The Dodge Durango Hemi

Review Notes: Dodge Durango 4x4 Limited Hemi
Personality Refined SUV with surprisingly good handling and endless torque
Unusual features Hemi engine...need we say more? OK, how about being able to show computer fault
codes without a scanner? Or airbags for all three rows?
Above Average: Handling, value and efficiency compared with other SUVs, brakes,
endless torque with optional Hemi, five-speed automatic responsiveness and smoothness
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, as with all truck-based SUVs
EPA gas mileage 13 city, 18 highway
Price Durango base, $28,000; Durango Limited base, $34,255; as tested, $38,320
Other notes Passed scrape test easily. Review by David Zatz

The Dodge Durango has changed almost completely since its first generation, when it was a competent if unremarkable mid-sized SUV. Now, with a host of new engineering features and that optional 335-horsepower Hemi engine, it's set to raise the bar for full-sized SUVs.

Seven inches longer, three inches taller, and three inches wider than the prior Durango, the new model still managed to reduce gas mileage - even with the top engine, which is considerably more powerful (by roughly 100 horsepower) than the old 360 cubic inch V8. The base engine has also been replaced, with the old 3.9 liter V6 (based on the ancient LA series V8s) supplanted by a 210 horsepower 3.7 V6. A 230 horsepower V8, of the same family as the V6, sits in the middle, providing extra torque at much lower cost than the 5.7 Hemi (which adds about $1,000 to the list price, while bringing the towing capacity up to 8,950 pounds). Amazingly, the Hemi - which features pushrods rather than an overhead valve and two valves per cylinder instead of the usual four - has a relatively low smog index of .29 (the average new vehicle's smog index is 1.02, with the maximum being 3).

Towing is aided by a new Tow/Haul feature which provides crisper shifts and holds a lower gear longer; it also downshifts earlier when going down hills to provide engine braking. Our test vehicle ahd the trailer towing group, including hitch and wiring harness, at $455. It also had traction control, at a very reasonable $30, a full-time all wheel drive two-speed transfer case (again reasonable at $195), a 3.92:1 axle ratio, heated front seats, and rear seat video, the most expensive option at $1,150.

There are now three rows of seats to hold seven people. The cargo area has expanded by 15 percent, for 102.4 cubic feet; with the rearmost seat folded, there is more cargo room in the Dodge Durango than in the Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, or Toyota Sequoia. In addition, there are now 48 inches between the wheelhouses, so you can fit those four-foot boards in, as well as more increased hip, leg, and shoulder room. Yet, the turning radius has gotten smaller, thanks to a new independent front suspension and rack and pinion steering.

Safety has also been increased, with new, repairable crush areas, the largest brakes in its class, standard ABS, an optional side curtain airbag system that protects all three rows, and a system that will not fire the front passenger airbag at grocery bags or small children. The Durango passed a severe 50 mph rear offset impact crash test. Your conscience can rest at ease, too - the bumper height is at car bumper level, and is designed to engage the crash protection structure of a car in an accident, rather than missing a car's crash barriers and hitting the occupants directly.

So, the Durango is a terrific vehicle on paper, when compared with other SUVs (as with any SUV, it doesn't compare nearly as well to minivans unless you plan to tow or haul very heavy loads around). But the true test is the road test, and we are happy to say that the Durango did quite well around town and on the highway.

First, the comfort level is quite high, with comfortable, supportive seats in both front and middle rows, and standard (on the Limited) power adjustable pedals with two-driver memory. Though our vehicle had a towing package, major bumps and road surface issues were filtered out effectively, with rough concrete roads failing to disturb the passengeres. The ride was firm, though not nearly as much as most vehicles with this towing capacity, and not unpleasant for long trips. Road and wind noise is filtered out well, though the Durango will not be mistaken for a Lexus ES. Rear passengers benefitted from the standard (on Limited) rear air conditioning with heater, that can be shut off or controlled from the front or the rear. The engine warmed up quickly and provided strong heat through a system that works well on automatic, even providing notice when it is waiting for the engine to warm up. The powerful stereo (with six-disc CD/MP3 player and subwoofer) provided high fidelity sound, though it was impossible to get the bass down to comfortable levels on voice broadcasts.

The ride and handling may surprise current Durango owners, not to mention those with Ford Expeditions and the like. The Durango feels as though it wants to be treated like a car rather than a truck (note that our model had optional P265/65R17 OWL on/off road tires), and seems able to deal with turns that many cars would squeal their tires on. Braking is very good, and acceleration is rapid and effortless.

The Chrysler Hemi has attracted a lot of notice, partly because of the performance of the original Hemi engines, culminating in the 392 cubic inch monster installed in the 300C, but largely because of the most recent Hemi, the 426. Producing 425 horsepower, the hot-rodded version of the standard engine became a street and racing legend, and nothing in the muscle car era could surpass it (when well tuned and well driven). This version harkens back more to the originals, which beat their competition cube for cube but were more of a premium, luxury-car engine than an all-out muscle car powerplant. Hence, the Hemi is seeing use throughout Chrysler's product line, with planned applications in large cars, the Grand Cherokee, the Durango, and the Ram and Dakota pickups. What's more, unlike the 426, it's coupled to a transmission programmed for very soft shifts (a torque management system subtly reduces engine power during shifts for added smoothness). The result is that full throttle shifting is just about as smooth as leisurely shifting, which will please the average buyer and infuriate the speed enthusiast.

The Hemi has an ample reserve of power under just about any conditions. Trailer towers report that it hardly notices hills. We found it impossible without towing to find any condition that could tax its ability. The Durango isn't a sports car, or even a sports truck; but the Hemi provides effortless, easy, rapid acceleration from any speed, no matter what gear it finds itself in (the rapid downshifting of the five-speed automatic helps.)

