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The Machismo SUV, the Dodge Durango SLT

by Larry Weitzman

Daimler/Chrysler Full Line factory footage (39:14) 28.8, 56k or 200k Part 1 and 200k Part 2

Let's face it, vehicles today are so good that looks, specific utility and color play an even greater role in buying decisions. When the rules changer Dodge Boys decided to set the truck market on its ear, they did it with a concussive blow with the introduction of the 1994 Dodge Ram. A truck that looked like a truck, with a love-it-or-leave-it design that became just a plain love-it design. It won awards and accolades for its styling and engineering. Those awards paid dividends in a 200% sales increase.

The Dodge Boys have not been asleep at the wheel. A year ago they introduced an all-new truck in the slightly bigger than mid size Dakota. As a son of Ram, it when on to set new standards in mid size trucks. The Dakota was bigger than an S-10 or a Ranger but smaller than a full size, sort of in a class by itself. The new Durango SUV is based on this very successful Dakota design.

From the front seats forward, the Durango is basically a Dakota. The rest of the design takes its cues from the Dakota, with its coke bottle shape and fender bulges. The package works. This is an impressive looking unit that appears larger than it really is with a rugged appearance that says I am indefatigable.

This sport/ute is also in a class by itself. At an overall length of 193 inches, it is five inches longer than a Ford Explorer and six inches shorter than a four-door Chevy/GMC Tahoe/Yukon. There is one big difference, the Durango comes with an optional third row of seats and up to eight passenger seating, an option not available in the Explorer or Tahoe/Yukon. A Suburban or Expedition is for people with small garages.

It is also an inch wider than an Explorer but four inches narrower than the Tahoe. With a much stiffer frame, than the Dakota (it has seven cross members), it has the structure and feel of a bank vault. In my rather long test (it's hard to give these vehicles back, sometimes I feel like that guy going to get milk in that Honda commercial), I detected no rattles or body to frame movement. This is a tight unit.

Although it comes with three engine choices, a 175hp 3.9L V-6 (actually this the 5.2L V-8 with two cylinders chopped off), a 230hp 5.2L V-8, and a 245hp 5.9L V-8, the engine of choice is the 5.9L. Even though the V-6 is rated to tow 4,400 lbs, this vehicle is made for big power, so I opted to test a loaded, leather 5.9L (a $295 option over the 5.2L) equipped with an NV242 two speed center differential transfer case.

The NV242 makes the Durango the only "large" sport ute that has the flexibility of two wheel rear drive, full time four wheel drive and part time four wheel drive locked, high and low, for real rock hopping and mud bogging (not in my Durango, however). A bargain at $395 list. The NV242 is fed by a slick shifting four-speed electronic automatic transmission as standard equipment.

How does it drive? The extra wide track of 62 inches really adds to its stability. Its steering is precise with just the right amount of feel and understeer almost making one feel overconfident as this baby grooves effortlessly though corners. Dodge claims the unique "S" shaped design of its single leaf rear springs allows the rear wheels to slightly steer so as to follow the front. This reduces body lean and increases stability. They got me convinced. With full independent front suspension (the lower portion made from extra strong castings instead of stampings) and torsion bar controls (pioneered by Chrysler Corp in 1957), its ride was taut, yet compliant without excessive body motion. It made short and easy work to Chile Bar and back, Bass Lake Road and bumpy Ponderosa Road; very smooth in its ride and transitions through S-curves. In bumpy corners all four wheels stay planted with no axle hop. It drives as good as it looks.

The big V-8 gives you command of any situation. You have the power when you need it. The engine is very smooth, quiet and unassuming until called upon. Even with a curb weight approaching 5000 pounds, I was able to reach 60 mph from a standstill in 9.3 seconds. It accelerated from 50 mph to 70 mph in only 6.1 seconds. Up a hill slowed that time to about 9 seconds. Fuel economy is rated at 12 mpg city/17 mpg hwy. I averaged on the trip computer 12.2 mpg with almost no steady speed highway miles and a thorough examination of the abilities of the silky engine. I would expect about 13 mpg to 15 mpg in local driving. Throw in a trip to Sacramento (without traffic) and that should increase to about 16-17 mpg. Distance cruising should be smooth, silent, sweet and long. A 25 gallon gas tank is standard and should yield a cruising range well in excess of 400 miles.

