In baseball parlance, it's called hitting one into the gap.Chrysler Corporation calls it finding a niche, and their designers have gotten very good at it. Take the Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicle derived from the Dakota pickup. It is smaller than the Ford Expedition or Chevy Yukon, but bigger than the Ford Explorer or Mercedes-Benz ML320. It fits comfortably into your garage, yet has seating for eight, two available V8 engines and a tough-guy look emphasized by the fender flares and big tires. Our test vehicle looked brawny with its meaty 31X10.5 tires on 8-inch wide wheels. Durango is built on a 115.9-inch wheelbase. Front sheet metal and the front section of the frame are identical to the Dakota, but the back two-thirds of the frame has been widened for greater passenger space. Clever touches, such as a raised roof and a third seat that folds into the floor, come from carefully sizing up the competition and then going one step further. From the second seat back the roof is two inches higher to provide headroom for the the third seat. When you need to haul things the seat collapses into the floor quickly and simply, while others have to be removed. The rear air conditioner is mounted at the front of the raised area to save space. Outside, the roof's extra height is camouflaged by a built-in luggage rack. With all seats folded flat the load floor has a slight incline at the front but that should not pose any significant problems. The second-row seat is a 40/20/40 design that solves the question of easy entry to the third seat. With one lever each outboard seat section tumbles forward to open up a path to the back seat, plus the upraised leg of the seat has a hand-hold molded in for extra grip. The back of the small center section can be folded down to serve as an armrest complete with cupholders. Continuing the "hit it where they ain't" analogy, the Dodge offers not one but two V8s. The 5.2-liter has 230 horsepower and is rated at 13 mpg city and 17 mpg highway. The 5.9-liter, with 245 horsepower, gives the Durango a 7,300-pound towing capacity, with a 12 mpg city and 17 mpg highway rating. The V6 won't be offered until next spring, and a two-wheel-drive model will have to wait until 1999. Expect a Durango SLT 4X4 with the 5.2-liter to be about $28,970 with popular options, including the third seat. I drove a Durango SLT 4X4 with the 5.9 and its sticker was $31,715. Earlier this fall I sampled various pre-production Durangos in Texas, and while the 5.2 was certainly adequate, the 5.9 was more responsive in moving the Durango's 4,736 pounds. Not only does this engine make freeway merges easier, it flattens hills and is only marginally less thirsty than the smaller engine. Selecting four-wheel drive is done with a floor-mounted lever, while most of its competitors offer electronic actuation with a dash switch. A full-time four-wheel-drive system is available for those who want the security of driving all four wheels all the time. Rear-anti-lock brakes are standard and four-wheel-anti-lock optional. Despite its rugged looks, the Dakota is not crude. You can tell by the ride that it is based on the Dakota truck chassis, yet it is not harsh or rough. Many folks who buy sport-utility vehicles like a business-like ride, and the firmness improves off-road capability. Again, at the wheel of pre-production units in Texas, we tackled moderate off-road sections and the Durango was at home in the outback. Step inside and you find an interior that is warm and hospitable. The instrument panel, from a Dakota, is functional, not flashy. Airbags are lower-powered, second-generation designs. Storage bins and cupholders are plentiful throughout the vehicle. The cloth-covered seats have two-tone upholstery, firm padding and are tufted to give generous support. Dodge emphasizes that the Durango is for folks with active lifestyle and that shows up in the way everything is configured. Leather seats are an option, and a co-worker suggests they would be preferable for families with children because they don't stain easily. Even with the aggressive tires on the test vehicle, there was not a lot of road noise at highway speed, but I did detect a wind whistle that sounded like it was coming from a back door. The top-hinged tailgate is rounded for a sporty look, and it swings up out of the way for easy loading. Since it is bigger than most compact SUVs and smaller than most full-size ones, the Durango establishes a new paradigm. It is spacious, yet it fits into a garage easily. It has three seats, but the third one doesn't have to be removed for maximum load space. And, it comes with two, not one, V8s. If initial public reaction is any indication, Dodge will not have any trouble selling every one of the 120,000 or so Durangos it plans to build in the next year. Price The base price of our test vehicle was $25,810. The option list was long, and included the SLT decor package, overhead console, anti-lock brakes, full-time four-wheel drive, fog lamps, power outside mirrors, limited-slip differential, AM/FM cassette and compact disc player, 5.9-liter V8, aluminum wheels and 31X10.5 tires. The sticker price was $31,715. Warranty The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers. Point: Tough and rugged looking, the new Durango fills a void left by the others. It can seat eight, has V8 power and drives with the maneuverability of a smaller vehicle. Counterpoint: The ride is firm, fuel economy is not great and there was a slight wind whistle in our test vehicle. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 5.9-liter, V8 TRANSMISSION: automatic WHEELBASE: 115.9 inches CURB WEIGHT: 4,736 lbs. BASE PRICE: $25,810 PRICE AS DRIVEN: $31,715 MPG RATING: 12 city, 17 hwy.
|Anita And Paul Lienert||The Detroit News||April 15, 1998|
|Larry Printz||The Morning Call and Mcall.com||March 1, 1998|
|Bob Golfen||AZCentral.com||January 17, 1998|
|Terry Jackson||The Miami Herald||January 8, 1998|
|Paul Dean||Los Angeles Times||December 19, 1997|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||November 21, 1997|
|Richard Truett||Orlando Sentinel||November 13, 1997|
|Paul Lienert||The Detroit News||October 15, 1997|
|Warren Brown||washingtonpost.com||October 10, 1997|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||October 5, 1997|
|Tony Swan||Detroit Newspapers||October 2, 1997|
|Tom Strongman||KansasCity.com||September 30, 1997|
|George Moore||IndyStar.com||September 28, 1997|
|Jim Mateja||chicagotribune.com||February 9, 1997|
|Al Haas||March 6, 1998|
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