How to replace brakes, shocks, ball joints, and suspension bushings in a 2004 Dodge Durango
Keep your old SUV on the road with some at home driveway maintenance
Have you priced a new SUV lately? I don't know about you, but I don't have $80,000 in pocket change kicking around for a new Ford Expedition Max or Chevrolet Suburban. Back when my wife and I bought our 2004 Durango new off the lot, it stickered for roughly $38,000, and even at that price it felt like an exorbitant expense. But I selected the 2WD SUV specifically for the fact that it wasn't too big or too small, seated seven passengers, offered (for its time) a one of the most powerful SUV engines available, had huge brakes, and, could tow my boat or Jeeps without issue. And with the exception of a few simple maintenance issues here and there, it's been a good, reliable family vehicle for the past 16 years while delivering roughly 13 mpg around town and up to 21 mpg on interstate trips.
Diagnosing Suspension Problems
By the time the Durango had 213,000 miles on it, I noticed it was driving like an old jalopy. The brakes were beginning to squeal, the front would shimmy a bit, the tires were feathering and wearing funny, and bumps and impacts were increasing in harshness. So I had two choices. One was go buy a new SUV, and the other was spend less than two of those new SUV payments on some parts from Summit Racing to get the 'ol Durango back into fighting shape.
This generation of Dodge Durango, whether 2WD or 4WD, uses an A-arm front suspension with torsion bar springs and a five-link rear with coils and a Watts Link track bar. It's a pretty good, pretty durable design. You're not going to win any road course races at Willow Springs, but it delivers solid handling with few drivability drawbacks.
The massive lower A-arms use really good, large bushings at the frame mount, which rarely go bad. The upper A-arm, on the other hand, is a relatively spindly aluminum unit with somewhat small upper ball joints. I had already replaced the factory A-arms once on this vehicle, but they had gone bad again. Also, while the unit bearings on these vehicles are improved over the first-generation Durango and Dakota design, they aren't immune to failure. If you start noticing funny tire wear on the front tires or notice wandering, jack the front tires up off the ground and, grabbing the top and bottom of the tire, push/pull to see if you find any play. If you do, have somebody else pry on the tire or use a long prybar under the tire to lever the suspension up and down while you watch the suspension components to verify where the movement is happening. I found no play at the unit bearing, but the upper ball joint on the passenger side was hammered. I knew I had to dive into the front suspension at least that far, so it was a good time to do some preventative maintenance before other suspension components began to fail.
Ordering the Right Parts
Summit Racing is known mostly as a performance aftermarket parts supplier and manufacturer, but the company actually carries a full array of stock replacement part for vehicles of all sorts. The shipping is fast, the prices are reasonable, and the customer service is top-notch. I began by tossing a full set of EBC dimpled and slotted rotors in my cart, along with a set of EBC Green Stuff brake pads. My experience with the EBC brake products has been excellent, having used them in dozen of vehicle builds. The longevity, low dust, and strong performance of the EBC products is outstanding. Next to go in the cart was a quartet of Bilstein shocks, which I needed to replace a set of aftermarket shocks that the seals had blown out on. I put the older aftermarket shocks on at around 30,000 miles, so they owed me nothing. The standard yellow-on-blue Bilsteins are an incredible upgrade over the factory shocks and even most aftermarket offerings. I noticed the sway bar bushings were getting cracked and deformed, and the factory sway bar joints were a bit loose. Normally my suspension replacement part of choice is Moog when I can get it. Summit had Moog sway bar bushings in stock, but the Moog sway bar end links were out of stock, so I ordered some ProForged units. Because I was deep into the suspension, I figured I'd replace the lower ball joints along with the whole upper control arm assemblies. Summit was once again out of my preferred Moog lower ball joints, so I ordered the ProForged lowers and some Moog upper control arm assemblies. The parts arrived two days later, and I got to work.
