- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2005

Originally conceived to fill the gap between the full-size (Chevrolet Tahoe and the Ford Expedition) and midsize (Chevrolet Blazer and Ford Explorer) SUVs, the Dodge Durango now resides in that gray area where the two segments overlap. Its niche status has been eroded thanks not only to its midsize competitors getting larger, but also by its dimensions flirting with those of full-size SUVs.

When launched last year, the second-generation Durango was more than 7 inches longer than the original. While Durango gives away a couple of inches of width to both of them, it is actually 4 inches longer than the Tahoe and just 3 inches shorter than the Toyota Sequoia. With their third-row seat folded flat, it has more cargo room than the Expedition, Tahoe or Sequoia. Additionally, its towing prowess is consistent with a full-size SUV. The downside: There is very little fuel economy benefit with Durango compared to full-size competitors.

When introduced in the late 1990s, Durango offered something only available in full-size SUVs: a third-row seat. Today this is a feature offered in the midsize segment as well. While the third seat secures it bragging rights for seating seven, only children will be comfortable in the last row. Second-row legroom is stingy, but falls between the average legroom in full-size and midsize entries.

There are plenty of configurations to help tailor a Durango to a specific budget and need. Trim levels range from the entry-level ST to the top-of-the-line Limited. In between are the STX, SLT and the new-for-2005 Adventurer. The Adventurer package ($1,360 and available only on the SLT) targets active owners and in addition to the regular SLT equipment offers a Thule roof rack with a choice of six rack systems, reversible slush mats, an easy-to-clean cargo liner, tubular side steps and unique alloy wheels. All trim levels are available with rear- or four-wheel drive.

Just adequate to maintain Durango’s place in traffic, the 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 is somewhat taxed in pulling around this SUV’s more than 5,000 pounds. It is standard on two-wheel-drive versions of the ST and STX and is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. All other Durangos come with the more aggressive 230-horsepower 4.7-liter V-8. It uses a five-speed automatic to hustle engine output to either the rear or all four wheels. Buyers of SLT and Limited versions who want a Durango that really packs a wallop can opt for the 335-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi.It’s a $995 option on four-wheel-drive Durangos and a $1,780 option ($785 to upgrade the transmission) on two-wheel-drive SLTs.

With the V-8 Hemi, Durango is near the top of the SUV performance food chain. Only a couple of SUVs such as the Porsche Cayenne can claim more horsepower. The 4.7-liter V-8 accelerates with authority, but doesn’t come close to the enthusiastic performance of the V-8 Hemi. Remarkably, there is nearly no difference in fuel economy between the two V-8s. The Environmental Protection Agency rates the four-wheel-drive 4.7-liter at 14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 on the highway. The four-wheel-drive 5.7-liter Hemi has earned the same highway rating with an around-town figure of 13 mpg. Partially redeeming itself for its lesser acceleration, the V-6 has an EPA rating of 16 mpg city and 21 highway.

As trucklike as it is in its engineering, Durango delivers a fairly civilized ride. It handles better than its bulk would indicate. Behaving like a smaller vehicle, it maneuvers easily through congested traffic and crowded parking lots. On the road, its suspension is on the stiff side of the equation, but rolling over railroad tracks at speed won’t spill that morning cup of coffee. Four-wheel disc brakes with antilock are standard on all Durangos.

There is no confusing Durango’s cabin with that of a passenger car. While some SUVs attempt to transfer the sedan experience into their interiors, Durango’s layout can’t be mistaken for anything but a truck. Not much effort has been made to disguise the wide use of plastic on most interior surfaces. Instrumentation is simple and uncluttered. Placed high on the center stack, the audio controls are easy to use and well within reach. Large, round gauges directly in front of the driver clearly indicate key functions. The front bucket seats have wide bottom cushions and sufficient support.

Buying into the Durango begins at $27,630 for the V-6-powered two-wheel-drive ST. Even in its entry-level guise it comes loaded with cruise control, air conditioning, power windows/door locks, remote keyless entry and an audio system with CD player. Moving up through the different models adds to the content and price. The flagship four-wheel-drive Limited tops out the base price range at $37,205, which includes destination fees, and such standard equipment as power adjustable pedals, leather seating, eight-way power front seats, automatic day/night rearview mirror, upgraded audio system with in-dash six-disc CD Changer/MP3, automatic climate control and heated outboard power mirrors.

Bottom line: Durango backs up its beefy, rugged looks with an available high-performance V-8 and better than average off-road capability at a very competitive price.

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