1999 Dodge Durango Road Test

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1999 Dodge Durango SUV

(5.2L V8 4-speed Automatic)

It was 15 years and change ago that my friend Anne and I would cruise the streets of L.A. in her flesh-colored (but with a hint of malaria) seventy-something station wagon. The thing had the interior space of an airport hanger, seating for the entire softball team and its fans (OK, the fan), and it went from zero to 60 in, well, I don't think the needle was ever able to make it there. But it didn't matter. We were styyyylin'. What's this have to do with the Dodge Durango? Well, as I slid inside our Chili Pepper Red test Durango, I was flooded with memories of being back in the ol' wonder wagon. Oodles of interior space and elbow room. Seating for eight (and legally, compared to the wagon). Stop-and-stare styling even two years after its introduction (yup, Anne's had this too).

But then I came to. The wagon had nothing on the Durango.

Dodge didn't mess around with its long-awaited SUV. It did what many manufacturers do, which is borrow an existing platform, and in this case it was the Dodge Dakota pickup, from which the aggressive front-end came as well. The taillights might also ring a bell (think Dodge Caravan), but where the Durango copies no other is in the power arena. It came out of the box with only Magnum V8 engines. None of this inline six or four-cylinder garbage-V8s only. Them's fighting words, Dodge! Sure, when you've got eight people strapped in, and there are no dietary restrictions, a V8 might seem like the only way to go, but we appreciate that Dodge didn't wimp out and offer something small. Take that, Ford Explorer.

Dodge has always maintained that the Durango is a "smart-sized" sport-ute. At the first chance we have, we jump on a marketing claim and try to prove it wrong. But with this one, we couldn't. The Durango is both garageable and a piece of pie to drive in traffic. We didn't feel overwhelmed, and we didn't overwhelm compact cars to the rear and side of us. We had to keep reminding ourselves that despite the mammoth inside, the outside was quite petite.

But is it humanly possible to use "comfort" and "many, many passengers" in the same sentence? With the Durango, yes. Mostly. Our test vehicle had front buckets, which left the first row quite spacious, but we can imagine that with the optional 40/20/40 split bench, it could get a little too close for comfort with three aboard on long trips. The middle row, which is a 60/40 folding bench, takes care of its occupants, including decent leg- and headroom, cupholders and a four-vent air-conditioning unit. The 4x4s have an optional third row at their disposal.

Getting in and out was actually easier than with most SUVs we've tried; many make it difficult to maintain a level of dignity as we stumble out of and claw into the vehicle. But the use of the third row (and the second and first, for that matter) was easy thanks equally to the Durango's pavement-hugging stance and the simple-to-use 40/20/40 fold-and-tumble second-row split bench. Just flip the lever (which is bright red so you can't miss it) and the seats bow and somersault for your entrance and exit. With three adults back there, legroom actually exists, and the raised roofline maintains headroom. But, we doubt that after a three-hour tour those same people would volunteer to continue with that seating arrangement. Kids, on the other hand, will have plenty of room to spare.

Yet here's the problem: You're not going to be able to take the entire family and spare relatives on a multi-day road trip, let alone to the airport. When the Durango is full of passengers, the cargo area can fit two full-size suitcases and mini-totes, but not much more. We didn't whip out the tape measure, but Dodge says that with the third row folded, you get 51.3 cubic feet of storage, and with the second and third rows folded, there's 88. With all seats upright, you get a miniscule 18.8 cubic feet. So, you can either pack really, really light or have an excuse for leaving the in-laws out of the Wally World plans.

There are a couple of other problems with the interior, mainly wind noise and squeaks. While visibility was quite good, especially the over-the-shoulder preview, the optional foldaway, heated side mirrors were reminiscent of Pamela Anderson Lee-pre-op. Their, um, bodacious 6x9-inch size made for a ton of wind whistle on the freeway and provided the only real visibility problem; they blocked our view of pedestrians in crosswalks. But, the large mirrors helped one driver avoid a near-miss with a Volkswagen Cabrio, and, after all, the mirrors are pretty excellent add-ons for towing.

But back to the gripes: The power window switches were a bit stiff, there were complaints of a thin and flimsy shift lever, the window sills were too high, and we could have done without the squeaking from the seatbacks on the second row. And why on earth would anyone need their Durango to have up to 25 cupholders? But the rest of the interior was trouble-free, including everything from the comfy leather/suede-insert seats and useful six-way power driver-seat switches (standard on the SLT varieties) to the familiar and simple Dodge-truck instrument panel and behind-wheel audio controls.

There was one other noise that disturbed the cabin solace: the roar of the mechanical fan. While the 5.2-liter engine was pretty quiet when pushed and during idle, the fan let out a burrrrrr that made us feel pity, as though the Durango was being taxed. Maybe it was, because for 2000, only the two-wheel-drives have access to this motor. For the new year, the 4x4s inherit the ever-popular Jeep Grand Cherokee's 4.7-liter V8 as their standard engine, while a 5.9-liter remains the option for both, except with the Sport trim level. We found the 5.2-liter to be a potent engine, but it did seem to deliver a pregnant pause when the pedal was mashed. We stopped doing that, though, not because of the delayed reaction in throttle response, but because we quickly learned to be more conservative after discovering it guzzled gas like it had 25 cupholders, er, gallons to empty. The 4.7-liter should provide improved fuel economy.

Our 5.2-liter was connected to a four-speed automatic that had a few incidences of missing downshifts. For 2000, this particular gearbox is available only as an option for SLTs with the 5.9-liter, while a multi-speed automatic tranny is standard for the 5.2-liter and 4.7-liter.

Around town, performance, handling and ride quality were pretty free of criticism, and while the brakes felt mushy, they halted the SUV when called upon. The Durango seemed solid and robust, and it took dips well. But on the freeway, catching a bump or a crack was rough. The Durango's frame is three times stiffer than the Dakota's, and this became very apparent when the road got more aggressive. The double-wishbone with torsion-bar front suspension and the rear suspension's solid axle with leaf springs seemed to soak up the street when darting around town, but at speed the ride was harsh and, well, stiff. Not a good sign for how it would do off-road.

Because of the low ground clearance (and lack of tow hooks), we kept the Durango away from the 4-Lo position in the full-time transfer case, tackling only a dirt and gravel road and some tame whoop-de-doos. But it bucked too much on each whoop, forcing us to tap the overly assertive optional four-wheel ABS before every single one. Yet Dodge's emphasis has never been on the Durango's on-dirt capabilities. Towing has been one of the best-kept secrets of the Durango--it has a whopping 7,600-pound capacity. Make sure you do yourself a favor and step up to the 5.9-liter if towing is in the cards. All 2000 Durangos have a rack-and-pinion steering system, but our '99 tester ran the power recirculating-ball setup, which we found to exhibit an outstanding turning radius and a fairly small on-center dead spot.

Realistically, the Durango isn't a vehicle someone is going to buy for its zero-to-60 numbers. And truthfully, the ride quality is going to be just fine for those who end up owning it. The Durango is obviously more about escorting the family around than it is about how it performs on the Autobahn, which is why the two biggest concerns you should have are the serious fuel consumption and the less-than-stellar crash-test scores.

Now, after reading all this, you might think the Durango is designed for the same potential buyers poking around the Expedition and Toyota Land Cruiser. But minivan shoppers beware: The Durango has three rows of seating, functionality, practicality and V8 power. Plus, it's better looking than any minivan around, and it's priced right too (for an SUV!). Yes, it's true: Good things come in small packages. Except for that ol' wonder wagon.

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