Just the right size for some folks.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $26,650
As Tested (MSRP) $36,655
Dodge Durango is a stylish SUV that has achieved strong sales success thanks to its medium size and all-around utility. It combines the Ram's big-rig looks and serious off-road capability.
Based on the Dakota pickup truck, the Durango is sized between compact sport-utilities such as the (pre-2002) Ford Explorer and oversized competitors such as the Ford Expedition and Chevy Tahoe. It offers more room than the Explorer and can seat six people; yet it's more maneuverable than the Expedition.
With a theater-style seating arrangement that gives rear passengers a view of the road ahead and other interior creature comforts, the Durango is a good choice for large families. It's also a good choice for people who tow boats or other light to medium-sized trailer loads. A big 5.9-liter V8 is available that delivers lots of power, while the standard 4.7-liter V8 and automatic transmission offer decent power and an added measure of refinement.
For 2001, the Durango gets an all-new, more comfortable car-like interior. Dodge is also offering for the first time a performance-tuned R/T version.
Durango is available with two-wheel drive, starting at $26,650, and four-wheel drive, starting at $28,770.
As mentioned, two engines are available: a 4.7-liter V8 and a 5.9-liter V8. The sophisticated 4.7-liter engine was a clean-sheet design for 2000. It uses a modern overhead-cam design, as opposed to the 5.9-liter engine's traditional overhead valve design. Rated at 235 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, the 4.7-liter engine meets California's low emissions vehicle standards. The 4.7-liter engine was designed and engineered in tandem with an innovative new four-speed automatic transmission that features two second-gear ratios. Engine and transmission talk to each other and choose the optimum ratio based on driver input and load conditions; in other words, it gives you quicker acceleration when you stomp on the throttle, better efficiency when you're taking it easy. This 4.7-liter engine is EPA-rated at 15/19 mpg on 2WD models. The 4.7-liter offers more power than the Explorer's optional 5.0-liter V8 or the Expedition's standard 4.6-liter V8, both of which generate 215 horsepower and about 290 foot-pounds of torque.
The big Dodge 5.9-liter Magnum V8 generates 245 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque. That's a bit more robust than the Expedition's optional 5.4-liter V8 (230 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque) and compares favorably to the Tahoe's 5.7-liter V8 (255 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque). 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 7,200 pounds. Chevy's Tahoe is rated to pull 7,000 pounds and Ford's Expedition is rated for 8,000 pounds. Fuel economy for the 5.9-liter Dodge V8 is rated by the EPA at 12/17 mpg city/highway.
Four-wheel-drive versions offer a choice of two different transfer cases: a traditional part-time system for serious outdoors people and a full-time system that's better for road use in changing weather conditions. Both transfer cases use a manually operated shift-on-the-fly lever mounted on the floor.
Four trim levels are available, while a host of packages consolidate popular options. The value-priced Sport model comes standard with a short list of popular options and is distinguished by special badges. SLT trim includes a long list of luxury amenities, starting with leather upholstery. SLT Plus trim includes standard running boards, wheel flares and heated seats.
The new R/T performance model combines the 245-horsepower 5.9-liter V8 with a higher numerical rear axle ratio, a limited-slip rear differential and sport-tuned exhaust to yield quicker off-the line acceleration. Seventeen-inch wheels with 275/60R17 tires and a sport-tuned suspension improve handling, while body-colored wheel flares help set the R/T apart.
Durango doesn't look like other SUVs. It makes a bolder statement with its muscular styling. It looks sportier than Ford, GM and many of the imported SUVs. Dodge Durango shares its front end with the Dakota pickup. The grille's prominent four horizontal slats instantly identify this SUV as part of the Dodge family.
Durango gets an all-new interior for 2001, including a new instrument panel, interior trim, center and overhead consoles, carpeting and steering wheel. A dual-zone climate control system is now standard, and the HVAC system now includes heat for the third row of seats.
Eight people can fit in the Durango--six comfortably--with theater seating designed to give everyone a view out front. The back half of the roof is raised nearly 2 inches to increase rear-seat headroom and visibility. This raised portion is cleverly disguised with a roof rack.
Second-row seats are quite comfortable, offering plenty of headroom and adequate legroom. 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.
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.
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 - a convenient, timesaving feature.
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 are overhead. Large buttons on the leather wrapped steering wheel operate one of the better cruise control executions we've seen.
As sport-utilities go, the Durango is fun to drive. We spent a week with the big 5.9-liter Magnum V8 in the Washington area. It always feels willing to get down the road quickly, with excellent throttle response and quick acceleration.
Prior to that, a daylong drive though the Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio gave us an opportunity to try the Durango on undulating highways and steep, rocky trails. The Durango handled well when driven briskly down narrow roads with tight corners and sweeping turns. Compared to other sport-utilities, the Durango feels sporty. Steering is precise and the suspension provides excellent transient response, crisply responding when turning quickly from left to right and back again. Shifting is smooth and responsive and transmission ratios are matched well to the healthy torque of the 5.9-liter V8.
(We have not tested the new 4.7-liter overhead-cam engine, but one of our correspondents loved it in the similar Dodge Dakota pickup; look for that review at newcartestdrive.com.)
Peeling off the pavement, we bounced down rocky, unpaved roads through the hills. 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 our steep, rocky path. We'd feel comfortable driving 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 will likely offer a softer ride than the big 31-inch tires designed for off-road travel that came as optional equipment on our Durango.
A part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case is standard. Shifting from two-wheel drive 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. Durango's part-time four-wheel-drive system is a good choice 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. Overall, it's the best choice for those who want serious off-road capability.
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 into the 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 (described above).
Dodge Durango offers more room and better acceleration performance than the so-called compact sport-utilities. It compares favorably to the full-size Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Best of all, Durango is practical, intelligently designed and easy to operate. It cuts a distinctive appearance among sport-utility vehicles. It's a good choice for people who want to step out from the crowd.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.