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Dodge goes big with 2004 Durango

February 20, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

For 2004, the stakes, size and power all take a dramatic jump to make the new Durango a better fit with what Dodge has become: a five-letter word for "macho."

When it debuted in 1998, the original Durango was based on the Dakota mid-sized pickup and offered a third-row seat that the Ford Explorers and Chevy Blazers of the day didn't. It also had all kinds of power (for its time) and it was plenty big enough.

But as the years passed, the Durango was slowly eclipsed by the competition. Other companies were building rigs that were not only bigger and stronger, but smaller and much more fuel efficient. That's right, in the time since the Durango was born, many manufacturers began to offer two or more sport-utility vehicles that appealed to a wider group of buyers. The Durango was and is Dodge's only offering.

Since it can't be all things to all people, Dodge has picked a direction (besides, Chrysler has its Jeep brands to fill in the gaps) and it's a big change, literally.

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Macho? Try tangling with the new 335-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi engine, Dodge's V-8 ground rattler. Looking for size? Try on the longer, wider and roomier Durango.

After a complete redesign, this sport-ute has expanded in every direction, in multiple dimensions. Although it bears strong visual similarity to the full-size Ram pickup, the Durango is actually built on a newer (and larger) mid-size platform, one that the redesigned Dakota pickup will adopt once it comes to market.

The new Durango is seven inches longer, three inches taller and three inches wider than its predecessor. That translates into a 15 percent increase in cargo volume. Park the two side by side and the difference is more than a little obvious.

Dodge stayed the course in one very important area, however: the Durango still looks like a member of the Dodge family. The new sport-ute even gets a more pronounced version of the division's signature cross-hair grille and aggressive wheel arches. But, unexpectedly, passenger and cargo room now approach, or even exceed in some cases, that of full-size competitors such as the Ford Expedition and Toyota Sequoia, the really, really big boys on the block.

Inside, the cabin features more room for second-row passengers, thanks to that extra Durango length, and it adds creature comforts so you enjoy the ride: reclining rear seats; secondary climate controls; a 384-watt Infinity stereo; and a DVD entertainment system are available.

Designed with families in mind, there are a number of cupholders and storage bins throughout. Along with seating for up to seven people, the Durango, according to Dodge, offers the most cargo capacity in its class with the third seat stowed - more than the Expedition, Chevy Tahoe, Sequoia and Nissan Pathfinder Armada. It also delivers more leg, hip and head room in all three rows of seats than the previous Durango did.

If more space doesn't impress you, perhaps more power will. Dodge has replaced its aging top-dog 5.9-liter V-8 with the new 5.7 Hemi. Fuel economy is reported to have improved by 10 percent in spite of a 100-horsepower gain over the 5.9. That's significant because the Durango now has a maximum towing capacity of 8,950 pounds, which is more than most other sport-utes offer.

Standard on four-wheel-drive models is a 230-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8. A 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 is the base powerplant. A four-speed automatic transmission connects to the 3.7, which is only available on two-wheel-drive Durangos, while a five-speed automatic is matched to V-8 models. Last year's Sport, SXT and R/T designations have been discarded in favor of ST, SLT and Limited trim levels.

All new from top to bottom - from its hydroformed frame rails (bent using high-pressure fluid) and standard four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, to its white-faced gauges and "afterburner"-style headlights - Durango is available with side-curtain air bags, adjustable foot pedals and a sunroof. Seventeen-inch wheels are standard as is the vehicle's ability to carry four-foot-wide pieces of plywood.

Pound for pound, inch for inch, the Durango looks better no matter your vantage point. With a more spacious cabin, more powerful engine options and sharp lines, the new Durango might carve out a niche in a segment it would no doubt love to own.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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