What I'm Driving At: Durango Tango

If you're an auto racing fan, you'll recognize that type of driver who likes to sit back behind the leader, waiting ... waiting ... waiting for the perfect time to make his move. Some personalities, of course, are constitutionally unable to subordinate themselves to a rival in this way. They must run out front -- or try to -- at all times, under any circumstance. Others actually prefer to hover in second place for most of a race out of fear that they might simply over-toast themselves in the limelight. Their bids for a race -- ending first place are usually last -- gasp attempts born of desperation.Then there's the wily fox who can discipline himself against an early, ill-advised dash to the front. This one prefers to observe and test and goad the front-runner until leading the pack is more nuisance than puissance. Once the psychological battle is won, a course correction usually follows: Number Two overtakes the erstwhile Number One, and, short of mechanical difficulties, the wily one wins.Perhaps this scenario can serve as a parable for the admittedly late arrival of Dodge's Durango to the crowded corral of sport/utility vehicles. Almost 30 years after the Chevrolet K-Blazer kicked off the craze, Durango rolls into the ring with all the benefits of watching and waiting built into its clever design. Like the original Blazer and almost every other hard-core SUV, the Durango is built off of a truck platform -- in this case, the Dakota "compact" truck from Dodge. Unlike all of its rivals to date, however, Durango has mastered the capacity-versus-bulk conundrum: It seats seven in surprising comfort with 18.8 cubic feet of cargo space to spare, yet its footprint of 116/72 inches (wheelbase/width) is surprisingly small. To put that in context, consider that Ford's Explorer needs a 112-inch wheelbase to seat only five; or that while Chevy's mammoth Suburban may accommodate eight people and more than double the extra cargo room, it needs 132 inches of wheelbase to do so. And yet the seven-seater Dodge Durango V8, priced as tested at $31,715, still comes within $300 of a similarly equipped, five-seat Chevy Blazer V6.So it's easy to understand why Dodge dealers are clamoring for all the Durangos they can rustle up; indeed, customers have turned this sport-ute into Chrysler's latest bestseller and into one of the hottest new vehicles for the '98 model year. Unlike its approach with the Caravan, which single-handedly established the minivan precedent that everyone else continues to imitate, Chrysler lay in wait with the Durango while others raced into the SUV market helter-skelter. The strategy has allowed Dodge to question what consumers really want in their SUVs, and the Durango is the company's clever answer.Aside from seven-passenger seating, Durango also provides versatility. Seats fold every which way to make room for additional cargo. The third-row bench, for example, yields 51.3 total cubic feet when it's flopped forward; you get 88 cubic feet when the second row likewise disappears. But you don't have to fold 'em all. To load a box behind the driver's seat, for instance, leave the rear seat up and just flatten one section of the three-way middle row while the kids scamper to the back row. Or fold the rear bench and then fold just the center section of the second bench, so that two can ride in the middle row on either side of that four-foot filing cabinet. It's a mix-and-match challenge worthy of Rubik, but it's also the key to Durango's distinctive and passenger-oriented work ethic.Of course, a 5.9-liter, 245-horsepower "Magnum" V8 lends its own hardworking credentials to the overall effort. Durango's towing capacity, with a 3.92 rear end, is an outstanding 7,300 lbs. Put another way, the 5.9 Durango can haul 12,000 lbs. of people, cargo, and trailer load in any combination you want to mix 'em. If that's overkill for your particular needs, save yourself $300 by opting for the smaller, less thirsty 5.2-liter V8; or wait until midyear and pick up a 3.9-liter V6 for $900 less and better mileage yet. Considering the Durango's sold-out status at most dealers nationwide, however, you'll likely be waiting regardless of your engine choice.Selection is the byword for Durango's drive system as well. Although a 2-wheel-drive-only version won't be available until '99, the present model comes equipped with either a standard part-time transfer case or an optional full-time version for $395. The latter is a Dodge first, although it's familiar to Jeep owners as the SelecTrac system. It allows the driver to shift on the fly between 2WD, AWD, and 4WD-High. 4WD-Low is available after the vehicle comes to a full stop. In 2WD, the Durango is light and lively on the highway; and in any of the four-wheel or AWD modes, it tracks nimbly through off-road terrain. Four-wheeling on dry pavement, however, risks ruffling the Durango's composure: When the front wheels are pulling, even in AWD, you'll barely make it into that tight parking spot at H. G. Hill's, thanks to all kinds of buckin' bronco behavior.And alas, there's a serpent lurking in this lush Durango paradise. To be true to the parable, it's worth remembering that no race is won until the checkered flag flies. Durango, for all the wily waiting to make its bold bid for SUV honors, may ironically have rushed to market with undue haste. The tester I so enjoyed driving for several days suddenly swallowed its front passenger-side window one rainy evening; the pane apparently slipped off the rail, so that all efforts to raise the glass, either electrically or manually, failed -- with damp consequences. There was no alternative but to head for the pits, so to speak, to effect repairs. Meantime, the industry bible Automotive News reported in its Jan. 26 issue that Chrysler has recalled all Durangos sold to-date. Although the vehicles simply require "a 30-second service action," this minor adjustment is needed to prevent repeat occurrences of the four reported engine fires that have been attributed to "a loose nut ... causing an electrical arc" in a wiring harness attached to the alternator.A red-hot bestseller indeed, taxing red-faced publicity men to the best of their crisis-extinguishing abilities. In the end, however, this episode of torque-deprived nuts-and-bolts should prove nothing but a flesh wound to Durango's promising reputation. Nor should a hide-and-seek pane close the window on this SUV's genuine accomplishment. Indeed, just when everyone believed the sport/utility category had filled to over-saturation with look -- and act -- alike contenders, Dodge has managed to slip its Durango into a last remaining niche: It's bigger than most, smaller than the largest, and arguably more versatile than them all.


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