This won't be a thorough step by step, but for starters, always work safely. I jacked the Durango off the ground one side at a time and secured a jack stand under the frame rail before removing the front tires. Once I took the tires off, I placed them under the frame rails right behind the jack stand, so in the event a jack stand failed, the wheel/tire assembly would prevent the vehicle from completely smashing into the ground. Only work on one side at a time where possible. I first removed the brake caliper, caliper bracket, and rotor assembly.
While not necessary, I removed the passenger-side unit bearing assembly to take photos for a different story I was working on at the time. The unit bearing is secured to the knuckle with three bolts that are accessed from the back side. Remove the bolts, disconnect the ABS sensor, and safely hang it aside, and the unit bearing comes free.
I loosened the upper ball joint nut and then loosened the steering tie rod end nut. Don't completely remove the nut until you've loosened the ball joint and tie-rod end from the tapered bore in the knuckle.
A few good smacks with a peen hammer is usually all it takes to dislodge the press fit of the tapered tie-rod end in the knuckle. Once it's free, you can spin off the nut and safely move the tie-rod end out of the knuckle bore.
The same process should be taken when separating the upper control arm from the knuckle. Leaving the nut on the last few threads of the ball joint, give the knuckle a few whacks, and it should pop free from the ball joint. Leave the upper on until you've loosened the press-fit on the lower ball joint.
For the lower ball joint, I found the easiest way to separate it from the knuckle was with a few firm yet gentle raps directly on the ball joint shank. I left the nut on the ball joint threads just enough so the threads were completely encapsulated inside the nut. You don't want to gall or damage the ball joint threads with the hammer, even if you're planning on replacing the joint. On the second gentle tap, it popped loose.
With both upper and lower ball joints separated from the knuckle, you can now remove the nuts and slide the knuckle free. Notice the brake calipers are safely hung by the frame so they're not suspended by the brake hoses, and the ABS sensor and tie rod are moved out of harm's way.
With the steering knuckle off it is super easy to get to the sway bar links and shock bolts. You may need two wrenches to keep the lower pivot joint on the sway bar link from spinning as the nut is loosened. Notice how deformed the factory bushing is. The shocks pop off easily once the sway bar links are out of the way.
I've always preferred Moog steering and suspension components for stock replacement parts. The sway bar bushings are made of the same durometer as the factory rubber, so there'll be no additional harshness in the suspension once they're installed.
Four bolts hold the sway bar assembly to the frame rails. Remove them and the whole sway bar drops out, which makes it much easier to deal with the two-piece captured sway bar bushing bracket.
To remove the sway bar bushing clamshell, pry the lock tabs from the frame-side bracket up, and the retaining shell can be removed.
The factory sway bar bushings are slid on the sway bar at the factory from the ends. The easiest way to remove them is just cut a slice in them with a razor knife. As for the upper control arms, before you remove the nuts holding them to the frame, scribe a line on the bracket along the T-bolt so when you reinstall them you can line things up to roughly the same place. That will get you close enough on the front end geometry to safely drive to the alignment shop. Once the upper A-arms are off, the only item remaining is to press the lower ball joint out; however, I ran into a snag with my cheesy standard 3-in-1 ball joint kit. The lower receiving cup requires a different size than what comes in the standard 3-in-1, so after I discovered that, I had to order a better ball joint and service kit. I found a decent Powerbuilt 23-piece Ball Joint and U Joint Service Set, (PN: 648617) for about $150 and placed an order. While the kit was in transit, I turned my attention back to the suspension, getting as many of the new parts installed as I could.
2004 Dodge Durango Suspension Reassembly
After I installed the new Moog sway bar bushings, I reassembled the clamshell brackets around them on the sway bar and bolted the sway bar to the frame rails. Then I installed the new Bilstein shocks and assembled the ProForged swaybar end links.
