Review: 2005 Dodge Durango

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Boasting an exceptionally crashworthy structure, the Durango earned five stars for both the driver and the front-seat passenger in NHTSA frontal crash testing. The government rollover test awarded the 2WD model three stars and the 4WD model four stars. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard on all Durango models, and side-curtain airbags for all three rows are optional on all models. Electronic stability control is unavailable.

Shared with the much smaller Jeep Liberty, a 3.7-liter SOHC V-6 is standard on rear-wheel-drive ST and SLT models. Matched to a four-speed automatic transmission, the six-cylinder engine produces 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque--not much, considering the 4,800 pounds it's asked to set in motion. Optional on rear-drive Durangos and standard on all four-wheel-drive models is a 4.7-liter SOHC V-8 that also sees duty in the Dodge Ram and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Delivering 230 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque, the 4.7L is better equipped for the challenge of motivating the Durango, though it's still unlikely to set hearts aflutter. For that, opt for the much-lauded 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Available on rear- or four-wheel-drive Durangos, the Hemi thumps out 335 horsepower and 370 pound-feet of torque, giving the Durango enough grunt to tow up to 8,950 pounds. Both V-8s are matched to an excellent five-speed automatic transmission that features an alternate "kick-down" second-gear ratio for passing traffic, particularly tough trailering situations, and steep-grade ascents. The basic four-wheel-drive setup features a single-speed transfer case, perfectly suitable for inclement weather and most rough roads. Those with serious off-road ambitions, however, would be better served by the optional full-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD setup, which features selectable low range and a locking center differential.

Like the big Ram, the Durango does its best to mask its yachtlike enormity with reasonably precise, convincingly carlike rack-and-pinion steering. Any urgent braking, accelerating, or changing of direction, however, provokes pronounced dive, pitch, and/or roll--no surprise, considering the Durango's high center of gravity and prodigious mass, but it's generally no worse than other body-on-frame sport-utilities in this class. On the open road, an independent front suspension and a solid-axle rear-end with Watts linkage nicely split the difference between truck-style brutishness and sedan-style civility. Venture off-road, and these suspension attributes provide a reasonably compliant ride, though a modest 7.9-inch ground clearance falls short of some competitors'.

The V-6-powered Durango is best avoided; its marginally better fuel efficiency is quickly outweighed by its general underhood inadequacy. The 4.7-liter V-8 is a worthwhile upgrade--a good deal more Durango-ready and just right for drivers who intend to use their SUV for commuting/shopping/people-moving as well as some light-duty towing and hauling. Serious users, however, should keep moving: The Hemi-powered Durango is the one for hard-core haulers. It's decidedly quicker off the line and far more willing to transport everything plus the kitchen sink than its lesser brethren.

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