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2004 DODGE DURANGO Review - Base Price $25,920

Totally redesigned, now roomier and refined.


2004 dodge durango Review

The Durango has been around for a mere five years, but it seems so long. The SUV world has moved so fast. In those short five years the Durango has gone from innovative to dated by its competition. But it has established enduring strengths and character; it's truly rugged and sporty, with distinctive styling that reflects those values.

Now comes the 2004 Dodge Durango, a total rewrite of the Durango book. It's seven inches longer, and the wheelbase, width and height have all grown by three inches, bringing it to a size between the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition. Its skin has been completely restyled, and there are two new engines: a 3.7-liter V6 and a 5.7-liter Hemi V8, in addition to the popular 4.7-liter V8.

The new Durango offers excellent ride and handling, without that unrefined, rough round the edges feel that characterized the previous-generation model. Both the 4.7-liter and 5.7-liter V8s are superb, smooth and powerful. They come with a five-speed automatic that's smooth, refined, smart and responsive. Inside, it's quiet, roomy, comfortable and technologically sophisticated. These descriptions would not have fit last year's model.

The all-new Durango is both more and less of a truck than it was before. More because it's stronger; and less because it simply feels less like a truck than the former Durango, despite its size.


There's 20 percent more glass than before, allowing better visibility, and 15 percent more cargo space: 68 cubic feet with the third seat dropped, 102 cubic feet with both seats down. The second and third seats are notably easy to access, as the rear doors open an exceptionally wide 84 degrees. The doors are also bigger, yet they're each five pounds lighter, possible because the body's overall structural strength is integrated into the new boxed-rail chassis.

The rear seat easily flips forward with the touch of one hand, and the seatback flops flat just as easily. This is no small virtue. The second-row seats recline and have their own climate control, so passengers can snooze in total comfort. The well-thought-out detail continues with convenient grab handles cleverly molded into the stubby rear leg of the second seat, which ease climbing back to the third seat. Once back there, there is a small bubble in the ceiling to give an extra bit of headroom. And from the outside, the liftgate opens very easily. The cargo floor is lower thanks to the rear suspension design, and there are 48 full inches between the wheelwell humps.

Chrysler has a new and hugely expensive wind tunnel at its headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., and it was used extensively with the Durango to reduce wind noise. The aerodynamics are fine tuned, including the mirrors and the subtle ducktail at the trailing edge of the hood under the wipers, for reducing wind noise over the windshield. Says engineer Bill Grabowski, director of Dodge truck platform and body, "Even if it's inaudible to the ear, if the data from the wind tunnel shows noise is there, we make it go away."

Call the whole Durango "Silent Running," like the movie. More details: The motor mounts are calibrated to reduce the frequencies and harmonics of each engine. The windows have an extra layer of lamination to deaden sound. Foam is injected into many of the body and chassis crannies discovered by engineers to be tiny echo chambers.

It's this kind of effort and detail that especially makes the competitive price of the Durango so noteworthy.

From the driver's point of view, the instrumentation is clean, handsome, easy to read and easy to operate. Classy. We especially like the simple black-on-white gauges and rectangular black Venetian-blind style heating and cooling vents. The center console is deep, under a removable tray, and forward of that is another important compartment called the "fast-food bin." There are two integrated cupholders with removable neoprene for different sizes of drink containers. The seats are about right, neither too soft nor too firm. The new four-spoke steering wheel is nice.

The SLT has orange-hued wood trim, while the Limited presents a cleaner look with its brushed aluminum. (That's real wood and real aluminum, not plastic.) The Limited offers a high-tech climate-control panel with automatic temperature adjustment using a microprocessor and infrared sensor in the overhead console. Another Limited option is the hands-free, voice-command cellphone system compatible with Bluetooth phones, utilizing a microphone in the rearview mirror and the sound system's speakers.


Dodge calls its look "in your face" styling. It boasts that other drivers will be inclined to move over when they see a Durango or Ram in the rearview mirror. The "crosshair" grille that's so imposing comes only in high-profile chrome in '04. And the new headlamps are called "shotgun" headlights. We wish intimidation were left out of the equation. The Durango is handsome enough to stand on its own. But the Dodge truck image is macho, and it works.

The word "retro" doesn't exactly fit, but the big-rig look is even stronger than before, with a conspicuously short hood. And the styling cues come from the 1946 Dodge Power Wagon, given an added boost by the 1999 Power Wagon concept truck whose looks were popular with truck buyers at car shows where it appeared.

There are three other styling elements that make Durango continue to stand out from the crowd. That short hood leads into a steeply raked windshield which draws a wedge to the silhouette, enhanced by the roof that slopes very slightly forward. The windshield is also aerodynamically slick, although from the front seats it gives the Durango the visual feel of a minivan.

The fender flares are exaggerated, not in a wide-tire sort of way but rather more of the semi-truck look; the hood seems as narrow as it is short with the front fenders extended like that. The only other SUV we can think of having such fenders is the edgy Endeavor by Mitsubishi, a company partly owned by Chrysler; but curiously, the Endeavor came first.