The shock and sway bar hardware were installed, but not fully torqued to spec. You don't want to do that until the full weight of the vehicle is on the suspension. Otherwise, you may bind the bushings and cause premature wear. Next up was the upper control arm. I slid it into place and then installed the T-bolts. Using the marks I had scribed on the mounting tabs, I lined up the bolts and cinched them down enough so the control arm wouldn't walk or move. The "scribe-a-line" method is a good one considering that when I brought the vehicle in for an alignment after all the parts were installed, it was only off the previous measurement by 1.3 degrees. I had to leave the vehicle sitting like this for two days while I waited on the correct ball joint service tool set to arrive to get the lower ball joint out.
As I've said several times in this article, I usually prefer Moog suspension components, but because Summit was out of stock, I went with these ProForged lower ball joints.
The factory Dodge lower ball joints are staked at the factory to keep them retained in the A-arm bores. Before you try to press them out, it's a good idea to peen back the staked portion with a hammer and drift. This not only make the ball joint press out easier, it helps prevent the ball joint bore in the A-arm from getting wallowed out.
When pressing ball joints, you want your receiving cup to have a large enough inside diameter that it completely clears the body of the ball joint as it passes through it, yet is small enough that it contacts as much of the A-arm as possible. My cheaper 3-in-1 only came with three receiving cups. Two were too small to allow the ball joint to pass through it, and the third was so large it overhung about half of the A-arm. Trying to use the large one to press out the joint almost certainly would've resulted in the cup slipping and damage to the cast iron A-arm.
Conversely, when you're installing the new ball joint, you want the forcing cup to properly contact the entire circumference of the ball joint shell without being so tight that it impedes into the rubber grease boot or ball socket itself. Once again, the new 23-piece service kit I ordered had the perfect size forcing cup to get the job done as well as the correct shorter receiver cup that allowed the top of the ball joint to pass through the A-arm bore. Using an impact gun, I tightened the C-clamp until the ball joint was securely all the way in the bore.
The top of the ProForged ball joints are secured with an external snap ring. If the snap ring doesn't easily go on, check to make sure you've got the ball joint pressed all the way in.
Once the ball joint is installed, screw in the zerk fitting, and orient it in a way that you'll be able to reach it after the knuckle and suspension components are installed. Remember, don't grease the joint until the knuckle is installed.
With the passenger side all buttoned back up, I turned my attention to the driver's side and installed all the new parts.
EBC Brake Upgrade
With the suspension buttoned back up, it was a walk in the part to get the front and rear EBC Brakes pads and rotors installed.
If you leave the pistons extended in their bores, the new brake pads won't fit over the rotors, so you need to first push them back in their bores. There are dedicated disc brake tools to do this, but I've always preferred to use a big 'ol C-clamp and one of the old brake pads. Place the old pad against the piston to prevent the C-clamp from damaging it and tighten the clamp slowly until it's all the way in. There's no need to remove the cap from the master cylinder. Turn the clamp about a quarter turn at a time, giving the fluid time to travel back out of the system up into the master cylinder. Once the pistons are home, you can load the new EBC pads.
EBC Brakes color-codes its brake pads to differentiate between different intended usages. The GreenStuff 6000 pads I selected are designed for low dust, long wear life, very good friction, and an overall increase in braking performance for heavier vehicles and towing. They come with a special break-in coating that aids the pads in properly bedding into the rotors and helps give great performance straight out of the box.
Install the supplied washer into the caliper to prevent squealing and install the pads. Then you're ready to get the rotors installed.
The EBC dimpled and slotted rotors aren't fully drilled like some "performance" rotors because cracks can develop around the holes in heavy, high-heat use. The dimples and slots prevent debris and gas buildup from accumulating between the pad and rotor surface. The black coating is corrosion-resistant and helps keep the rest of the rotor looking good.
The rotors are directional, so EBC places R and L stickers for right (passenger) and left (driver) side. Slide the rotor over the hub, and then reinstall the caliper bracket using some Loctite on the bolts.
