Since it arrived for 1998, the Dodge Durango has carved out a good slice of the sport-utility market as a more robust, outgoing SUV than most of its rivals. Indeed, in 2002, Dodge shook-up the family SUV segment by heading down the high-performance trail with the biggest V-8 engine in its class. Now Dodge is taking an even bigger step to distance themselves from the pack with an all-new, and even brawnier, 2004 Durango, one that chills its rivals with a single word: Hemi!
As in HEMI V-8, and the fresh-from-the-tires-up 2004 Dodge Durango is the first and only sport-utility with that four-letter word in its vocabulary. But there is so much more to the new Durango than just HEMI power. The Durango isn’t just brawnier under the hood; it’s brawnier in every direction. Overall length has increased 7.3-inches, while wheelbase is up over 3 inches to 119.2. That’s about the same as a full-size Ford Expedition. The new Durango is also 4.5 inches wider, and over 3-inches taller. What does that mean to you? Well, more people and cargo space, and a much more stable ride both on and off road.
As to off-road terrain, the Durango’s ground clearance is down 6-tenths, to a still adequate 7.9-inches, reflecting the more stable, family role required of progressive SUVs. The Durango’s stout new hydro-formed, boxed frame is clad with a huge grille and headlight clusters, and tough-look body panels that kick the original Durango’s big rig stance up a handful of notches.
A big rig deserves a big engine, and at Dodge that can only mean a HEMI. Indeed, the new Durango’s top power is the 5.7-liter Magnum pushrod V8 with hemispherical combustion chambers, borrowed from the Ram pickup. It pounds out 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque. Carried over from last year is the well regarded 4.7-liter single-overhead-cam V8 with 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque, while the base engine is Chrysler’s proven 210 horsepower 3.7-liter V6. Transmissions are automatic only, either a 4-speed with the V6, or for the V8, a 5-speed with an alternate second gear for passing and heavy towing, and a tow/haul mode.
And it will tow! Maximum trailer weight with the Hemi is 8,950 pounds. But even the base V6 will haul a healthy 3,700 pounds. Buyers have a choice of rear drive with traction control, or a new full-time four-wheel-drive system, with or without low gear.
We put the pedal down in a 2-wheel-drive SLT-grade Hemi, and sprinted to 60 in only 7.6-seconds. That’s a solid second faster than the 5.9-liter Durango we tested in 1998. And the quarter mile dropped away behind us in 15.4-seconds at 87 miles-per-hour. Pretty impressive for a 5,000 pound SUV! After a strong hit off idle, the Hemi delivered its power in a steady tractor-like flow with no steps in the power band. Shifts were firm, with gear ratios well matched to the Hemi’s generous output.
Handling, like acceleration, was smooth and steady. Turn-in was a bit sluggish, with plenty of understeer, but grip levels are very high, thanks to the new live axle coil spring rear suspension with watts linkage. The Durango stayed well planted despite high levels of body roll, but we would like a bit more feel from the rack-and-pinion steering.
Braking is by big 4-wheel discs, the same ones on the Viper-powered Ram SRT-10 pickup, with standard ABS and brake force distribution. A respectable 133 feet was needed to stop from 60. Stability levels were high, with good feedback through the pedal.
Whether on the open road or the mall parking lot, Durango delivers a solid, comfortable ride and lower levels of road noise. Refinement has grown as much as its body and frame.
Of course, anyone who has spent time inside the 2004 Durango will tell you that. You step up higher to enter, but the reward is a large, airy cabin, with clean, modern styling and three rows of seats. Gauges are oversized and clear, and fit the theme perfectly. Safety features include smart airbags for front seat occupants, and side curtain airbags for all rows. The seats themselves are wide and firm with good support. Leather and heat are available, as are power adjustable pedals. The center stack looks European smooth with idiot-proof controls. Available systems include automatic climate controls, MP3-capable audio, and hands-free communications, most of which is available to the second-row passengers, who get their own climate controls and an optional DVD entertainment system. Access to the 40/20/40 bench is easy thanks to doors that open 84 degrees.
Third row passengers don’t get much control, but they do get ease of access to a surprisingly comfortable solid or split bench seat. Behind the big hatch, cargo space takes a big jump up, ranging from 20.1 cubic-feet with all seats up, to a cavernous 102.4 cubic-feet with all seats folded. And there is a plywood-carrying 48-inches between the wheel wells.
But pricing numbers are generally smaller than before, with the base 2-wheel-drive Durango ST starting at a modest $26,565. The top line price tag belongs to the 4-wheel-drive Limited model, which starts at $34,900. The Hemi costs $895 on top of that.
So, while HEMI might be the one word that separates the 2004 Dodge Durango from the rest, we’ll also add bigger, brawnier, and brainier. It’s a lot of SUV by any measure, making Durango ready, willing, and able to take on any and all sport-ute rivals.
Engine: 5.7-Liter Hemi Magnum Pushrod V8
Torque: 370 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.4 Seconds @ 87 MPH
60-0 MPH: 133 Feet