Going back to the original Hemi engines, the 5.7 V8 is generally very quiet about town or under hard throttle, with one exception: when first started on cold days, it makes a considerable racket. That quiets down after less than a minute.

Visibility is surprisingly good, with unusually effective demisters, front wipers that operate on a cam system to clear just about the entire windshield, and a rear wiper that is equally effective. While we'd like the rearmost window to extend downwards more, the rear quarters are not too large and present a relatively small blind spot compared with other vehicles. As with any large truck, drivers must be cautious of those they simply can't see.

The tight turning radius helps in parking, though the long, sloping hood makes figuring out where the front bumper is a matter of trail and error.

The instrument panel is attractive and effective, with 300M-style indiglo backlighting at night to maximize legibility at all times, even in twilight. The speedometer has an easy, intuitive scale (0 to 120, with 60 right at the top) and large numbers, making it easy to read - something we can't say for all modern speedometers. The tachometer, gas gauge and fuel gauge are all large, easy to read, and attractive. The digital odometer and PRNDL are neatly tucked away underneath the gauges, which are outlined in a dull silver note as nice as the 300M but classier than most. Chrome-colored door handles and a chrome-colored center stack plate add nice touches to the brownish plastic that makes up most of the two-toned (in our test vehicle) interior.

One drawback is the massive under-windshield area, reminiscient of the cab-forward cars. Another is the lack of a control to turn the dome light on automatically when the key is removed, which is featured on just about every economy car nowadays. Likewise, cost cutters put only a single mechanical lock on the entire truck, so if the remote dies, you'd better hope that one lock is working. (This is an industry trend, not limited to Dodge - in fact, it seems to have been started by Volkswagen.) Finally, the extra sliding panel that used to be in the sun visors seems to have fallen victim to the beancounters. Fortunately, they left the cool Chrysler corporate trip computer, which provides an outside thermometer and compass as well as gas mileage and other information; and the overhead lights that you press to turn on or off. (The middle row occupants get traditional dome lights, and rearmost passengers get none.)

Most of the controls are sensible and easy to figure out and use, including the GM-style tow/haul button tucked into the end of the gearshift (it appears to be the exact same piece used in GM trucks). The cruise control, complete with prominent cancel button, is built into the steering wheel, while the all wheel drive control is a knob on the dash.

The stereo has a number of benefits, including the provision of a lot of information without having to press buttons, and the ability to treat the six-disc changer as a single-slot unit for those who don't like to think that far in advance. We also appreciate the use of knobs for volume and channel selection, but would prefer separate bass and treble knobs rather than having a single multifunction knob that is pressed to get the appropriate control, then turned. Still, that's more than many automakers provide these days, and you do get midrange control as well as the usual bass and treble.

The automatic climate control works well and for large part intuitively, but the cluster of eight buttons with an identical feel can distract the driver from the road, and it takes time to get used to control of the rear vents. Apart from that, the system works well, with large temperature and fan control buttons, an automatic mode, and the odd choice of integrating the rear wiper/washer as a knob in the bottom right of the climate control panel. Even at the highest fan setting, the system is not overly noisy, thanks to a large number of vents - all of which are easy to close, though the center vents cannot be moved from side to side.

Underneath the center stack are two large bins, each with a removable rubber base to avoid rattles, and a well-designed three-coin dispenser which looks forward to the day when the penny is finally eradicated. The dual front cupholders are fairly primitive but deep enough to work. The covered center bin looks shallow at first, but after wrestling away a shallow bin on top, one is confronted with a massive, deep area with slots for CDs and a separate power outlet, nicely hidden from small children. The downside to this bin is the way the cover comes up - sideways, rather than fore-aft, which makes it awkward for the passenger to use. We do like the fact that both of the bottom bins (under the stack, and including the coin sorter) are lit at night with a gentle green light.

The middle row of seats is rather clever, not just because they easily fold and tumble, but also because when the center seat is not in use, it can be folded down to expose two cupholders and a handy armrest. The left and right seats fold and tumble independently for easy access to the rearmost seats. In an unusually sensible move, Dodge made the middle row seat belts height-adjustable, just like the front row. They don't go down far enough for children, so the booster seats are still needed, but will accommodate teens and short and tall adults nicely. The middle row also has its own stereo speakers for high fidelity - both woofer and tweeters, so stereo is separated well.

While they look as though they are for children, the rearmost seats are surprisingly comfortable, with decent padding and legroom for average people. Taller passengers should stick to the middle and front row, though. We'd estimate six feet to be the comfortable maximum size, with five foot nine being better for long trips (depending on the passenger's leg-to-trunk ratio). Shoulder room is good in all three rows (though the middle row, when three people are in it, may be a bit tight). The rearmost row flips forward very easily, with the handle built into the seat itself.

The optional DVD system is mounted in the roof, where you can hit your head against it, but it can't be kicked by your kids. It includes two sets of wireless headphones and jacks for remote input (e.g. a portable VCR or video camera.)

All told, the Durango is a surprisingly strong achievement, overcoming the weaknesses of its predecessor and most of its competitors. If you need to tow a trailer or carry very heavy loads on a regular basis, it might be the best answer. On the other hand, if all you need is room for five to seven people, the Chrysler Pacifica or Dodge Caravan are probably better choices, since they were designed to haul people, and the Durango was designed to haul cargo. Regardless, if you were looking at the Expedition, Tahoe, or even the Explorer, the Dodge Durango is a more satisfying drive.