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Published: 05/10/2004 - by Erin Riches, Deputy Editor
Anyone who has seen Dodge's commercial spots for the 2004 Durango knows that this sport-utility vehicle offers a smooth ride, a powerful "Hemi" V8 and an adorable tyke strapped into its spacious backseat. And what more reason do you need to buy one? Clearly, there's enough room to carry the whole family to Six Flags in comfort and enough power to get home fast before war breaks out in the second row.
Dodge picked up on this delicate balancing act sooner than most manufacturers, as the original Durango was the first midsize SUV that gave buyers both a fold-flat third-row seat and multiple V8 engine options when it was introduced for 1998. It also had stable handling for a truck-based vehicle of its time, not to mention handsome styling. This combination proved popular with buyers, and Ford, GM and Toyota have copied it with great success. When it came time to redesign the Durango, DaimlerChrysler executives knew they needed an extra edge to fend off truck-based peers like the Explorer, TrailBlazer EXT and 4Runner, as well as car-based alternatives like the Honda Pilot so they made it bigger.
How much bigger, you ask? Big enough. Compared to the original, the new Durango is over seven inches longer (with a three-inch-wheelbase stretch), almost six inches wider and about two inches taller. Maximum cargo capacity has gone from 88 cubic feet in the old model to 102 cubic feet. For reference, the Dodge is about 10 inches longer and 600 pounds heavier than the average midsize SUV (GM's extended-length midsize 'utes take exception here). Put it up against the full-size set and the Durango comes in a few inches longer than a Chevrolet Tahoe, a few inches shorter than a Toyota Sequoia and a couple inches narrower than either. It's also about 200 pounds lighter than the average full-size bruiser. Although it hasn't filled out in all directions, the Durango is now more of a "large" than a "medium." And according to Dodge's specs, passengers can look forward to one to two extra inches of head-, shoulder, hip- and legroom in just about every row.
Fortunately, the extra inches and pounds don't feel like flab, as the '04 Durango is built on a new hydroformed frame that's considerably stiffer than the one its predecessor shared with the Dakota pickup. This allowed engineers to fine-tune the Durango's ride and handling characteristics to a greater degree making it even better-suited for a life on pavement. At the same time, they didn't compromise in areas that might have diminished the nameplate's true truck character: This is still a body-on-frame SUV with a solid rear axle the best setup for towing and it still offers respectable ground clearance (8.7 inches) for medium-duty off-roading.
More muscle certainly doesn't hurt when you're carrying an additional 300 pounds, and the 335-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V8 lives up to the advertising hype and delivers explosive thrust from low rpm on up. Our four-wheel-drive Limited test vehicle was optioned with the shorter 3.92 rear axle ratio (3.55 rear gears are standard), which further accounted for its eager response off the line. Thusly equipped, our 5,100-pound Durango shot past other vehicles when entering freeways and zipped around dawdling motorists without ever breaking a sweat. Although you might expect an engine of such reserves to have a brutish personality, the opposite is true: The Hemi only gets noisy at higher rpm, and once the Durango reaches cruising speed, it settles quietly into the background. We weren't able to conduct our usual instrumented acceleration testing, but you can be sure that a Hemi-equipped Durango is one of the fastest utility vehicles in its price range.
Not only does the Hemi motor provide more driver satisfaction than last year's underachieving 5.9-liter V8, it's better for towing as well: The Durango can accommodate trailer weights of up to 8,950 pounds (8,750 in 4x4 form), which puts it ahead of all but the biggest of the big the Nissan Armada, three-quarter-ton versions of the Chevy Suburban/GMC Yukon XL and the Ford Excursion. Notably, the Dodge's tow rating comes in just 50 pounds ahead of Ford Expedition's 8,900-pound max, evidently the benchmark DCX was determined to surpass.
A five-speed automatic transmission is standard with the Hemi, and the unit in our test vehicle shifted smoothly in all situations. It occasionally seemed a little hesitant to downshift in part-throttle situations on uphill grades, but not enough to be bothersome. One thing that did annoy us was the lack of manual access to the lower gears. A button for the tow/haul mode has taken up residence on the end of the column shifter, and there are only detents for first and second gears we would have liked the option to select third and fourth as well, especially when descending steep, winding roads in one particular wooded neighborhood.