The third element is more subtle. The roofline slopes briefly downward at the rear, where the liftgate window leans to meet it. This reduces the normally boxy SUV look. The taillights are distinctive as well. They're called "afterburner" lights: two big red stacked circles per side, with the sheetmetal molded at their edges to suggest speed. The Chevy TrailBlazer was the first SUV to adopt the look, but of course Dodge does everything bolder.


We divided our road time between the two V8s. The 4.7-liter engine is really good. It's powerful and really smooth. But it only gets 14/18 mpg in 4WD, using 87 octane, and the more we looked at that versus the 5.7-liter Hemi, the more we gravitated to the bigger engine.

The 5.7-liter Hemi delivers 105 more horsepower than the 4.7-liter while providing almost the same economy, 13/18 mpg with 89 octane recommended, 87 acceptable. For $895 more, the Hemi seems like a no-brainer; plus, it can tow up to 8950 pounds with the optional 3.92 rear axle, compared to 7400 for the 4.7. And the two-speed transfer case is standard with the Hemi, optional with other engines.

Hemi, by the way, refers to the overhead-valve, hemispherical combustion chamber design, and harkens back to the late '60s when the 426-cubic-inch (7.0-liter) Dodge Hemi Ramcharger ruled. Chrysler modernized the design last year after it had been gone (but not forgotten) for decades.

Still, it didn't feel to the seat of our pants like 335 horsepower. The 5.7-liter felt a little more powerful than the 4.7-liter, but it wasn't a night-and-day difference. The double-overhead-cam 305-horsepower Nissan Armada we recently drove felt like it had more oomph than the 5.7-liter Durango. We'd like to see a drag race.

We were most impressed by the five-speed automatic transmission, which comes standard with both V8s. The shifts were incredibly smooth, totally undetectable between third and fourth gears up or down. It has a Tow mode, which holds the gears longer and will even downshift under deceleration, as might be needed with a trailer. It's cool when you come toward a turn at high speed and back off, and your automatic transmission drops a downshift for you.

When you need to use the brakes to slow down or stop, they'll be there. They're big vented discs (13.2 inches front, 13.9 rear) with twin-piston calipers in front, ABS with standard electronic brake force distribution, balancing the front and rear. Dodge claims they reduce the stopping distance from 60 mph by 15 feet, compared to the previous Durango. We gave them a good 70-mph panic stop, and they stopped the Durango steady and true.

Amazingly, despite the increase in size the new Durango is no heavier than the old one. That's because it was a clean-sheet design, with nothing borrowed from the beefy Ram truck as before. Designers also took advantage of new manufacturing processes. With the increased bending and torsional rigidity of the hydroformed boxed-rail chassis (nearly three times as stiff), a new independent front suspension and innovative adaptation of the 40-year-old Watts link rear suspension with coil springs (contributing to a rear end which is 40 pounds lighter and keeping the rear axle planted on the ground), the ride and handling are excellent, maybe even superb.

Within minutes behind the wheel of a 4.7-liter Durango SLT, we could tell the ride was way better than before, and it got no less firm and comfortable throughout our test. There's 12 percent more travel in the suspension. The rack-and-pinion steering provides a tight turning circle. We had a chance to toss the Durango around more than 100 miles of remote twisty roads in the Texas Hill Country, and it stayed on an even keel through some very hard cornering. The front end is 20 pounds lighter, and the short hood, driven by styling, required the engine to be set farther back in the chassis resulting in better balance.

We drove the Durango off-road and didn't hit bottom over the ruts in the dirt in spite of driving it aggressively over some rough terrain. We towed a 5950-pound trailer for about 30 miles, and decided you should get the 5.7-liter Hemi if you need to tow something that heavy. That's what we had hooked to the trailer, and the 4.7-liter wouldn't have been enough motor.

Safety innovations are significant: The two forward frame rails have extensions that fold like an accordion when crushed, reducing the jolt to the driver in a head-on crash; there's also an energy-absorbing steering column. And like the politically correct Volvo XC90, the frame crossmember just behind the front bumper is lowered to the level of a passenger car frame to reduce the chance of running up and over a car. The front air bags deploy with varying power based on the weight of the person in the seat.

We end this review with a crunch. Displayed at the Durango launch, on the lawn of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, was a red Durango that had been driven by Dodge's own crash-testers into a fixed barrier at 30 mph. Most of the damage appeared to have stopped at the engine. Government and insurance industry crash tests have yet to be done on the Durango, but, said one Dodge official, "We fully expect to earn five stars in everything."


For years, Chrysler has been using its racing program to attract young engineers to the company, and now they're older and applying their skills to the Durango. The all-new 2004 Dodge Durango is smooth and powerful with either of the two V8 engines. It rides and handles especially well, and has excellent engineering touches and details. The base price is thousands of dollars less than most similar-sized SUVs. If you're in the market for a large SUV and like the looks, you should check it out.

Find more reviews at New Car Test Drive. The wolrd's leading provider of Automotive Reviews.

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