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Tough Stranger Rides Into Dodge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine the shivers of any design team tasked with conceiving yet another sport-utility vehicle, and at the apparent crest of the craze.

With dozens of these beasts of suburban burden filling every yard of our highways, considerations are many. Do you build a college coed’s toy? Decide upon something mid-sized, priced for mainstreamers? Or put all your eggs into a luxury mini-semi and aim it at senior professionals with six-figure incomes?

All-purpose, or all looks? Macho for the missus, docile for Dad, with emphasis on size, handling, or tugging power?

Well, the Dodge Boys went back to basics.

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They took a hard look at the myopia of the competition.

They took a second and third look at buyer wants.

Then they built the Dodge Durango, which lives up to its commercials and will outpull, outmuscle, outhustle most of the 4WD field because it is unmistakably a truck. It’s almost a reminder from Chrysler-Dodge that good ol’ trucks birthed sport utilities; trucks capable of carrying entire families remain the public’s desire; so trucks should be the sport-utility industry’s point of return to its original identity.

Still, there’s a smoothness, even a gentleness to the Durango. Although it has the highest towing capacity (7,000 pounds), the greatest payload and heftiest engines in its compact class, there’s nothing coarse about its operation, nor anything primitive about its equipment.

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Durango doesn’t wander freeway lanes like a DUI bull moose, and its 7.9 inches of ground clearance (lower, say, than the Chevy Tahoe and Isuzu Rodeo) won’t require a block and tackle for getting Grandma in and out. It will look at any weather, examine grumpy surfaces ahead, shake out its traction mechanicals, and tell you just to sit back and enjoy your Starbucks.

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If there is any vehicle capable of transforming sport-ute-phobes into SUV-philes, the Dodge Durango is it. And this week, a panel of automotive journalists placed Durango alongside Mercedes-Benz’s ML320 and Subaru’s Forrester as finalists for the primo prestigious title of North American Truck of the Year.

Balance is its secret.

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Durango is a compact sport utility with the capacity of a full-size, and that translates to room for seven adults plus a pair of darling innocents. Base prices start at $25,000; a premium version with leather lining and an engine big enough for a tractor-trailer is only $32,000, and that’s close enough to Ford’s Explorer, Toyota’s 4-Runner and Honda’s Passport to be tempting.

Acceleration matches that of most passenger cars. Top speed is just slower than that of the CHP airplane that radioed to earth and suggested I be rewarded with a Christmas ticket for doing 90 mph. Which, to the seat of my chinos, believe me, Patrolman Pete, felt more like 60 mph.

Credit, or blame, for the transgression goes to that big engine in the Durango SLT Plus, a 5.9-liter V-8 pumping out 245 horsepower--which is more than you get with the Ford Expedition, Toyota Land Cruiser and other oversized kings of serious tundra. The penalty for all this power--in addition to speeding tickets from Big Bird--is an average gas consumption of barely a dozen miles per gallon.

But if that is a serious consideration--and with the mystery of today’s inflating pump prices, it could be getting more serious by the day--the Durango is available with a slightly less piquant V-8 producing 230 horsepower, and a temperate, 175-horsepower V-6.

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Of body on frame construction, and with a widened platform borrowed from the Dodge Dakota pickup, the resemblance between Durango and its kin in the Dodge truck lineup is quite visible.

The grille is strong and shows the power and purpose of a cross-bar cattle gate. The instrument panel is large, easy to read and very logical. A gearshift branching from the steering column--tipped with an overdrive--is another of many borrowings from the Dakota. And why not trade on such visuals and mechanicals, and plumb a package that has created much brand loyalty for many decades?

Yet Chrysler, clearly, is interested in going after more than the Dodge faithful. It wants to siphon off some Chevy Blazer buyers, pillage Explorer’s ranks, and send raiding parties against the Mitsubishi Montero Sport. There might even be a little fratricide in the works, because by price, performance and purpose, the Durango is positioned clammily close to another Chrysler stalwart: the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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Failings are relatively few. Fingernails tapping some plastic dashboard pieces will produce hollow echoes. Paneling and storage compartment latches don’t appear to be overly stoic. And you’ll need to hunker, fold and squeeze to reach the third row of seats.

There’s 88 cubic feet of cargo space with rows two and three folded flat, but with seats up and occupied, there’s just enough room to meet Southwest Airline’s carry-on criteria of two totes and a candy bar.

Particularly delightful are rearview mirrors the size of satellite dishes. Also a rear roof line raised two inches for a silhouette reminiscent of elderly Oldsmobile station wagons, which in turn were emulating observation decks on even older transcontinental railroad cars. In Durango’s case, the added height is not to increase passenger visibility but to improve rear headroom and allow terraced seating for the half dozen or so riding in the back.

We ran the Durango on the dry and flat, and found it to be a thoroughly well-behaved performer--no rocking, no rolling, and with the chassis, suspension and superstructure never trying to counterbalance or second-guess steering input. Even on winding roads through some interesting hills, the Goodyear Wranglers on 15-inch aluminum wheels stayed nicely stuck to the asphalt. Not car-like, exactly, but not rumbling and scuffing like a truck either.

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We found some snow and goop on forest roads that would have required four-wheel drive in spring. In winter, it was terrain for all-wheels locked and low gears engaged. Progress was steady, and slip-free with a surplus of urge.

Durango’s design team, incidentally, didn’t get too intellectual in deciding a mission statement for its new vehicle.

It simply plagiarized Goldilocks and the three SUVs: This one’s too small, this one’s too large, but this one’s juuussst right.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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1998 Dodge Durango SLT Plus

The Good: Fine meld of price, performance and function, with a compact frame offering full-size room. Huge engine borrowed from Dakota lineup. Aimed at truck mind-set and purpose that has been largely buried and softened by the current crop of car-like sport utilities. Power and handling aplenty.

The Bad: Horrible gas consumption and rear seat access.

The Ugly: Some might think the front end qualifies.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

1998 Dodge Durango SLT Plus

Cost

* Base: $25,810 (includes four-speed automatic, dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, power steering, air-conditioning, roof luggage racks, aluminum wheels).

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* Price as tested: $31,585 (adds cruise control, tilt steering, keyless entry, overhead console, power locks, power seats, fog lamps, CD sound system, trailer package, full-time transfer case and destination charge).

Engine

* 5.9-liter V-8 developing 245 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque.

Type

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* Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, eight-passenger sport-utility vehicle.

Performance

* 0-60 mph, as tested, 9.2 seconds with four-speed automatic.

* Top speed, 114 mph.

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* Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 12 and 16 mpg.

Curb Weight

* 4,700 pounds.


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