Full 2003 Dodge Durango Review
What's New for 2003
Entry-level Sport model gets bigger wheels (16s versus last year's 15s) and all Durangos now have four-wheel disc brakes. Inside, you'll find a six-disc CD changer as a new option. A redesign is due for 2004.
Back in 1998, if you wanted eight-passenger capability in an SUV, it meant having to step up to a full-size beast, such as a Ford Expedition or GMC Suburban. Smelling an opportunity, Dodge designed its Durango SUV to fill the gap between midsize SUVs and their larger brethren.
The Durango offered a third seat that the Explorers and Blazers of the day didn't. The Durango was (and still is) based on the Dakota and shared many components, including chassis, powertrain, some body panels and many interior pieces. Power came from either a standard 5.2-liter V8 or an optional 5.9-liter V8, and all first-year Durangos had four-wheel drive.
As the years went on, a two-wheel-drive version became available, a more efficient 4.7-liter V8 replaced the old 5.2, a sporty R/T model debuted, the cabin was redesigned and curtain-style side airbags became optional.
Now the Durango faces a number of freshly redesigned or new challengers, such as the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT and Honda Pilot. All have third-row seats as well as more refined cabins. But this truck-based sport-ute doesn't try to be all things to all people and makes no apologies for its somewhat tougher character. With its class-leading towing and hauling capabilities, the Durango remains a solid choice for folks who need plenty of seating and serious hauling capacity in their midsize-ute.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
Five versions of the Durango are offered: entry-level Sport, well-equipped SXT, luxury SLT, even plusher SLT Plus and the muscular R/T. For most folks, the SXT will be sufficient, equipped as it is with popular features such as a CD player and roof rack along with the Sport's standard fare that includes air conditioning, alloy wheels and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
Powertrains and Performance
All Durangos can be had with either two- or part-time four-wheel-drive, except the R/T, which comes only as a full-time four-wheeler. SLT models, however, do offer the full-time system as an option. The standard power plant for all but the R/T is the contemporary 4.7-liter V8 that pumps out 235 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. Teamed with a five-speed automatic, this engine furnishes crisp throttle response with power accessible from a broad rev range. The 5.9-liter V8 (245 horsepower, 335 lb-ft) is standard on the R/T and optional on the SLTs; it comes paired with a four-speed automatic gearbox. Both engines like their gasoline; we've noticed that either one seems hard-pressed to average more than 13 mpg.
The Durango is ready to work, with maximum payload and towing capacities that, at 1,770 and 7,550 pounds, respectively, outmuscle the competition.
Side curtain airbags (that provide protection for the head and upper torso in side-impact collisions) are available, a feature that's rare in this class. In terms of crash tests, the Durango scored four (out of five) stars in frontal impacts and rated "Acceptable" (which is tantamount to three out of four stars) in frontal offset tests. There is no side-impact data available.
Interior Design and Special Features
Anyone familiar with the Dodge Dakota should feel right at home in the Durango, as the two share most cabin components, such as the dash and seat designs. What this means is large gauges and simple controls and, in lower trim levels, a somewhat bland decor. All but the Sport and SXT come with a third-row seat that increases passenger capacity to seven. On the SLT, a front bench seat is available, which would allow up to eight to ride in a Durango.
In terms of handling dynamics, body roll is well controlled and, with the help of responsive, tight steering, the Durango can run through twisty two-lane roads with confidence, sans the tippy feeling that some other utes are plagued with. And even when carrying a full load of passengers, the suspension handles the burden with little effort, providing an excellent ride without bottoming out on bigger bumps. As far as power, the smaller V8 is fine, and along with the alert automatic gearbox, provides brisk all-around performance for this 4,500-pound SUV.