity to experience both 4.7- and 5.7-powered Durangos on-highway. The 4.7L engine performed adequately, but we preferred the strong pull of the 5.7L engine. The vehicle exhibited a very refined ride that was the polar opposite of the previous-generation Durango. Handling, too, was vastly improved, and now seems on par with that of many passenger cars. The new suspension not only generated an amazingly smooth ride, but it performed exceptionally well on high-speed twisty Tennessee mountain roads. These characteristics, coupled with the vehicle's lengthy list of upgrades to substantially improve noise, vibration and harshness, made it very enjoyable to pilot.

    Trail performance was slightly superior to that of most mass-produced SUVs. During testing on a specially prepared off-highway course, we found that the Durango's NV244 transfer case toggled easily between the full-time four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive/lock and four-low settings. The respectable crawl ratio of 31.99:1 allowed us to creep over obstacles and enjoy good compression braking. The optional low-speed traction-control system that monitors wheel slip at each wheel and modulates brake actuation to maintain traction works well, but the best part is that Dodge remembered a traction-control cancellation button. More than 8 inches of wheel travel helped the wheels stay in contact with the dirt. Strong tow hooks, rated at 10,000 pounds, reside at the front of the vehicle. Less impressive was the vehicle's poor approach angle and lack of a limited-slip differential as an option.

    Finally, there's the Durango's new styling. Dodge claims it combines the DNA of the original '46 Dodge Power Wagon with the Power Wagon Truck Concept and the Power Box Concept to deliver a modern execution of a Dodge SUV. We think it looks like someone threw a PT Cruiser, Town & Country minivan and an aardvark into a blender. The result isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's definitely edgy. Clearly, this cutting-edge, not-afraid-to-try-anything exterior design has become a DaimlerChrysler trademark to which the buying public has responded.

    After spending some time with the new Durango, it's clear that it's in a class by itself. Its remarkable driveability mimics that of passenger cars and its utilitarian flexibility is on par with minivans. Mix those attributes with its two-speed transfer case and Hemi engine, and it looks like Dodge has a player.

    Check It Out If:

    Your needs scream minivan, but your wants scream V-8 SUV.

    Avoid It If:

    You need a vehicle with a high approach angle.