Noting that most SUV buyers are looking for all-weather capability rather than all-terrain prowess, Dodge equips 4WD Durangos with a simple single-speed transfer case (that is, "4 Hi") enough traction to get you through a snowstorm. Those who really need low-range ("4 Lo") gearing for boat ramps and off-roading can get a dual-range transfer case as a $195 option. Either way, power goes to all four wheels in a 48/52 front-rear split when you're driving on dry pavement; there's no longer a rear-drive mode ("2 Hi").
Regrettably, fuel consumption is still excessive by any reasonable standards and a legitimate concern for anyone with household bills to pay. With the Hemi under the hood, 4WD Durangos earn a 13 mpg city/18 mpg highway EPA rating (14/19 for 2WD). Although Dodge notes that this is a 10-percent improvement over the 5.9-liter's rating, our Hemi-fed 4x4 test vehicle averaged only 13.8 mpg over 400 miles of real-world driving. Compare that to the 13.2 mpg we got in a 5.9-equipped Durango two years ago and you can understand why we weren't too impressed. Further, with gas prices being what they are this spring, we spent $125 to keep our '04 model running for one week. If the Hemi-powered '05 Jeep Grand Cherokee can get the Multi-Displacement System, which cuts fuel consumption by allowing the vehicle to run on four cylinders in undemanding driving situations we see no reason why the Durango shouldn't have it either.
If you don't want to go the Hemi route, you can choose from last year's 230-hp, 4.7-liter V8 and a 210-hp, 3.7-liter V6. The 4.7-liter has long been a favorite of ours, as it provides strong performance while delivering better mileage than larger V8s. However, in this case, its EPA ratings are little different from those of the Hemi (14/18 on 4x4s, 14/19 on 4x2s), and with the Durango's extra curb weight, you shouldn't expect a serious savings at the pump. Meanwhile, the V6 is available on two-wheel-drive ST and SLT models. Its 16 city/21 highway mileage figure is much better, but in our First Drive, we found the acceleration barely adequate.
Although we weren't exactly content with our test vehicle's power-to-fuel consumption ratio, its ride and handling characteristics left us with no such doubts. Its size may have swelled, but the Durango gets around corners with much the same agility as a midsize Explorer or 4Runner. Faced with a series of sweeping turns, the Dodge easily hits its stride. Body roll is present but predictable, and the vehicle has an overall balanced feel. The steering is accurate and nicely weighted, which makes the Durango easy to place in said turns. The wheel feels solid in your hands at speeds above 50 mph yet is easy to manage in the parking lot.
When you're cruising around town or on the highway, the ride quality is smooth and comfortable, and the solid rear axle only makes its presence known when the tires encounter midcorner bumps or particularly rough pavement. The cabin is well insulated from road noise at high speeds; wind noise comes through at moderate levels.
To keep up with the Durango's extra weight, engineers installed the braking system from the full-size Ram truck which includes standard ABS with off-road logic and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution to distribute braking effort among the wheels. It took our author a day or two to get used to the brakes, as the pedal felt a bit vague and unresponsive at the top of its travel. Once she had acclimated to the Durango's dynamics, though, she had no complaints about its braking performance in everyday traffic. Other editors needed no such adjustment period, as they commented that the brakes felt solid and reassuring from the outset.
Our test vehicle wore an all-season set of 265/65R17 Goodyear Wranglers, and besides being quiet on pavement, these tires were versatile enough to accommodate our casual off-road excursion down a trail with sand, rocks, ruts and the occasional muddy wash. Like its predecessor, the '04 Durango is quite at home in this environment, and even with its size increase, it's not too big for your average two-track trail. The suspension offers plenty of travel and succeeds in filtering out all but the largest ruts. Although well-weighted for street driving, the steering still offers plenty of slack for the subtle inputs that are required in off-road situations. Our test vehicle was equipped with the optional traction control system, which monitors slip at the individual wheels. The system went about its business without intruding too much, though Dodge has provided a deactivation switch for drivers who want a little more wheel slide. Stability control is not available on the Durango, an oversight in our opinion given that most of its competitors offer this important safety feature.
