Refined for Y2K.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $26,580
As Tested $33,200
Dodge Durango features big-rig looks to back up its off-road capability. The Durango is bigger than the Ford Explorer and other so-called compact sport-utilities, but smaller than Ford Expedition or Chevy Tahoe. It offers more room than the Explorer and can seat six people. Yet it's more maneuverable than the Expedition.
The Durango is a good choice for large families. Its theater-style seating arrangement gives rear passengers a view of the road ahead. The Durango is also a good choice for people who tow boats or other light to medium-sized trailer loads. There's lots of power available from the big 5.9-liter V8, while a new 4.7-liter V8 and automatic transmission combination promise greater refinement. Dodge revised the front suspension and steering system on 4WD Durango models for 2000 in an effort to improve ride quality and responsiveness. And, did we mention styling?
Two trim levels are available, while a host of packages consolidate popular options. A new value-priced Sport model joins the Durango line for 2000. Distinguished by special badging, it comes standard with a short list of popular options. SLT trim includes a long list of luxury amenities, starting with leather upholstery.
Now in its third model year, the Durango line has been expanded to include three V8 engines: a 5.9-liter V8, a 5.2-liter V8 and, new for 2000, a 4.7-liter V8. Last year's 3.9-liter V6 has been dropped from the lineup.
Dodge created its new 4.7-liter Magnum V8 from a clean sheet of paper. It's far more sophisticated than the other two available engines with a pair of single overhead camshafts (sohc) in place of the more traditional overhead-valve (ohv) design and produces its power more efficiently for its size. Rated at 235 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, the 4.7-liter engine meets California's low emissions vehicle standards. It 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.
A popular choice is the highly competent 5.2-liter V8, rated at 230 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque. The 5.2-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, 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 at 12/17-mpg city/highway verses 14/19 for the 5.2-liter Dodge V8, and adds $595 to the price.
Two-wheel-drive versions were added for 1999. 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.
Dodge Durango doesn't look like other SUVs. It makes a bold statement with its muscular styling. It looks sportier than Ford, GM and many of the imported SUVs.
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. 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.
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.
A daylong drive though the Texas Hill Country west of San Antonio showed us Dodge's 5.2-liter V8 also has lots of power for 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 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 V8s. (We have not tested the new 4.7-liter engine, but one of our correspondents loved it in the similar Dodge Dakota pickup.)
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 that came on our Durango.
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. 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 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.
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 full-size Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon.
Durango is practical, intelligently designed and easy to operate. It cuts a distinctive appearance among sport-utility vehicles. Overall, it's a good choice for people who want to step out from the crowd.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.