Greg Anderson, Contributor
This year, Dodge has finally decided to give Ford a run for its money. The ever-popular Explorer has been selling better than some carmakers' entire lineups, and it was beginning to make us wonder if anyone would ever step up to challenge Fords sport-utility sales crown. True, Chrysler tried to sic Jeep on them by introducing the Grand Cherokee, but even with a bigger engine and car-like unibody construction, the big Jeep just couldnt keep up.
Enter Dodge. Coming from a company that sells more trucks than cars, its no surprise that the Durango is derived from a truck platform: namely, the Dakota, from which it takes 80% of its parts. While everybody else has entered the SUV market with either a badge-engineered luxo-ute or a tiny car-based utility wagon, Dodge decided to mold its already popular Dakota into a full-fledged sport-utility vehicle, all the while keeping the classic power-truck Dodge Ram styling intact.
Steering feedback is excellent for a truck this size. The relatively small steering wheel telegraphs the road surface to the driver without feeling overly harsh. Through a turn, the balanced wheel cooperates easily, without rigidly tugging itself back to center yet never feeling loose. A leather steering wheel cover would have been a welcome option, though, because during our winter road test, that rubbery wheel rim froze like a giant teething ring.
The big 5.9-liter engine on our test truck played its part as if it were born to power a muscle car. Capable of 245 horsepower and 335 ft-lbs. of torque, the Magnum V-8 helps the Durango tow up to 7,000 lbs. Unladen, however, performance was rubber-smokingly abrupt. In fact, at every takeoff, whether climbing or descending a hill, we were able to arouse an enthusiastic squeal from the rear tires, often with enough torque left over to make some noise during the one-two shift. Not bad for a sport-ute. Not bad for a Ford Mustang, either. And equipped with the 5.9-liter V-8, the Durango goes from 0-60 in just over eight seconds.
Slowing down is another matter for the 4,736-lb. heavyweight. We were unable to measure exact distances, but stopping is nothing to scream about, unless youre one of the 31x10.50R15LT Goodyear Wrangler RT/S tires. The tires would regularly emit sharp yelps of pain, though the truck was equipped with rear-wheel ABS.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and its not afraid to stay in a higher gear and simply garner more torque rather than resort to an abrupt downshift. We never caught the tranny searching for the proper gear. And the ride is something else to boast about. Compliant and smooth, the Durangos frame is actually three times stiffer than its Dakota 4x4 sibling. And compared to the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, advertising for which brags a great deal about its smooth ride, the Durango is a luxury car.
Durango offers an excellent view of the road, the sidewalks and the traffic behind. Positioning the driver near the windshield, yet high enough above the hood to provide a commanding view of the countryside, the Durango instills confidence without isolating the driver from his or her surroundings.
Medicine cabinet-sized mirrors aid views to the side, but they are not the most aerodynamic feature and add plenty of wind noise at highway speeds. As a bonus, however, they could be used as an S.O.S. signal to aircraft should you ever run out of gas in the middle of the desert.
Running out of gas probably wont occur because of the trucks 25-gallon capacity fuel tank. However, after burning only 20 gallons, the red needle rested on "E". Maybe thats just to make sure you fill up often; the truck made it only 263 miles. EPA mileage estimates say that our test vehicle was capable of getting between 12 and 17 mpg. Our average mileage was a low 13.1, and that included mostly highway travel. Dont expect to save the planet while driving this sport-utility.
Headroom is adequate even for abnormally tall men, and there are no awkwardly-designed dash pieces to intrude on leg space. The roofline swoops upward two inches just behind the front seats, so even the rear ceiling-mounted climate controls and vents do not take up any noticeable space. The second row of seats is as comfortable to sit in as the first, with an appreciable amount of legroom even with the front seats all the way back. The third row, however, is adequate only for small people. Getting back there is no problem, since the second row folds out of the way, but the thin seat padding would cause some pain during extended use.
The second row seats fold down flat, or they can tumble into a small package for better storage and easier rear-seat entry. The rear seat cushion slides forward, filling a space on the floor, and the rear seats can then fold flat, creating a maximum 88 cubic feet of cargo space. Ive pitched smaller tents.
The Durango boasts an amazing nine cupholders, a number which seems to be in direct competition with most of todays minivans. Two are built-in beside the rear seats, two are in the second rows center armrest, two are near the floor in front of the second row seats, and three are up front between driver and passenger. And the triple-designed front cupholders include one big enough to hold a movie-sized container of popcorn. Obviously, the Durango was built with Americans in mind.
Noise, vibration and harshness are pleasantly subdued for something so truck-like, but you wont mistake the Durango for a passenger car. Wind noise comes from all around, as in any truck, and the intrusive roar of the tires is due to their sheer size. Engine noise, surprisingly, is not worth mentioning, except for a breathy growl upon cold startups. Then again, we all sound a little hoarse in the morning.
All in all, the Durango is a compact sport ute that feels much larger inside than the exterior would lead you to believe. Its not much taller than a minivan, but what minivan offers a 5.9-liter V-8? Or potential off-road prowess? And unlike any other SUV in this class, the Durango can hold up to eight people. Its like Dr. David Banner from the Incredible Hulk: mild mannered and unassuming, but powered by a raging fury beneath the surface. Bulging sheetmetal, while probably not the result of gamma radiation, is indicative of tasteful styling, and the Dodge Durango is something Chrysler Corporation can be proud of. Not strictly a family-hauler, and not made just for boulder-bashing the Durango is capable of anything.
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