- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

When the Durango was first introduced in 1997, its three rows of seating and real truck capability made it a big hit in what was then a not-so-crowded marketplace. The sport utility vehicle segment has grown and changed substantially since then, and the trusty old Durango is beginning to show its age. Now, consumers demand much more from their SUVs, so the 2004 Durango has been redesigned to satisfy those demands.

According to the design folks at Dodge, the goals for the 2004 Durango were: improve the ride quality, refine the comfort and convenience level of the interior, utilize new technologies to improve safety, increase fuel efficiency and retain the capability that makes it a Dodge. So, the Durango is larger than its predecessor — 7 inches longer, 3 inches wider and more than 3 inches taller. Even though the wheelbase has been increased by 3 inches, the turning radius has decreased.

Buyers were attracted to the original Durango in part because of its tough, trucklike capability for towing and getting around off-road. That capability was accomplished with the help of body-on-frame construction, a solid rear axle and leaf springs. Unfortunately, because the underpinnings were derived from the Dakota pickup, the result was a trucklike ride and mediocre handling. That’s all been fixed on the new 2004 Durango.

First of all, the hydroformed and fully boxed frame was designed specifically for Durango, and is not an adaptation from some other vehicle. Hydroforming is a manufacturing process for producing frame parts with superior accuracy and consistency, thus allowing for better tuning of the independent front suspension and steering components for better handling characteristics.

While they were at it, Dodge engineers designed the new frame to lower the bumper height, so now it is within the bumper height zone of passenger cars to provide better crash compatibility. Octagonal front frame rail tips are designed to absorb frontal impacts more consistently and can be removed to expedite repair . The rack-and-pinion steering hardware has been relocated behind the front suspension where it doesn’t compromise crush space.

To further satisfy complaints about ride quality, the rear suspension has been converted to a so-called “link coil” design. It uses coil springs and trailing links instead of leaf springs. Although Durango’s designers considered an independent rear suspension, the solid rear axle was retained because of its durability and towing capability (8,950 pounds). A clever “Watt” linkage on the rear axle keeps the axle centered and improves rear-end stability over rough surfaces.

First offered on the 2003 Ram Heavy Duty pickup, Durango’s new 5.7-liter HEMI Magnum V-8 delivers 335 horsepower and 370 foot-pounds of torque. That’s a 40 percent improvement in horsepower and 12 percent improvement in torque compared with the previous generation 5.9-liter V-8. And, that increased power comes with a 10 percent increase in fuel economy. The HEMI is sure to provide the power to tow heavy loads and handle the toughest outback situations, but there are other options for those who don’t need that kind of performance.

The 2004 Durango is also available with the 230-horsepower 4.7-liter Magnum V-8 engine. Both the HEMI and Magnum V-8 are mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that features a “tow/haul” mode for reduced gear searching when towing by holding the lower gear longer. The system will also pick a lower gear ratio under downhill conditions to better use the engine’s braking capability. New for 2004 is the 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower Magnum V-6. With its improved fuel economy, it is standard on two-wheel-drive models and replaces the 4.7-liter V-8 as the base engine in Durango.

There’s much more to the new Durango than running gear. A distinctively restyled body is complemented by a functional and attractive interior. Inside, it’s smooth and quiet, but don’t be deceived. It’s still just right for going out and grabbing life by the horns.

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