The original Durango wasn't known for its flair in the interior design department. Its successor is still more functional than stylish in this regard, but clean lines and tasteful details in the cabin at least make it an enjoyable place to spend time. We were particularly fond of the large white-faced gauges. They're easy to read regardless of the light conditions, and the turquoise backlighting looks great at night.
As far as equipment goes, entry-level ST models come with the basics full power accessories, air conditioning and a four-speaker stereo with a CD player. Midlevel SLTs offer more features that larger families are likely to want, including a third-row seat and a separate rear air conditioner, along with a power driver seat, faux wood accents and body-color bumpers on the outside. Limited models like ours pile on leather upholstery, automatic climate control (for the front only), a 384-watt Infinity stereo with an in-dash CD changer, adjustable pedals, memory settings for the driver seat and an auto-dimming feature for both the rearview and driver-side mirrors. One thing you won't find on this list is a roof rack. Yes, the SLT and Limited come with roof rails, but without adjustable crossbars, you won't be able to secure anything to them.
Oddly enough, the ritzy Limited has sporty faux aluminum accents rather than the expected fake wood. Editors expressed fondness for the trim, including one driver who wrote that this is "the closest plastic will ever come to replicating actual aluminum." Opinions were mixed on the desirability of the leather upholstery, which one editor panned as "average quality with cheap-looking stitching," while another appreciated the smoothness of the Durango's hide. Soft-touch door tops gave us a decent spot to rest an elbow, but the hard plastic dash found favor with no one. Plastics used elsewhere in the cabin were equally unimpressive, but designers did succeed in matching the grain patterns.
However, the fit and finish on our test vehicle could not be considered a success. Editors reported that the Durango had a sturdy feel overall, but there was no way around the fact that the left side of the dash was literally coming apart at the seams. We examined the rest of the cabin and found several more misaligned panels. Additionally, many of the hard plastics had flashing left over from the molding process along their edges. Finally, every time we got in and out of the vehicle, the doors squeaked ostensibly because their hinges were rubbing against their rubber seals. If you're considering a Durango purchase, we recommend that you look the vehicle over thoroughly before driving away in it.
Squeaky doors aside, getting into the Durango was largely a pleasant experience, as the optional running boards provided a wide, secure foothold for drivers of short and medium height. Even taller owners may find them useful when securing cargo to the roof of the vehicle that is, assuming you get some crossbars for the rails. Once inside, the broad, flat front captain's chairs should allow drivers of all sizes to get comfortable. Hip room and foot room are particularly generous. In spite of their flat cushions, the seats are supportive enough to accommodate a day's worth of driving with minimal occupant discomfort. Those with bad backs may not like them, though, as the adjustable lumbar is too high up on the back cushion to provide effective support. The steering wheel does not offer telescope adjustment, but there are adjustable pedals for shorter drivers. Visibility from the driver seat is much better than it was in the old Durango, but there are still no rear parking sensors to help you avoid backing over your kids' bikes.
The second-row quarters were a little disappointing. The seat itself is well designed, as the bench is high off the floor and angled upward to provide excellent thigh support for adults. The back cushions are a bit flat, but a recline feature for the outboard sections of the 40/20/40-split bench seat should allow most occupants to get comfortable. The center "20" section doesn't recline but can be folded forward to provide a center armrest when only two passengers are aboard. Our biggest concern is legroom. It's average to begin with and downright tight when someone in front has the seat all the way back. What's more, the hard plastic on the front seat backs is uncomfortable against the knees and shins and prevents occupants from taking full advantage of the foot room under the front chairs. If the second-row seats had an adjustment fore and aft, this would be a much more useful vehicle for families with older children. We used the Durango to haul around adults, all of whom complained about the tight quarters in back. Over and over, we heard our tall-statured relatives grumble, "For a vehicle this large, you'd think it would have more space on the inside." After a long weekend of this, we concluded that despite its larger size, the '04 Durango is best suited for shorter individuals and families with small children.
