- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

In football, especially at the college level, athletes are prized if they have the ability to play both offense and defense.

Dodge is trying something similar with its 2004 Durango sport utility vehicle. Completely redesigned from the original that made its debut in 1997, the new Durango aims to compete both up and down the SUV ladder — up against such full-size sport utes as the Nissan Pathfinder Armada and Chevrolet Tahoe, and down against midsize offerings as the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer.

In truth, the Durango is a large SUV, though the designers have commendably taken a safety path and matched the height of its bumpers to those of passenger cars. But Dodge wants it to compete in the midsize class on price and in the public mind. The intention also is to encourage both male and female customers to adopt it as their own.

Unlike the other major manufacturers, the Dodge Division of DaimlerChrysler has only one SUV, so the Durango needs to have the wherewithal to reach out in different directions. However, because it is based on a truck (the Dodge Dakota), it doesn’t directly compete against the new breed of car-based crossover SUVs.

In a word, it’s big, heavy and thirsty. At close to 17 feet long, the new Durango is seven inches longer and three inches wider than the original, which was anything but anorexic.

It also tips the scales at anywhere from 2.3 tons to 2.5 tons, depending on the model. The test Durango, an SLT with the 4.7-liter V-8 engine and all-wheel drive, weighed 4,830 pounds without people or cargo. Mileage on all models is mostly in the teens.

Despite all that, the new Durango displays a degree of refinement that could endear it even to some buyers who don’t like trucks.

That’s because, with its body-on-frame construction, the passenger pod is well isolated from road and mechanical noise, so it’s quiet inside at freeway speeds on most road surfaces. Moreover, the Durango has a relatively smooth ride, considering its truck underpinnings.

Handling is surprisingly agile, again as long as you take into account that it has a solid rear axle and a truck suspension.

The four-wheel drive is a full-time system with no low range but a lockup mode for off-road duty.

Three engines are available: A 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 for the economy-minded, the tested 230-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8 and a brute-force 335-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 that carries Dodge’s storied Hemi designation.

As might be imagined, the Hemi packs a lot of grunt. But likely most customers would be quite happy with the 4.7-liter motor. The 3.7-liter V-6 is OK for light duty, but doesn’t pack much of a wallop because of a lower torque rating.

The transmission is a five-speed automatic that is well-matched to the power characteristics of the 4.7-liter engine. It is controlled through a steering-column-mounted shift lever. A console-mounted floor shifter is not available.

There are three models — the ST, SLT and Limited — all available with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. They range in price from about $26,500 to more than $35,000, depending on equipment.

The test SLT 4X4 had a base price of $31,590 and, with a few options that included traction control, side air bags, leather upholstery, third-row seat, a six-disc CD changer, and power-adjustable pedals, topped out at $35,845.

The Dodge boys expect the SLT to account for more than half of the Durango’s sales.

The SL carries five passengers in two rows of seats; the SLT is available with a third-row seat for $150. But you have to buy the leather upholstery ($675) to get it. Other available options include a DVD entertainment system. With the rear seat up, there’s a respectable 20 cubic feet of cargo space in back. Fold that third seat and it opens up a cavernous area with more than 68 cubic feet of stash space.

Moreover, the space between the wheel wells will accommodate objects 4 feet wide.

Comfort up front is excellent, with large and supportive seats that feature a manual lumbar support.

Second-row passengers also fare fairly well, except that the designers (what were they thinking?) put the cup holder on the floor, right where the center passenger’s feet should go. The third-row seat is acceptable for average-sized humans, though it’s a chore to crawl back there.

A big, easy-to-read speed- ometer dominates the instrument cluster, and there are eight (count ‘em) air-conditioning outlets in the dash, but the center ones do not have a side-to-side adjustment.

There’s a compass and outside-temperature readout overhead, and a large storage area in the center console. Big outside mirrors help visibility yet contribute only a little wind noise.

There are more than 65 different SUVs competing for the hearts and dollars of the vehicle-buying public.

Dodge figures 16 of them are direct competitors of the Durango. No matter how good you may be, it ain’t easy any more.

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