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The 1998 Dodge Durango sought to do for SUVs what the Dakota did for pickups: strike a balance between the heavy-duty loads and cargo space of a big truck, and the parkability and handling of a small truck.
Dodge called the Durango a compact SUV so it would have the most powerful engine, largest interior, and highest towing and hauling capacity; it was the only “compact” that could seat up to eight people.
Built in Newark, Delaware, the hallmark of the Durango is the 245-horsepower, 335 ft.-lb. of torque, 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 engine, the biggest in its class. In addition, a 5.2-liter Magnum V-8 (230 hp, 300 ft.-lb. of torque) and a 3.9-liter Magnum V-6 (175 hp, 225 ft.-lb. torque) were available. The 5.2 and 5.9 were later replaced by the 4.7 V8. All three engines came with a four-speed automatic, with a fifth kickdown gear showing up with the 4.7. Both two and four wheel drive models were sold. Gas mileage, however, was barely better than GM's full-sized Suburban.
The 5.9-liter Magnum V-8 delivered a segment-best 7,300 lbs. maximum tow rating when equipped with an optional Class IV hitch - more than some of the full-size SUVs. Maximum payload was more than 1,800 pounds in an interior package that boasts 88 cubic feet of volume with the seats folded down. A unique floor pan depression created an additional hidden storage compartment behind the rear axle, while a second, and larger, compartment replaced the foot well when the optional third-row seat was not ordered.
A widened Dakota chassis allowed for more interior room and a larger gas tank. The full-size spare tire was underneath the vehicle, creating more cargo room. Durango's roof was raised nearly two inches from the second seat back to increase passenger headroom and visibility. The rear seats were a comfortable area for passengers and - when re-positioned - were a flat load floor. The second row seats folded and tumbled forward, providing easy third-row access for passengers or improved storage capability. The optional third row folded in conjunction with the second row to form a flat surface from the tailgate to the front seats.
In addition to current SUV owners, Dodge's consumer studies included comments from current car, truck and minivan owners. Unmet needs ranged from vehicle performance to passenger comfort. After careful study, issues were prioritized to address three primary areas: interior space, ride and handling and capability.
For interior space, studies revealed an overwhelming desire for spaciousness and versatility. Customers wanted their SUV to have the ability to comfortably transport more passengers and effectively haul more gear without having to purchase an over sized SUV. Durango offered three rows of seats for up to eight forward-facing passengers, the most interior space in the compact sport-utility vehicle market. When rear seats were folded down, there was 88 cubic feet of space available for hauling which was also best-in-class.
Customers indicated a strong desire for their SUV to have the power and robustness of a truck. Durango offered three engines size choices including a 5.9-liter Magnum V-8, the most powerful engine in its class. For hauling and towing, Durango offered the best-in-class capabilities with a 7,300 lb. tow rating and a maximum payload of 1,800 pounds.
In addition to power, research also indicated a need for smooth ride and agile handling in the SUV market. By building Durango on a stiffened Dodge Dakota chassis, engineers were able to give Durango nimble handling, tighter steering and greater maneuverability.
"After we uncovered and addressed these primary unmet needs in the SUV marketplace, we knew what we had to accomplish with our advertising campaign," said Fisher. "We focused on communicating how Durango offers the most power, capability and interior space than any other vehicle in its class."
Body-to-frame mounts were positioned to provide passenger comfort and quietness. These coincided with the body pillars, with an additional mount adjacent to the third rear seat - a total of twelve. These mounting locations maximized tuning capability while minimizing body structure interaction. The forward two sets of mounting locations were identical with Dakota; the remainder were unique to Durango.
The successful Dodge Durango underwent numerous changes for 2000. There was a new Sport model, with new fabrics and two-tone fascias; and, for all models, optional factory installed running boards, and five-spoke aluminum wheels. There were additional color keyed components for all models, including the steering wheel, floor console, various bezels, levers, and switches, and air outlets. There were newly redesigned gathered leather front and intermediate seats in the SLT+ group, with maple woodgrain bezels and accents and a leather wrapped steering wheel.
The 4.7 liter V8, available for the moment just on four wheel drive models, was new, and was combined with a new 45RFE automatic transmission that had four regular gears and a special kickdown gear for better highway passing. The 318 remained for rear wheel drive buyers; it had better “grunt” but lower peak horsepower and torque, and lower gas mileage. The 4.7 reported cost the company much less to build than the outgoing 318 or 360 (5.2 or 5.9).
4x4 models were improved in numerous ways, with a new front axle that was better made, higher capacity, and lower weight; a smoother and easier to use transfer case shifter; and an optional full-time four wheel drive transfer case. The rack and pinion steering system on 4WD Durango trucks was changed to enhance handling precision and feel, and used lifetime-lubricated tie rods. Optional composite skid plates gave 4WD models increased coverage and lowered weight.
For 2003, standard four-wheel disc brakes were incorporated for increased stopping power. New 16" x 7" cast-aluminum wheels were available, standard on Sport models. P245/70R16 black sidewall on/off road tires were also available, yet standard on Sport 4x4. 40/20/40 second row seat were standard. The four-gauge cluster was standard on Sport and SXT. Woodgrain center stack bezel was replaced by Satin Silver -- SLT Plus. Interior color-key door handles were replaced with Brushed Chrome. AM/FM sterio radio with six-disc in-dash CD was optional.
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