2003 Dodge Durango Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Not too big, not too small, and very rugged.
Dodge Durango is handsome, powerful, versatile, and refined. For many buyers, however, Durango's most appealing feature is its just-right size. Based on the Dakota pickup, Durango is smaller and more maneuverable than the full-size SUVs, such as the Ford Expedition and Chevrolet Tahoe. Yet Durango still offers six-passenger seating, V8 power, and a hefty towing capacity. Dodge Durango has found a comfortable niche that Ford and GM missed.
With theater-style seating that gives rear-seat passengers a view of the road ahead, and other interior creature comforts, the Durango is a smart choice for large families. It's also a good choice for people who tow light to medium-sized trailers. A beefy 5.9-liter V8 is available, and it delivers plenty of pulling power, while the more sophisticated 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 offers decent performance and an added measure of refinement.
A new five-speed automatic transmission is available for 2002 that should improve fuel economy.
Also new for 2002 are optional side-curtain air bags ($495), available for every trim level. For 2002, Dodge has added a high-value trim level called SXT with unique Graphite trim. Last year, Durango benefited from an all-new, more comfortable and more car-like interior, plus a new performance-tuned R/T model.
Durango is available with two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. Two engines are available: a 4.7-liter V8 and a 5.9-liter V8.
Five trim levels are available. Sport ($25,100) and Sport 4WD ($27,220) feature color-keyed trim, 15-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/cassette stereo, and many other luxuries as standard equipment.
New for 2002, is the SXT ($26,995), with unique Graphite exterior trim, 16-inch alloy wheels, a roof rack, and a CD player.
SLT ($29,320) and SLT 4WD ($31,440) feature power seats, fog lights, a separate rear-compartment heater, compact disc changer, and a chrome grille.
SLT Plus ($31,930) and SLT Plus 4WD ($34,050) add leather upholstery, an overhead console, Infinity sound system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, color-coordinated running boards, and heated mirrors.
R/T ($36,620) is a performance model that combines the 245-horsepower 5.9-liter V8 with a higher numerical rear axle ratio, a limited-slip rear differential and sport-tuned exhaust to yield quicker off-the line acceleration. Four-wheel drive is standard. Seventeen-inch wheels with 275/60R17 tires and a sport-tuned suspension improve handling, while body-colored wheel flares help set the R/T apart.
Dodge Durango doesn't look like other SUVs. It makes a bolder statement with its muscular styling. It looks sportier than the Ford or GM competition and many of the imports. Durango shares its front end with the Dakota pickup. The grille's prominent bull's-eye slats instantly identify this SUV as part of the Dodge family.
Eight people can fit in the Durango (six comfortably), with theater seating designed to give everyone a view out the front. The back half of the roof is raised nearly two inches to increase rear-seat headroom and visibility. This raised portion is cleverly disguised with a roof rack.
Second-row seats are quite comfortable, offering plenty of headroom and adequate legroom. Stable cup holders and rear heating/air conditioning controls add to comfort. Third-row seats (standard in SLT, SLT Plus, and R/T) are surprisingly comfortable for two people, who enjoy adequate legroom by tucking their feet under the second-row seats in front of them. Getting in and out of that third row is easy: Flip a lever and the second-row seatback folds forward, then tumbles out of the way, allowing a quick entry or exit.
Durango's interior was re-designed for 2001, including a new instrument panel, interior trim, center and overhead consoles, carpeting and steering wheel. A dual-zone climate control system is standard, and SLT and R/T models provide auxiliary heat for the third-row seats.
When it's time to haul cargo, the tailgate lifts up and out of the way, and the two rows of seats easily fold down to provide a large, relatively flat floor. A trout bum could sleep back there. All Durangos have a long, narrow storage compartment under the floor just inside the rear liftgate, with enough space for the jack, flares and other roadside equipment.
Overall, the interior design is executed well. Our SLT Plus came with tan leather accented in attractive suede. Matching plastic trim provides an organic appearance. The seats appear plain, but they are comfortable. Carpeting extends to the backs of the rear headrests, which do not have to be removed when the seats are folded down. That's a convenient, timesaving feature.
The driving position is comfortable, with good visibility over an attractive, rounded hoodline. Instruments are big and easy to read, although the speedometer appears busy with has marks for every 2-1/2 mph. Power outside mirrors are easy to adjust with a big knob on the driver's door. Cup-holders and storage trays are nicely designed, while a digital compass and other useful readouts beckon from overhead. Large buttons on the leather-wrapped steering wheel operate one of the better cruise controls we've encountered.
