With the new car market now thoroughly saturated with sport-utility vehicles, even their most ardent fans are getting a bit jaded, and why not? Sport-utes were once considered the machine of the rough-and-ready individualist. But today, with sport-utes packing every suburban driveway and mall parking lot, they’ve become little more than posh substitutes for the family station wagon of old. Now that presented Dodge truck designers with a serious dilemma for their late market entry, the Durango SUV. Do they follow the well-worn garden path, or their instincts?
Thankfully, the Dodge boys decided to do what comes naturally. Build an SUV machine clever and aggressive enough to get noticed, but not so different that it won’t sell to off-road traditionalists.
To that end, they cloaked their new Durango in the same Little-Peterbilt styling, that has been such a huge hit on their full-size Ram and mid-size Dakota pickups. An easy job, since the Durango’s chassis is basically that of the Dakota, and it shares all body panels from the windshield forward. Panels which make the Durango stand out among its many, less visually distinctive, competitors.
Most of the generous front cabin is also pure Dakota, including the instrument panel, modern, but not too car-like, preserving the sense of big truck security that modern sport-ute buyers want—security that’s bolstered by standard dual air bags.
Our truck’s optional front bucket seats were quite plush, with lots of padding and support. And the analog gauges that they face are large and clear. While the over-sized ventilation and stereo controls exhibit the kind of simple efficiency that we have come to expect on recent Chrysler products.
Second row seating offers the same sort of adult-sized space as the front, but hard, thin seatbacks rob it of long distance comfort. But that was the trade-off that Dodge designers made to add an optional third seat. It’s easily reached by flipping the second seats forward and pulling yourself up by the handy grab handles. A raised roof provides good headroom. And while leg room is tight for adults, kids will fit just fine. The third seat also very intelligently folds flat for cargo duties. And we loved being able to haul up to 88 cubic feet of stuff without having to wrestle a third seat out of the Durango. That’s true versatility!
Of course, all this would mean little without the all-terrain power that traditional sport-ute buyers demand. Again, Ram and Dakota provide the inspiration. Engines range from a base 3.9-liter V6, to a top-line 5.9-liter V8. Our SLT-grade 4x4 took the middle road, packing a tried and true 5.2-liter pushrod V8. It delivers 230 horsepower and a hefty 300 pound-feet of torque. Power then travels through a 4-speed automatic transmission—sorry no manual—and into either a standard part-time 4-wheel-drive transfer case, or the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s optional full-time system.
With the full-time gearing, our SLT returned a quick 0-to-60 time of 8.7 seconds. The quarter mile ended in 16.5 seconds, at a speed of 79 miles per hour. As expected, our drivers found the 5.2 V-8 to be lively and responsive, with plenty of low down power. The transmission didn’t rate as highly, however, due to its rather abrupt shifts.
But there were no complaints about handling! The Durango-Dakota torsion bar front suspension, and solid axle rear leaf spring, delivered surprising nimbleness and grip. While the tough recirculating-ball power steering had properly adequate feel.
Durango braking performance was also satisfactory. We averaged a longish 135 feet from 60, with front discs and rear drums. They were easily kept under control by the optional 4-wheel anti-lock.
Control was also the name of the game off road. With standard Goodyear Wrangler’s on 15-inch rims, the Durango offers a more aggressive footprint than many competitors.Combined with the torquey 5.2-liter drivetrain, and modest 7.9 inches of ground clearance, they romped over off-road obstacles as well as anything in the Durango’s class.
On-road ride was also very good, better than that of our long-term 4-wheel-drive Dakota. Though we were disappointed with excessive amounts of mechanical and interior noise in our pre-production test vehicle. We hope that regular production vehicles exhibit a more solid build.
But you’ll certainly have to have solid finances to buy a 4x4 Durango. Base price is $25,810. Add on SLT trim, a healthy list of options, and the price rises to $31,100. While much less expensive than any other 7- and 8-passenger SUV, a less dear 2-wheel drive Durango arrives next year.
Right now, however, we love the Durango’s aggressive styling, punchy V8 engine, nimble handling, smooth ride, and clever interior design. We’re less happy with our test vehicle’s harsh automatic transmission shifts, uncomfortable middle seat, and high levels of interior noise. Nevertheless, we applaud how Dodge designers have managed to take the Dakota pickup and turn it into what is a sure bet family sport-ute.
AutoWeek, called it: ”…a marvelous conversion of pickup into SUV.” While Automobile Magazine was even more enthusiastic, stating that: “…the Durango drives wonderfully well, and offers incredible value.”
This all points to a solid future for the newest member of Dodge’s 4-wheel-drive family. And shows that, even as crowded as the market segment has become, sport-utility makers like Dodge can still come up with some very fresh, old ideas.
Engine: 5.2 Liter V8
Torque: 300 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 8.7 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.5 Seconds @ 79 MPH
60-0 MPH: 135 Feet