There is, however, plenty of legroom in the third-row seat that many families will use only on an occasional basis. The second-row seats do a nifty fold-and-flip maneuver to allow children easy access to the rearmost seats. And believe us, this two-passenger seating area is suitable only for children the bench is diminutive in size and one of the smallest we've ever come across in an SUV with third-row seating. If your kids are over four feet in height, the third-row seat in the Sequoia, or even the Explorer, is likely to be a better fit for them. Safety at least is not in doubt as all Durangos can be equipped with side curtain airbags that provide coverage for all three rows of seating as a $495 option.
A single-piece third-row seat is standard in SLT and Limited models, but Dodge charges only $150 to upgrade to a 50/50-split folding seat. Our test vehicle had the standard seat and after trying it, we'd highly recommend you spend the money on the 50/50 seat. One obvious advantage is the greater flexibility you'll have for seating passengers and stowing cargo. Less apparent is the split-folding seat's superior design. In order to fold our single-piece bench into the floor, we first had to fold up the seat bottom that's not an easy maneuver to perform from outside the vehicle and we ended up having to climb in to do it. In contrast, each section of the 50/50 seat should fold right into the floor (without having to wrestle with the seat bottom), according to the Durango's owner's manual. To us, that convenience is well worth the expense.
The other thing we noted about our test vehicle's fold-flat third-row seat was that it didn't actually provide a flat load floor something several of its competitors can legitimately claim. Of course, it's tough to argue with all the capacity you get in the Durango 20.1 cubic feet behind the third-row seat and 68.4 cubic feet behind the second row. As in Honda's Pilot, there's about four feet of clearance between the wheel wells, so you can make use of all of the available space.
One of the cabin's greatest assets is its simple control layout. The climate and stereo controls employ an all-new design (the same one you'll find in the '05 Magnum) that emphasizes large finger-friendly knobs and buttons. The climate control system has a large legible display and is exceptionally easy to use. The stereo head unit incorporates a tuning knob (finally!) and it's easy to navigate the various functions. Alas, Dodge is hanging on to an annoying two-stage preset procedure for radio stations, but the company's back-of-the-steering-wheel secondary audio controls remain the best in the business and are especially useful with satellite radio. The window buttons offer an auto-down feature only for the driver, but they're a lot easier to use than the previous design.
Our test vehicle was equipped with a DVD entertainment system for the rear seats. Sound quality is excellent no matter what movie you have in the player, as it's routed through all nine speakers of an excellent Infinity audio system (see our stereo evaluation for more). Clever designers created a compartment for the remote control in the flip-down screen unit, so that you never have to worry about losing it. Additionally, on-screen menus allow rear passengers to listen to the stereo (via the wireless headphones) when they're not watching a movie.
Storage is a mixed bag in the Durango. Up front, there's a collection of rubber-lined slots in the center console that can handle any amount of cell phones, wallets, snacks and sunglasses you happen to have with you. But in the second row, storage provisions are limited to a single map pocket one pair of wireless headphones has to live in the cupholder unit (not a very secure location for this vital keep-the-kids-quiet device).
As you can probably tell, we're not convinced that the Durango is the perfect family SUV. It needs more legroom and storage in the second row, along with a real roof rack, stability control and rear parking sensors. Better-quality plastics and a longer stay in the quality assurance department wouldn't hurt, either. And we certainly wouldn't complain if the Hemi V8 got better mileage.
Yet we can't help but like the Durango. It's powerful and quiet with a smooth highway ride and surprising agility in the corners. It's an entertaining off-road companion, and it's all ready to tow your boat or travel trailer, or make a run to the hardware store. The other thing the Durango has going for it is its reasonable pricing. Our well-optioned Limited model came in just under $40,000 (though a subsequent price increase would push it over that threshold), which is about what you'd pay for a loaded Explorer or 4Runner with less room, less power and less towing capacity. And for this kind of money, you'd only be able to get a cloth-lined Tahoe, Sequoia or Armada with fewer upscale features. Stick with a sensibly optioned SLT and you could land a Hemi and still be in the mid-$30Ks. If you like the Durango's package, this is definitely one of the better values for 2004.
