ALL GROWN UP
Dodge’s 2004 Durango steps heavily into the full-size SUV segment
By Bruce W. Smith - Special to GCN

Deep in Texas Hill Country, working our way slowly along and around the ravines of a state-sized ranch, reveals just how much nicer Dodge’s newest SUV is from the model it replaces. It’s bigger, better appointed, more refined, more fuel-efficient, and priced lower than the model it replaces.

The first-gen Durango was basically a Dakota with a mid-sized SUV body that served its purpose quite well at the time (1998). With V8 power as an option, it was powerful, sporty and distinctive.

But as the technology race quickened and number of SUV offerings grew exponentially, the Durango lost its edge.

The writing was on the proverbial wall:  If the Durango was to be competitive Dodge had to make some major changes to capture the interest of some 2.4-million people who are expected to buy new SUVs in 2004.

Enter the second-generation Durango.

Technically Speaking

Easing along the double-barreled cow path shows how far the now full-sized Durango has evolved technologically. There are no squeaks or rattles when you’re doing a little light off-roading, thanks in large part to the new chassis that’s unique to the Durango. 

The frame is fully boxed and hydroforming is used to ensure maximum strength and stiffness. The frame rails at the front section are octagonal in shape, a design that allows them to crumple in the event of a head-on crash. Durango engineers say this design dramatically reduces the transference of energy to the occupants in the event of a frontal impact.

Another major improvement from the old Durango is the steering; even though the new model’s wheelbase is three inches longer, its turning radius is now tighter than a Honda Pilot. This gives the new Durango remarkable prowess in tight places—be that on a narrow backroad or in a crowded parking lot.

The suspension is also much more refined.

Dodge kept the IFS front suspension, but the rear leaf springs of old are history. They have been replaced by a coil spring Watt linkage system that keeps the solid rear axle centered under the vehicle while allowing maximum wheel travel and suspension tuning.

“ We examined independent rear suspension designs, but found that we could save weight with our [solid axle] design and still achieve our ride targets with a link coil set up, “ says Frank Klegon, VP of the Truck Product Team.

“The solid axle system also allows us to provide a greater tow capacity [8,950 pounds]. Our rear-wheel geometry is markedly better under load than with an IRS system, and that translates to a more settled trailer and smoother handling while towing.”

Klegon’s point was demonstrated when we slipped a 5,100-pound four-horse trailer on the receiver hitch of the Durango SLT 4x4—the most popular selling Durango model—and hit the twisting paved roads that snaked through the Central Texas countryside.

Dodge’s new SUV never bobbled or swayed—a far cry from some competitor’s coil-sprung SUVs that boast high tow ratings.

Towing a trailer also showed the effectiveness of the new four-wheel ABS brake system picked up from the Ram 1500 pickups. 

The new Durango is shod with 17-inch wheels with 13.2-inch disc brakes in front, 13.9-inch in the rear. The bigger brakes reduce its stopping distance by 10-percent over the old model and by more than 13-percent under load.

Off-road users will find the “smart” brake system adjusts its response characteristics for slippery and uneven surfaces when the transfer case is switched to the 4LO or 4Lock positions.

The brake pedal feel is just right, on- or off-road. An added bonus is the convenience of brake and gas pedal height being adjustable.

Comfort Zone

Speaking of comfort, the ’04 Durango interior layout and design is markedly better than the old model.

Once you duck your head (our only complaint) to clear the steeply raked front windshield and slip into the front buckets, you immediately sense the interior spaciousness. Head and legroom are abundant whether you’re sitting in the front or second-row seats.

The seats are nicely bolstered and excellent support. The instrumentation, with its large white-faced gauges, is easy to read. And, the trim in the SLT model a touch upscale. Overall the interior is refreshing while being practical.

“An SUV has certain interior requirements, with space, storage, and driving position being paramount,” says Trevor Creed, the Senior VP of Design. “The goal was to create this with a clean, precise interior design that is both simple and elegant through the use of refined materials and crisp lines.”

“Utility is also very important in this market,” Creed adds. “Our owners spend more and more time in their vehicles, so we really focused on the detail work. For instance we added a unique, large and useable ‘fast food’ bin at the base of the center consoles for extra storage room.”

Storage is a strong point of the Durango. According to Dodge numbers the Durango’s 68.4 cu-ft of cargo space is 20-cubic-feet of greater than the Ford Explorer with the optional third-row seats folded. It also beats out the cargo capacity of the full-size Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Ford Expedition.

