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by Richard Russell
Austin, Texas – One of the most successful products wearing the Dodge badge is the Durango. But it has been getting a little long in the tooth, fighting an uphill battle against the main protagonists in the large SUV category. Through the first six months of ’03 Durango sales were off 33% in a segment that was down only 14%. The Durango trailed Tahoe/Yukon, Suburban/Yukon XL and Expedition, but it was still far ahead of the rest of the class by thousands of units – and only a few hundred out of first place.
Thus a brand new, bigger, faster, more refined and less expensive Durango comes as welcome news to beleaguered Dodge dealers. The 2004 Durango is all that and more as DaimlerChrysler poured considerable resources into ensuring the new truck could play with the best of them.
First off, the ’04 Durango is based on its very own all-new platform. The previous version was based on the Dakota chassis, but the new Durango gets a unique platform. The new body-on-frame setup allowed the engineers to design and develop everything from the ground up for this vehicle without compromise.
The design team was perfectly aware the Durango was competing with the big boys – literally. So the new Durango is 17-cm longer, 7-cm taller and 5-cm wider, resulting in a vehicle that is larger than such full-size competitors as the Explorer, Tahoe, Armada and Sequoia, and only slightly smaller than the big barges – Suburban and Expedition.
From the get-go, the goal was to make the new Durango much more user-friendly – for everyday on-road use, while sacrificing none of its extreme offroad capability. The fully boxed and hydroformed frame is significantly stiffer than the old, yet the Durango sits lower making it easier to get in and out and offers vastly improved ride and handling qualities. While the ’04 Durango is much bigger inside and out, it has a remarkably tight turning circle, making it far easier to maneuver in tight quarters like parking lots and narrow trails.
A whole lot of effort went into the new interior – and the result is a very impressive environment. There is hip, knee, elbow, shoulder and headroom to spare from dash to tailgate. And all that space is of a much higher level of luxury and style. There is certainly no impression this is a truck! The first and second row seating is class-competitive but the third row seat shows how it can be done – easily accessible through a slick flip and fold second row, it offers sufficient head and legroom for six-footers! There are belts for three but for big folks, two would be a better fit. The third row seats flip and fold flat with the tug of a single lever as do the second row units – all with headrests attached. When it comes time to convert the Durango from people to cargo carrying, the ability to fold both second and third row seats flat with headrests intact is appreciated – as is the 48-inch width between wheel housings allowed by the new rear suspension design.
The new instrument cluster, in fact the entire instrument panel is far classier than expected. There is a very European-like cleanliness about the design. But there is more storage space than you’ll find in any European vehicle. In the knowledge people use drive-throughs, the center console contains provision for large fast food bags and the cupholders and neoprene-lined for a better grip and post-spill cleanup. Adjustable pedals are available and a good idea for the height-challenged, allowing them to comfortably position themselves away from the airbag. The second row seats can be reclined and folks back there have their very own climate controls. Also new and available is a factory-installed entertainment system complete with DVD player, wireless headphones, integrated game ports and remote control.
While our American brethren will be offered a six-cylinder, rear-drive price leader, all Canadian Durangos will have a V8 driving all four wheels. Every new ’04 Canadian-bound Durango comes from the Delaware plant not only with eight-cylinders and full-time all wheel drive, but also a five-speed automatic transmission and ABS. The Durango comes in SLT, SLT Plus and Limited trim levels. The standard equipment list also includes 17-inch wheels and tires, front and rear air conditioning, third row seat, power windows, locks and driver’s seat. Prices range from $41,975 for a well-equipped SLT model to $48,230 for the Limited trim level with the Hemi engine and a full array of luxury features including leather upholstery, power sunroof, 348-watt Infiniti sound system and adjustable pedals.
Photo: Richard Russell. Click image to enlarge
Beneath the hood rests one of two engines – the 230-horsepower 4.7 litre Magnum V8 used elsewhere in the Dodge lineup, or the reincarnation of the famous Hemi, with 330 horsepower and 370 lb. ft. of torque – a full 90 horsepower increase over the old 5.9 litre V8. Neither engine will blow your socks off due to the 5,200-pound weight of this big truck. But they do permit an 8900 lb. trailer rating. Dodge engineers further ensured worry-free towing by equipping the new Durango with the largest brakes in the class. Large 13.9-inch (353-mm) rotors all-round were made possible by the 17-inch wheels and provide a full 30% increase in swept area from the previous Durango. They reduce 100 km to zero stopping distances by at least 15 feet (4.4 m).
The ’04 Durango comes with a single speed electronically shifted transfer case when equipped with the standard 4.7 litre Magnum engine. Opt for the Hemi and you get two-speed case complete with a 2.72 ratio low-range in the lockable centre diff.
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On the road, the new rack-and-pinion steering, independent front suspension and coil-sprung rear suspension with a Watts linkage result in a much more pleasant driving experience. Ride quality has been considerably improved without sacrificing tow and carrying capacities or off-road prowess. The biggest single improvement for the real consumer will come in the vastly higher level of refinement. The new Durango boasts remarkably low levels of noise, vibration and harshness. On the open road there is practically no wind or road noise despite the fact this is a very large truck riding on tall, aggressive tires. Credit for this improvement must be shared by a number of areas: the stiffer frame allows chassis engineers to tune a number of variables, expandable foam is injected into numerous body cavities, the front door glass is 20% thicker and rubber isolation mounts were used for both front and rear wiper systems and the steering gear. During development, the NVH engineers actually pressurized the cab while trying different combinations of door, body and glass sealing. The end-result was 35% less leakage, which directly resulted in lower noise levels.
Dodge has certainly raised the bar in the full-size SUV Sweepstakes.