Big, bold and just right.

by Mitch McCullough

Base Price $28,065
As Tested $33,200

We could not have attracted more attention if we'd been in a $100,000 Mercedes-Benz. The well-dressed group was shivering in the damp Washington weather, waiting at the valet booth after seeing a musical at the Kennedy Center. BMWs, Audis, Grand Cherokees and other fine cars attracted nary a glance as they were delivered to their owners.

Then the valet rolled forward in our freshly washed flame red Dodge Durango. Its big Ram grille and broad Freightliner fenders loomed out of the darkness and into the flood lights accompanied by the burbling V8. We had to smile at the soft "wows" and "ohs" from the upscale crowd as we tipped the attendant, climbed in and drove away.

With its big-rig look, the Durango always looks ready, whether it's heading down a primitive road or parked at the shopping center. Based on the recently introduced Dodge Dakota pickup, the Durango is a totally new sport-utility vehicle. It's bigger than the Ford Explorer, but not as big as the Ford Expedition or Chevy Tahoe. So if you're like Goldilocks, then you might find the Durango just right.

Walkaround

Two engines are available: 5.2-liter V-8 and 5.9-liter V-8.

Most will opt for the highly competent 5.2-liter engine, rated at 230 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It offers more power than the Explorer's optional 5.0-liter V-8 or the Expedition's standard 4.6-liter V-8, both of which generate 215 horsepower and about 290 pound-feet of torque.

The big Dodge 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 generates 245 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque. That's a bit more robust than the Expedition's optional 5.4-liter V-8 (230 horsepower, 325 pound-feet of torque) and compares favorably to the Tahoe's 5.7-liter V-8 (255 horsepower, and 330 pound-feet of torque). Fuel economy for the 5.9-liter Dodge V-8 is rated at 12/16 mpg city/highway verses 13/17 for the 5.2-liter Dodge V-8, and adds just $295 to the price.

The Durango should make a better tow vehicle than an Explorer. With the 5.9-liter engine and 3.92 differential, it's capable of pulling a trailer of up to 7200 pounds. Chevy's Tahoe is rated to pull 7000 pounds and Ford's Expedition is rated for 8000 pounds.

All Durangos will be equipped with four-wheel drive for 1998, but two transfer cases are offered. Both systems use a manually operated shift-on-the-fly lever mounted on the floor.

A part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case is standard. Shifting into part-time four-wheel drive is only appropriate for mud, snow and other low-traction situations; it's unsuitable for dry pavement as there is no slippage between the front and rear wheels and the tires will hop and chatter in tight parking lot maneuvers. It's a good setup for people who live in a dry climate, but want to be able to shift into ultimate off-road mode. On really steep grades, it can be shifted into low-range four-wheel drive.

A more flexible option is the $395 full-time four-wheel-drive transfer case. It comes with everything above plus a planetary center differential. Shifting to full-time mode allows the front and rear axles to turn at different speeds, so the wheels don't fight each other in tight quarters yet traction is assured under all but the worst conditions. Full-time four-wheel-drive mode is appropriate for torrential rain, light snow and ice or light off-highway travel. If conditions should get extreme, the driver can shift into part-time four-wheel drive or low range.

The Inside Story

Eight people can fit in the Durango -- six comfortably -- with theater seating designed to give everyone a view out front. Dodge engineers raised the back half of the roof nearly two inches to increase rear-seat headroom and visibility. Viewed from outside the vehicle, the raised portion is cleverly disguised with a roof rack.

Second-row seats are quite comfortable, offering plenty of head room and adequate leg room. Stable cupholders and rear heating/air conditioning controls add to comfort.

Third-row seats are surprisingly comfortable for two people, who achieve adequate legroom by tucking their feet under the second row of seats. Getting in and out of that third row is easy: flip a lever and the second-row seatback folds forward, then tumbles out of the way allowing a quick entry or exit. It's one of the best third-row seating designs on the market.

When it's time to haul cargo, the tailgate lifts up and out of the way and the two rows of seats are easily folded down to provide a large, relatively flat floor. A trout bum could sleep back there. All Durangos have a long, narrow storage compartment under the floor just inside the rear lift gate. with enough space for the jack, flares and other roadside equipment. An additional storage compartment replaces the footwell when the optional third row is not ordered.

For now, all Durangos come in SLT trim, so figure on getting the $3250 package that includes a long list of luxury amenities.

Overall, the interior design is executed well. Our truck came with tan leather accented in attractive suede. Matching plastic trim provides an organic appearance. The seats appear rather plain, but they are comfortable. Carpeting is carried through to the backs of the rear headrests, which do not have to be removed when the seats are folded down.

The driving position is comfortable with good visibility over an attractive rounded hoodline. Instruments are big and easy to read, though the speedometer appears busy with 2 1/2-mph hash marks. Power outside mirrors are easy to adjust with a big knob on the driver's door. Cupholders and storage trays are nicely designed, while a digital compass and other useful readouts is overhead. Large buttons on the leather wrapped steering wheel operate one of the most well-designed cruise control systems we've seen.

Ride & Drive

As sport-utility vehicles go, the Durango is fun to drive. We spent a week with the big 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 in the Washington area. It always feels willing to get down the road quickly and excellent throttle response and quick acceleration brought out the bad boy.

A daylong drive though the Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio showed us Dodge's 5.2-liter V-8 also has lots of power for undulating highways and steep, rocky trails. We drove briskly down narrow roads and handled tight corners and sweeping turns with confidence. Compared to other sport-utility vehicles, the Durango feels sporty.

Steering is precise and the suspension provides excellent transient response, crisply turning from left to right and back again. Shifting is smooth and responsive and transmission ratios are matched well to the healthy torque of the two V-8s.

Peeling off the pavement, we bounced down rocky, unpaved roads through the hills. The Durango provided predictable handling in the loose stuff and, in spite of our best efforts, we never bottomed the suspension all day. Without stopping, we slid the silky transfer box into part-time four-wheel drive and the Durango never faltered as it bounded over deep rivulets cut through a steep, rocky path. We'd drive a Durango anywhere.

Durango's competent off-road capability and on-road handling response don't come as a free lunch, however. We found ride quality on downtown Washington's crumbling infrastructure a bit on the harsh side. The Durango should be fine for most folks, but it's something to note on your test drive. The standard tires should offer a softer ride than the big 31-inch optional tires.

Final Word

Add the new Dodge to the sport-utility shopping list. The Dodge Durango offers more room and better performance than the Ford Explorer and other so-called compact sport-utilities. It also compares favorably to the larger Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon.

It may compare with other SUVs, but it certainly doesn't look like them. Dodge Durango makes a statement. We think it's a bold, attractive statement. We think Dodge succeeded at its goal of producing a smarter SUV. The Durango is intelligently designed and easy to operate. And it's a smart choice for people who want to step out from the crowd.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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