System Score: 9.0
Components: This nine-speaker Infinity setup puts out a total of 384 watts, and it's standard on Limited models (like ours) and optional on the SLT. (Additionally, SLT buyers can opt for a less expensive eight-speaker, 288-watt setup.) Speakers are nicely dispersed throughout the cabin: There are drivers in all four doors, a pair of tweeters on the dash (firing upward into the windshield glass), an additional pair of tweeters in each of the rear doors and a subwoofer in the cargo bay.
The head unit is a nice upgrade from previous Dodge offerings, in that it features a large well-organized collection of buttons and knobs. A tuning knob is finally part of the mix, but inexplicably, the company is still hanging onto a cumbersome two-step procedure for locking in radio presets this is all the more annoying in a vehicle with Sirius Satellite Radio. Fortunately, our Limited tester included the company's excellent secondary audio controls. They're on the back of the steering wheel spokes where you can't see them, but they're perfectly designed so that you can adjust the volume, advance to the next CD track or switch to satellite radio on the basis of touch alone. In addition to 12 satellite radio presets, 12 FM presets and six AM presets, this unit offers an in-dash six-disc CD changer.
Performance: Creating a good sound stage in a large cabin is more of a challenge than it is in a small one, and many sport-utility vehicles suffer from subpar sound quality as a result. But not this Durango. The subwoofer produces strong bass that remains crisp and clean at all reasonable listening volumes. The rest of the speakers do their part to envelop the occupants in sound. Vocals and strings come through with lifelike warmth. We tried just about every type of music in this one classical, metal, hip hop, rock and techno and couldn't find anything that wasn't enjoyable to listen to in the Durango. However, we did find fault with the Sirius Satellite Radio, which lost its signal too easily in semi-mountainous areas.
Best Feature: Strong, clean bass.
Worst Feature: Annoying procedure for presetting radio stations.
Conclusion: An unusually good sound system in a midpriced sport-utility vehicle. We'll take it. Erin Riches
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
If I had to describe the new Durango in one word it would be "solid." Everything from the action of the brake pedal to the overall structure felt sturdy and reassuring. And when underway, the sensation was the same as this bruiser was secure and planted in the corners. The highly hyped "Hemi" (even my sister knows about it) delivers the goods as its considerable muscle manages to make the pudgy Durango feel light on its tires no small feat when you're talking about a 5,100-pound truck. Might as well have fun if you're going to drive something that gets 13 miles per gallon, right? Those who might actually tow something with their Durango will appreciate the more practical aspect of the Hemi its hefty towing capacity.
Speaking of hefty, the Durango not only gained around 500 pounds but it is actually a few inches longer than a Chevy Tahoe. The upside of the Durango's growth is a spacious cabin where it's clear to see that Dodge sweated the details. I found it easy to get in and out of the truck thanks to running boards that are wide enough to easily place a foot on. And once inside, I noticed that Dodge used mostly high-quality materials. I also appreciated the power-adjustable pedals that allowed me to quickly set up a comfortable driving position. Like anyone else, I hate losing remotes and evidently the Dodge designers have the same pet peeve; it would be hard to misplace the DVD system's remote as it ingeniously stows in the same compartment that the screen flips down from.
With its energetic performance, secure handling and comfortable ride, the Durango has most of the bases covered. That said, one of my few disappointments included the sometimes spotty reception of the Sirius Satellite Radio. Stations would cut out sporadically when I was driving through the canyon roads north of L.A., and this is something that I've never experienced with an XM satellite system. And seeing that this is a complete redesign, I'm surprised that Dodge didn't make stability control or a navigation system available.
Road Test Coordinator Kelly Stennick says:
I had just spent a week driving full-size pickups, when I heard I'd be spending the night with a Dodge Durango. I have to admit, I wasn't pleased. I'd had enough of climbing up into a tall cab only to be bumped and jarred about. But I found the Durango to be a pleasant surprise.
At first glance, I realized that style-wise it was an SUV that could go both ways. Some trucks just look like they belong to a boy instead of a girl like the Chevrolet Tahoe. It's big and brawny without much pizzazz to its sheet metal. Comparatively, the Durango manages to display its masculinity without shoving it in your face. It looks tough, but suitably refined as well. Its styling helps it appear smaller than its actual size instead of flaunting its large girth.
