First Place: Dodge Durango Limited
The winner of our big-'ute comparo surprised us. Going in, we figured we'd like the power of its newly optional Hemi V-8 engine. And we were sure the Durango's not-quite-full-size status would make it just a little more pleasant than its competitors to navigate the galaxy. Lingering doubts, however, remained about its build quality and noise, vibration, and harshness levels, based on our experience with the previous-generation (1998-2003) version. And that new look, which took the previous Durango's athletic stand-alone front fenders and bold cross-hair grille through a "Queer Eye for the Ram Guy" process, had us squinting. But as the behind-the-wheel time added up, and the new Durango's dynamics and aesthetics emerged, it all started to come together.
The Durango isn't just Dodge's newest sport/utility vehicle, it's Dodge's only sport/utility vehicle. While competitors such as Toyota, Ford, and Chevrolet each offer five different SUVs, Nissan, GMC, and Mitsubishi field four and Honda, Jeep, Isuzu, Lexus, and Land Rover have three, Dodge soldiers on with one. With the 2004 redesign, the Dodge has crept up a few notches in size, gaining seven inches in length, three inches width and height, and roughly 250 pounds in curb weight. More important, it's gained 15 percent more cargo capacity and, thanks to the availability of the 335-horse 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 for the first time, top-notch towing ability. Courtesy of a low hoodline and fast windshield, the Durango looks smaller than the other full-size SUVs in this test.
Don't be fooled. The wheelbase of Dodge's SUV now spans a greater distance than the Ford Expedition's. The new Durango is a few inches longer and a couple dozen pounds heavier than the Chevy Tahoe. Third-seat leg- and headroom best that of the Armada, Tahoe, and Sequoia. Where the previous Durango shared a lot of its parts with the Dakota pickup truck, the latest version has moved to a stand-alone platform. There's a new Watt's Link coil-spring suspension for the live rear axle. Huge four-wheel disc brakes with trashcan-lid-size rotors come via the Ram pickup.
The Durango's shape is based on the Dodge Power Box concept that made its debut at the 2001 Los Angeles auto show. The Power Box drew much of its inspiration from the World War II-vintage Dodge Power Wagon. Editor reactions were mixed. "The large-mouth-bass look is dorky, not powerful," scribbles one. "It's a fresh design that advances the art of the SUV," notes another.