The last step is to reinstall the loaded calipers on the caliper brackets. Before you start the engine, depress the brakes a couple times to get the pads in firm proximity to the rotors. If you had your brake fluid level correct, there shouldn't have been any fluid run out of the master cylinder when you depressed the caliper pistons in their bores, and there's no need to add more fluid.
The rears are virtually the same as the fronts with the exception of the internal drum parking brake that indexes inside the rear rotor hat. Depending on how they're adjusted, it may take a little hard pulling to get the rotor off the hub after the caliper and caliper bracket are removed, but it's not usually necessary to back off the drum adjuster.
Like the front, slide the rotors over the hubs taking care to put the "L" on the driver and "R" on the passenger side.
Install the caliper brackets, and then slide the pads in place. The spring clips hold them in place as the caliper is installed.
With the rear finished up, once again you'll want to depress the brake pedal a couple times before starting the engine to push the pads into the rotors. It's also not a bad idea to check parking brake tension.
Long Term Report
Once back on the tires, I climbed underneath and tightened all the suspension components and greased the ball joint zerk fittings. Anytime I replace a brake system with parts from EBC the difference is dramatic. The old rotors on this vehicle were actually EBC dimpled and slotted rotors that had reached the end of their life. The pads were regular parts store pads I had just tossed on there. The new EBC pads and rotors broke in quickly and made a huge difference over the parts store brake components. Gone was the clunking, shimmy, and rattle from the front end, but best of all was the improved ride from the excellent Bilstein shocks. It's like a night and day improvement compared with both the factory shocks and the aftermarket shocks this vehicle used to run.
All of this suspension maintenance was done at 213,000 miles, and as of this writing the odometer is sitting at roughly 265,500 miles. Shortly after the parts were installed, I noticed the passenger-side lower ProForged ball joint grease seal had split, allowing grease to freely leave the joint and spill onto the inside of the tire. Summit sent me a pair of replacement joints, but I wound up buying some Moog lower joints and swapping them out, and they've been trouble-free. Additionally, at 243,000 miles the passenger-side ProForged sway bar link snapped at the A-arm. I bought a new one at my auto parts store and replaced it, and then at 260,000 miles the driver-side ProForged sway bar link snapped at the sway bar. Once again, I swapped it out for a locally sourced replacement.
Otherwise, with the investment of a couple days' worth of my time, a lot less than two car payments on a new SUV, and a little sweat equity, this family hauler has stretched its time of usefulness way past where most thought it should be. So if you're looking down the barrel of trading in your trusty family wagon, maybe there's life yet left in it after all.
Dodge Durango Maintenance Log
For the most part, this vehicle required almost nothing in the way of maintenance for the first 100,000 miles. I replaced all 16 spark plugs around then, and then at 180,000 miles I replaced the eight main plugs and added a set of fresh Mopar plug wires. The 335-hp, 370 lb-ft 5.7L Hemi needed a new water pump at 194,000 miles, and the radiator sprung a pinhole leak shortly after that. Thanks to towing a Jeep up the mountains of Utah, it has suffered a couple broken exhaust manifold bolts that resulted in a bad exhaust leak at the manifolds. I replaced on the driver side exhaust manifold gasket the bolts at 190,000 and the passenger side at 262,000, but neither manifold cracked. I've replaced the serpentine belt twice, had to put a new alternator on it, replaced the fuel pump, and put on a new EGR valve. Otherwise, the 5.7L Hemi has been anvil-tough and gets treated to an oil change every 7,500 miles with full synthetic Valvoline and a Wix or Napa Gold oil filter.
I've done two fluid and filter changes in the 545RFE five-speed auto, which is still super solid and shifts perfectly. And other than replacing a weeping pinion seal in the Chrysler 9.25 rear axle and changing the 90W for full-synthetic gear lube to keep the 3.55 axle gears happy, the rear has remained in perfect working condition despite periodically towing a 7,000-pound trailer on trips up to 2,000 miles.