The Dodge's new level of refinement was obvious in the interior as well. The smooth leather and striking faux silver trim bits (the closest plastic will ever come to replicating actual aluminum) won me over immediately. The package was darn right attractive. And that was even before I put my foot into the Durango's optional Hemi power. Talk about smooth delivery, the Durango sliced effortlessly through the evening traffic, and again brought a smile to my face the next morning as I retraced my daily drive route. I found myself hanging back on the freeway just enough to get a bit of an opening in the traffic in front of me, just so I could experience the quiet rush again and again (a move that is typically relegated to sporty coupes instead of SUVs).
I'm not much of a truck girl, but if I was shopping for (or simply recommending) a large SUV, the Durango would certainly be at the top of my list.
"I had a 2000 Durango prior to this and I am very pleased with the changes. The ride is very quiet and comfortable. A lot of the features make it very convenient. Split seating in the third row is a great option, car is much roomier than the previous model. I looked at a lot of different SUVs for about a year, the feature to price ratio is by far the best in the Durango. Got the big engine as well. Yeah, it's got a Hemi. Be careful, you'll be going 85 before you know it and it feels like 50, engine feels like it is idling at that speed. Very quiet. I think Dodge has a winner, by far the biggest bang for your buck in the new SUV market. My favorite feature is the 2 driver memory option. My wife is 5' and I am 6', moving the seat and everything can be a pain. With the push of a button, the seat adjusts and the settings for everything go back to the last time I was in the car. My wife likes the Uconnect feature. Suggested improvements: The only flaws I can comment on are mpg and the blindspot because of the large windshield posts. I also had a Land Rover and mileage was about the same. The rear window may be a little small for some, but that's what sideview mirrors are for. Overall, I think Dodge has a winner." PWOLF, April 7, 2004
"Great SUV. Very happy with the redesign and new look. Have the Hemi motor and couldn't be happier with the power it provides. Gas mileage is dismal but I knew that going into it. I probably avg. around 12 mpg city. But I wouldn't even consider the other V8 or the V6. Hemi or nothing. I also got the 3.93 axle ratio over the 3.53. Probably doesn't make a huge difference but I know the 3.93 is a little quicker off the line. Great torque. Nice creature comforts inside. Leather, CD changer, heated seats, traction control, sunroof, 380-watt stereo. Favorite features: Hemi motor, redesigned style, better ride, powerful stereo. Suggested improvements: third-row power seats, traction control and stability control should be standard. Traction control is extra and it doesn't offer stability control." Philster, Feb. 18, 2004
"Getting over 16 average mpg in mixed driving over first 1,000 mi. I have the 5.7 Hemi which just wants to GO. It just plain takes off when you mash the gas, but kind of feels like it is in idle driving around town. The engine runs best up in the 65-75 range. Third-row seat is spacious, but second row could be a bit roomier. Love the new look and the power. Make no mistake, this vehicle is still long on utility and a bit short on comfort items unless you put up the bucks for the Limited version. Favorites are the Hemi, the new look (and size), the Infinity stereo system (6 pack mp3 player is nice), nice legroom on driver side (I am over 6' tall) and spacious third-row seating. Suggested improvements: Auto on/off headlights. Steering wheel audio controls. Auto-dimming rearview mirror. More kneeroom in the second row." clossc, Feb. 21, 2004
"Best-looking vehicle in class. Ride is as good as or better than Toyota Sequoia. Wheelbase increase did wonders for interior room. Hemi gives great power and towing capacity. Ltd offers many conveniences. Mileage is very good on highway driving (18-19) and very bad in city driving (12). Great front-seat legroom and stereo system. 4-wheel drive is wonderful. Favorite features: Great looks. Sunroof, heated leather seats, and high-end stereo system. Towing capacity and 5.7L Hemi. Suggested improvements: Navigation system. A couple of inches wider in cabin. A rear window that opens (great feature of Sequoia). Power side mirrors." forestgump14, Jan. 5, 2004
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