The Durango is enjoyable to drive. Equipped with the big 5.9-liter Magnum V8, it always feels willing to get down the road quickly, with excellent throttle response and quick acceleration. Shifting is smooth and responsive and transmission ratios are well matched to the healthy torque of the 5.9-liter V8.
It handles well when driven briskly down narrow roads with tight corners and sweeping turns. The Durango feels a bit sportier than other sport-utilities, particularly the bigger ones. Steering is precise and the suspension provides excellent transient response, responding crisply when dodging quickly from left to right and back again. On unpaved roads, the Durango provides predictable handling. We never bottomed the suspension out in spite of bouncing around in the rough stuff.
Durango's competent off-road capability and on-road handling response don't come as a free lunch, however. We found ride quality on downtown Washington's crumbling infrastructure a bit on the harsh side. The Durango should be fine for most folks, but it's something to note on your test drive. Ride quality on rough pavement is not as smooth as it is in, say, the new Ford Explorer or GMC Envoy.
As mentioned, two V8 engines are available. Unless you plan to tow, we recommend the more modern 4.7-liter overhead-cam engine over the older 5.9-liter V8.
The sophisticated 4.7-liter V8 was a clean-sheet design for 2000. It uses a modern overhead-cam configuration, as opposed to the 5.9-liter engine's traditional overhead-valve design. Rated 235 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque, the 4.7 still meets California's low emissions vehicle (LEV) standards, and returns an EPA-certified 14/19 mpg with 2WD and four-speed automatic.
The 4.7 was designed and engineered in tandem with an innovative four-speed automatic transmission that features two second-gear ratios. Engine and transmission talk to each other and choose the optimum ratio based on driver input and load conditions. Most often, it will choose the numerically higher ratio when starting off from rest, or when towing; and a numerically lower ratio as a more ideal kick-down or passing gear.
New for 2002, is a similarly engineered five-speed automatic, with two overdrive ratios and again two different second-gear ratios. The five-speed automatic adds a new top gear onto the four-speed automatic's ratios that should improve fuel economy on the highway.
The big 5.9-liter Magnum V8 generates 245 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque. That's considerably more robust than the just-released 2003 Expedition's standard 4.6-liter overhead-cam V8 (232 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque), and not far behind Expedition's optional 5.4-liter unit, with its 260 horsepower and 350 pound-feet. The Dodge 5.9-liter V8 also compares favorably with the Chevrolet Tahoe's 5.3-liter V8 (285 horsepower, but only 325 pound-feet of torque). Fuel economy for the 5.9-liter Dodge is 12/17 mpg city/highway, as rated by the EPA. The Durango can nearly tow with the big boys, too. With the 5.9-liter engine and 3.92 axle, it's capable of pulling a 7,550-pound trailer. Chevy's Tahoe is rated to pull 7,900 pounds, and Ford's Expedition is rated for 8,900 pounds. Ford's larger-for-2002 Explorer can pull a maximum of 7,300 pounds.
Four-wheel-drive Durangos offer a choice of two different transfer cases: a traditional part-time system for serious outdoors people, and a full-time system that's better for road use in changing weather conditions. Both transfer cases rely on shift-on-the-fly lever mounted on the floor. Without stopping, slide the silky transfer box into part-time four-wheel drive and you're ready to bound through sandy gullies or deep mud. We'd feel comfortable driving a Durango anywhere.
A part-time four-wheel-drive transfer case is standard. Shifting from two-wheel drive into part-time four-wheel drive is only appropriate for mud, snow and other low-traction situations. It's not suitable for dry.
Dodge Durango is practical, intelligently designed and easy to operate. It offers more room and better acceleration than the mid-size SUVs. It also compares favorably to the full-size Ford Expedition, Chevrolet Tahoe, and GMC Yukon.
The Durango cuts a distinctive appearance among sport-utility vehicles. It's a good choice for people who want to step out from the crowd.
2WD Sport ($25,100), SXT ($26,995), SLT ($29,320); SLT Plus ($31,930)
4WD Sport ($27,220), SXT ($29,115), SLT ($31,440); SLT Plus ($34,050); R/T ($36,620).
Options As Tested
5.9-liter Magnum V8 ($595); four-wheel ABS ($495); full-time four-wheel-drive transfer case ($395); limited-slip rear differential ($285).
4WD SLT Plus ($34,050).
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