The 5.2L V-8 is rated at 13/17 mpg, so don't expect any measurable fuel savings by opting for the smaller V-8 and you would give up plenty in utility. The 5.9L over the 5.2L (with a 3.92 rear axle ratio) increase towing capacity from 5,600 pounds to a lofty 7,300 pounds. Flexibility is the operative word.

Front disk brakes are standard with rear antilocks. I would recommend the four wheel antilock option at a cost of $565.00. My test vehicle had this option and the touch and feel imparts the confidence of controlled, quick and sure stops under all conditions.

The interior was bathed in soft gray leather with stylish suede, embroidered seat back inserts. Tasteful and comfortable seating for five is provided by the first two rows of seats. Leg and hip room were good and the seats cradle and caress its passengers.

The last row of seats are not really made for long trips by adults. The seat back and leg room are ok, but the seat bottom is somewhat short, albeit well padded and soft. For two smaller adults or children it would be more than adequate for even long trips, but for full sizers, an hour or two would be enough. Access, however is really easy. The middle seats are a 40/20/40 affair, the 20% having a wide pull down armrest. Both left and right seats do the "fold and tumble" with the flick of a single lever located on the seat side. Handholds are molded into the side panels just behind the rear doors to make entry to the third row simple.

The large side windows and theater seating add to the spaciousness of the interior. Dodge raised the roof a couple of inches starting at the second row of seats to allow for additional headroom and make the installation of the optional effective rear a/c unobtrusive.

The all business dash is well laid out with an instrument cluster containing the standard large tach and speedo with smaller volt meter and temp gauge on the left and fuel and oil pressure on the right. To the right are the air and sound system controls. The steering wheel contains the cruise controls and center de- powered air bag with a passenger air bag above the glove box on the right. There are two power ports for your rolling office.

If your a drinking man (non-alcoholic, of course), this is your sport ute. The one I drove had no less than nine cup holders and more pockets and hidden storage than an army field jacket.

I only have one other complaint, and that is the hard plastic used on the door paneling trim. Even though there were soft suede leather inserts, the hard plastic surrounds were out of place. Maybe Dodge is being price conscious or thinking of service and durability.

Dodge was price conscious in the building of this vehicle. They used taillights right off their minivans and the tailgate was lifted as well with some modifications. There is much commonality with the Dakota. But there are very obvious benefits. No one can deny that this may be the best looking sport ute rig around. And it is a relative bargain.

You can build this athlete with about any option you may want including a power driver's seat (worth the extra $320). The vehicle I tested had just about everything, including leather, cast wheels and oversized tires, trick radio, cassette, C/D with the Infinity speaker system, trip computer, rear a/c and hot and cold running water. It listed for $34,685, which included a $300 discount for quick order package 28F.

However, the budget minded can enjoy this 4X4 SUV for a lot less. You can order the basic unit with a 5.2L V-8 and package 26D which includes cruise, power windows and locks for just over $28,000.


Price                   $25,810 to about $35,000
Engine Type
   3.9L V-6             175 hp @ 4800 rpm
                        225 lb-ft torque @ 3200
   5.2L V-8             230 hp @ 4400 rpm
                        300 lb-ft torque @ 3200
   5.9L V-8             245 hp @ 4000 rpm
                        335 lb-ft torque @ 3200
                        4-speed electronic automatic

                        4X4 Transfer Case
                        NV 231 part-time
                        NV 242 Full-time


Wheelbase              115.9 inches
Length                 193.3 inches
Width                  71.5  inches
Height                 72.3  inches
Ground Clearance       7.9   inches
Curb Weigh             4750  pounds
Fuel Capacity          25    gallons
Max Tow Capacity       7,300 pounds


0-60                   9.3   seconds
50-70 (level)          6.1   seconds
50-70 (uphill)         9.0   seconds
                       Top SpeedToo expensive
                       Fuel Econ12/17 city/hwy, my estimate expect
                       about 13-19 in El Dorado County Driving