2003 Dodge Durango SLT
2003 Dodge Durango SLT. Click image to enlarge

Yes, it’s true; six years have passed since Dodge launched the original Durango. Back then it was a huge success in part because it was larger than a Ford Explorer and a Chevy Blazer. And it had a killer feature for its class: a third-row seat that better fit growing families. In its peak year, 1999, Chrysler sold 189,840 Durangos.

Used buyers should know that the Durango has remained basically unchanged since its launch. But it’s a totally different story for 2004. The new Durango grows 178 mm (seven inches) in length and is 76 mm (three inches) and taller and wider. That’s interesting because the outgoing Durango was a relatively large SUV for its day.

But since then we’ve seen the arrival of bigger SUVs like the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe. The 2004 Dodge will be smaller and more fuel-efficient than the biggest SUVs but offer a competitive amount of cargo space. And it will ride and handle better than the used Durangos out there thanks to a new chassis.

This time, in fact, the new chassis belongs to the Durango exclusively. The retiring Durango – the one used buyers are looking at – was built from the same basic architecture as the Dodge Dakota pickup. Meanwhile, the 4.7-litre V8 in the current Durango will continue to be offered on the redesigned model.

It’s interesting to look ahead to the redesigned Durango as we look back on the outgoing model. When it arrived for the 1998 model year, Dodge officials touted the Durango as the SUV for the buyer who wants a little bit more of everything in a compact sport-utility vehicle. Dodge will market the new Durango in a similar way. However, the 1998-2003 Durango took its styling cues from the Ram pickup, and the 2004 truck is more its own truck.

For those looking at an older Durango, the massive changes in the SUV market are worth noting. That is, unlike six years ago, today’s SUV market is crowded with almost 50 mid-sized and 20 large models. We’ve also seen the arrival of foreign brands such as the Honda Pilot and Nissan Murano that offer many of the same things the Durango offered almost exclusively in 1997,

But in particular, used buyers should note that in 2002, Ford completely updated the Explorer, making it pretty much a direct rival for the Durango. If you go back to the 1998-2001 time frame, note that at 4,900 mm in length (193 in) the 1998-2001 Durango dwarfs the 1998-2001 Ford Explorer, itself the largest of the compacts of that era, by some 12 cm (4.7 in).

The Durango also has an 11 cm (4.4 in) wheelbase edge. Equipped with four-wheel drive (4wd) and the biggest V8 engine, the 1998-2001 Durango outweighs the 1998-2001 Explorer by some 164 kilos (361 pounds), too.

The Durango from day one also has had a maximum towing capacity rated at 3,311 kg (7,200 lbs), seating for up to eight and a cargo area that can sleep a pair of NBA centres when the two rear seats are folded flat.

Power? Originally, there were three engine choices: base 3.9-litre V6 (175 hp/225 ft-lbs torque); 5.2-litre V8 (230 horsepower/300 ft-lbs. torque); and, 5.9-litre V8 (245 hp./335 ft.-lbs torque). All three engines were pushrod-type with good power for towing.

In 2000, the 5.2-litre was replaced by the overhead cam V8 (4.7-litres/235 hp) originally developed for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This engine has a different transmission than the one on the 5.9-litre V8. Together, the 4.7-litre and its tranny make for a smoother powertrain than the 5.2-litre, although it’s fair to say that fuel economy for all these engines is less than stellar.

Then there’s the matter of four-wheel-drive systems. The base system has always been a part-time affair with shift-on-the-fly capability. A full-time system that can be left engaged at all times has also been available from day one. For 2001, an electronic transfer case became available. For 1999, Dodge also offered a rear-drive Durango, but it went away after only one year on the market.

During its lifetime, Dodge made running changes to the Durango. For instance, for ’99 the engineers came up with five centimetres (two inches) of extra rear seat legroom for trucks with a certain unique seating configuration on the five- and six-passenger versions. And there were other small changes to the comfort and convenience side of things such as adding remote audio controls on the steering wheel, customer programmability for the rolling door locks and horn, and heated side mirrors. A redesigned overhead console gained reading lights. All nice touches.

Best of all for used buyers, Durango prices are affordable. Still, be aware of the buyer’s alerts and quite a number of safety recalls. And get a proper mechanical inspection before you buy, of course.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Connect with Autos.ca