Philip Reed, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
When the Durango was introduced back in 1998, it quickly gained popularity because it was rugged-looking, packed a big V8, offered eight-passenger seating in a midsize body and exuded a uniquely American individuality. But that was then and now consumers want all that, along with an even more spacious and refined interior. Enter the 2004 Durango, an SUV that tries to straddle all the markets and seems to succeed at this demanding task.
As Dodge executives presented the new Durango in truck-friendly Austin, Texas, it quickly became apparent that the redesigned SUV is being aimed at a new market: women. In proposed TV spots, the Durango is humorously being shown as appealing as much to Venus as to Mars. Women were shown choosing it for refinement, men for its size and power. Executives touted the refinement in the SUV's interior, the added space and, in the case of the Hemi Magnum V8, much more power. The need to cover all bases is obvious, especially with the intense competition of 65 other SUVs on the market 16 of them competing directly with the Durango.
Will the added refinement lure buyers? Or will it just alienate loyal fans who liked the no-nonsense appeal of this domestic SUV? The answer was found on the twisting roads of the hill country outside Austin: this vehicle gobbles up the road with class-leading power and solid handling, while offering excellent off-road capability. The new Durango even boasts a 10 percent improvement in fuel mileage (although 10 percent of "not very good" is still pretty low). And, while some devotees may not like the new exterior changes, there are enough of the former styling cues to preserve the Durango heritage.
The 2004 Durango is a complete redesign, with the SUV growing in virtually every dimension. Styling cues include Dodge's signature cross-hair grille and aggressive wheel arches. The windshield is more steeply raked than before and the taillights were changed to give an "afterburner" effect. The headlights are also more contemporary, housing two lights in one unit.
As expected, passenger and cargo room now approach, or even exceed, that of full-size 'utes such as the Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia. The cabin features more comfort for second-row passengers, thanks to added room, reclining seat backs and options like secondary climate controls and a DVD entertainment system. However, maximum seating capacity has dropped from eight to seven passengers.
Along with the body changes are a couple of new engines. The standard power plant for two-wheel-drive Durangos is a 3.7-liter V6 that supplies 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Standard on four-wheel-drive models is the carryover 4.7-liter V8 with 230 horses and 290 lb-ft. For maximum towing and hauling power, an optional 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is available that generates 335 hp and 370 lb-ft of torque. We soon determined that the base V6 provides barely adequate power, so if you want quick acceleration opt for the 4.7-liter V8.
All three engines use automatic transmissions; the V6 runs through a four-speed gearbox, while the V8s have five-speed units that feature a "tow/haul" mode that reduces gear hunting. The five-speed automatic makes great use of the Durango's V8 power, although it was a tad slow to come up with downshifts. Both transmissions shifted smoothly.
The chassis boasts a fully hydroformed frame that promises greater structural integrity for better ride and handling characteristics along with a decreased chance of rattles and squeaks cropping up down the line. When we got the Durango out on some country roads around Austin, the added rigidity was immediately apparent. It felt rock solid with no body flex and few of the expected creaks that accompany the twisting and turning of spirited driving.
We found that the steering in the new Durango was very light, leading to a reduction of road feel. However, Dodge tells us that its engineers intentionally dialed in the lighter feel to satisfy the demands of target buyers. In every other way, the Durango handled well, staying level even through tight turns. Really, it handles better than you would ever expect given its size and weight (5,076 pounds for the SLT with the Hemi engine). On the highway, the Durango offered a compliant ride with few of the trucklike qualities exhibited by some SUVs. Naturally, the power from the Hemi V8 was intoxicating, with great midrange performance and a nice growl to the exhaust. But one has to wonder if it's worth it, given that the fuel ratings plunge to an EPA-estimated 13 miles per gallon city and 18 highway in four-wheel-drive Durangos.
One big selling point that Dodge stressed for the Durango was its real off-roading capabilities. A short ramble over an off-road track seemed to support this claim. Despite some steep descents and loose dirt under the wheels, traction was never lost. When fording streams, the nose never plunged into the opposite bank. And on rugged trails, the suspension never bottomed out. As before, four-wheel-drive Durangos come with dual-range transfer cases for serious off-roading.
Four-wheel antilock disc brakes are standard on the Durango. The brakes felt a little spongy at first but hauled the speed down quickly with good pedal modulation. Side curtain airbags (which protect the head and upper torso in side-impact collisions) that cover all three rows are optional, as are power-adjustable pedals. Three-point seatbelts are fitted at all seating positions, and Dodge engineers designed the Durango's new frame to better absorb frontal impacts.
The interior of the Durango SLT has some nice touches such as wood grain paneling on the center console and white-faced gauges (in the ST, the center console comes with attractive brushed aluminum). There are, however, a few too many hard plastic surfaces on the dash and door panels. The front seats are comfortable and provide good thigh support and aggressive lumbar bolstering. The backseat offers adequate legroom and a 40/20/40-split bench rear seat. The third row is a one-piece folding seat as in the Ford Explorer, it folds flat into the floor.
The 2004 Durango is offered in three trim levels: well-equipped ST, luxury SLT and top-of-the-line Limited. The base ST comes standard with power windows, locks and mirrors; air conditioning; an AM/FM/CD stereo; and cruise control. The SLT adds a power driver seat, rear air conditioning, wood grain cabin accents, body-color front and rear fascias, foglamps and a third-row seat. Spring for the Limited and you'll get leather seating; automatic climate control; a high-output audio system with six-disc CD changer and steering wheel-mounted controls; auto-dimming mirrors; Homelink; memory for the driver seat, mirror, stereo and climate system settings; power-adjustable pedals; alloy wheels; and a security system.
The base ST stickers at about $28,705 while the top-of-the-line Limited sells for $31,965 before options. This means the Durango will compete against the Chevy Tahoe and the Ford Expedition, although it is cheaper than either of these other vehicles. Furthermore, from our point of view, the Durango has more personality than either of these SUVs. If you are shopping in this segment, and want to buy a domestic product, the Durango should be on your must-test-drive list.
Earlier versions of the Durango proved popular because of an attractive blend of on-road comfort and off-road ability. With an even stiffer frame and redesigned suspension, and more creature comforts, we can't help but think this 2004 Durango will be a strong contender in the crowded SUV market.
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