In addition, the distance between the wheelwells in the new Durango is now 48.4-inches, more than three inches wider than the old model.

Power To Spare

Carrying a big load or towing a trailer requires power. The Durango has that covered three ways: a V6 and two V8s.

The 210hp 3.7-liter Magnum V6 is the standard engine for the base (ST) and mid-level (SLT) two-wheel-drive models. It’s a bit underwhelming in the new Durango; the V6’s 235 lb-ft of torque struggles a bit to move around 4,600 pounds of truck with any level of performance.

However, an SUV buyer focusing on fuel economy and around-town commuter value would find the V6 acceptable. EPA numbers show 16/21mpg.

A much better all-around choice is the 230hp 4.7L V8, which is available as an option in the 2wd ST Limited and standard in all 4wd models. This is the engine the majority of Durango buyers will probably gravitate to as it provides the best balance of fuel economy and performance.

The 4.7L feels like it fits the new Durango in every way, providing power when its needed without being overly thirsty. EPA numbers: 14/19 mpg for the 2wd, 14/18 with 4wd.

Those who want “Hemi Power” will order the 5.7L Hemi Magnum—an option ($870) item available for the mid-level and high-end Durango models. The Hemi’s 335 horsepower and 370-pound-feet of torque shine when it comes to moving the Durango up grades and through traffic.

The drawback is the Hemi, despite its muscle, is thirsty beast when it’s pushed. EPA numbers show the same figures as the 4.7L, but believe us when we say that changes dramatically when the throttle an/or load gets heavy.

On The Road

Speaking of heavy, one common trait of the pre-production Durangos we drove is the need of a heavy foot to get the five-speed automatic transmissions and engines to respond.

The “tip-in” throttle response is lazy, requiring the throttle to be pushed nearly three-quarters of the way to the floor before there’s any noticeable change in acceleration or the automatic’s downshifting. This may change before the production models reach the market.

Other than that all the Durangos we drove provided a much more refined ride than the ’03. The SLT 4x4 that we spent a lot of time in, for example, is comfortable and quiet. It was a semi-loaded version with the “Quick Order 26G” option package.

The upgrade package includes 17" x 8.0 aluminum wheels, AM/FM stereo, 6-disc player, mp3 player, cargo net, universal remote transmitter garage door opener, , remote security alarm, engine immobilizer, rolling code key, eight premium Infinity speakers, overhead console with storage, center console lights, rear reading lights, and dual illuminated vanity mirrors. 

We kept the stereo on standby so we could check the truck out. Road and wind noise was very minimal, thanks in large part to thicker side windows with sound-deadning material laminated into the glass and new body mounts.

The Durango steering is light and quick, making lane changes and parking a breeze. Very little body lean occurs in hard cornering, and the suspension eats up unexpected dips and bumps.

The doors are wide, too, making getting in and out of the front and second-row seats easy. Like the majority of three-seat SUVS, the Durango’s third-row seat is tight and might be better left at the dealer unless you really need the extra seating for young kids.

But it’s there if you need it. Which is pretty much what the new Durango offers: A nicely executed, full-size four-wheel-drive SUV package that has a combination for any active outdoor family’s needs. –Bruce W. Smith

Basic Specifications

Model: 2004 Durango SLT 4X4

Base price:  $31,590 (incl. destination charge)

Price as Tested: $33,081

Major options: Quick Order Package 26G ($1,500), Towing package ($525), Sun Roof ($800)

Seating capacity: 2/3 std; 2/3/2/ opt

Engine tested: 230hp 4.7L V8

Wheelbase: 119.2”

Track: 64.4 (f)/ 64.5 (r)

Suspension: Independent front; solid-axle w/ coils rear

Wheels: Aluminum 17”x8”

Brakes: Disc w/ four-wheel ABS

Steering: rack-and-pinion

Axle Ratio: 3.92:1

Transmission: 5spd Automatic

Transfer Case: NV144HD (AWD; 4WD locked)

Fuel capacity: 27 gals.

EPA fuel economy city/hwy: 14/18 mpg

Curb weight: 4,987 lbs.

Tow rating: 7,300 lbs.

Cargo capacity: 68.4 cu.ft. (behind 2nd row seats); 102.4 cu.ft (behind front seats)

Payload:  1,610 lbs.

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