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1998 Dodge Durango

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Some of nature's phenomena tend to move from a state of organization to one of chaos. Physicists call this the Third Law of Thermodynamics. The underlying process is known as entropy. For you and me, it probably means that things go from bad to

worse.

If I were to transfer this thesis to the world of the automobile, I think it would refer to the tendency for efficient, compact designs to become "bigger and better," thereby losing part of their initial appeal and most of their integrity.

That's certainly becoming the case with the sport utility. As derived from the minipickup, the original downsized truck-wagon was a paragon of compact efficiency.

But the forces of bigger and better have taken their effect to the extent that some "compact" sport utilities have lost their sense of place. Double-downsized Sidekicks, RAV4s, CRVs and the like have been created to fill the void.

Way back, before Chrysler had begun its renaissance, some of the Dodge boys must have observed this process taking place in the minitruck market. And someone must have said: "Building a bigger minipickup doesn't make sense. Let's take a full step and create a truck that sits right in the middle between the full-size pickup and the compacts."

The 1986 result of that observation was the Dakota.

A true midsize, the Dakota was a wonderful idea and a fairly decent truck. But at the time, Dodge's parent company was still teetering on the edge of fiscal and creative bankruptcy. Whether the marketers didn't understand what they had in the Dakota, or just didn't have the energy to deal with it, we'll never know. But they did produce this bright idea with little development and even less promotion.

Times, and Chrysler, have certainly changed. And so did Dakota, receiving some TLC in the form of extensive chassis revisions and complete interior and exterior makeovers. But the Dodge boys, bless 'em, just made it better, not bigger. If anything, the bold Ram Tough styling looks a bit smaller than the original.

Which brings us to the Durango. Dodge's new sport utility is based directly on the Dakota

platform and front bodywork. Everything from the front seats forward is identical to the

Dakota, including the handsome and uncomplicated dash.

Durango is, therefore, the first domestic midsized sport utility, offering increased passenger and cargo space in a package that is easy to drive, park and wash.

But before I'm accused of inconsistencies in my logic, let me explain that I'm not categorically against larger sizes. Bigger can be terrific, say, in the case of the Suburban.

What I don't like are tidy, well-defined vehicles that become bloated. Bigger is just fine in the case of the Durango.

The interior is spacious without being cavernous and the extra room is put to good use, allowing the inclusion of a 40/20/40-split bench in the second row and the first worthwhile third row seating in a sport ute.

I say worthwhile because other attempts have either been cramped and virtually inaccessible, or have employed side-facing jump seats, which are neither safe nor comfortable. The design of Durango's third seat is a clear example why Chrysler has experienced such a resurgence. The seat can spend most of its time concealed as the wide, flat cargo floor, but, when needed, cushions and seatbacks easily pull up to accommodate a couple of adults on short jaunts, or a couple of offspring for longer periods.

Access to the last pew requires that one of the second row's 40 per cent sections be moved out of the way. Each section will individually flip and fold up against the front seats. The hinges are lightly spring-loaded to provide fingertip operation.

As is the case with all truck-based utes, the Durango does ask for a goodly step up to get inside. In order to make that step, most folks with third row tickets will require something to grab and pull on. It's right there, a perfectly shaped handle moulded into the side panel, right where your hand falls.

Although some luggage space remains with the third seat in place, the Durango does its best load carrying in two-row mode. Unencumbered by a spare tire (hung outside, under the floor), the cargo area is capacious but not huge in comparison to, say, the Explorer. But it has that just right, big box shape.

I trundled a truly gnarly load of household miscellany to the dump one morning and everything went in and stayed in. Like the Dakota, the Durango's midsize dimensions allow the use of powerful engines usually reserved for full-size trucks.

Along with a 175hp 3.9litre V6 base powerplant, the Durango buyer can choose from either 230hp 5.2litre or 245hp 5.9litre V8s. The V6 should do an okay job in this fairly heavy vehicle, and the 5.9 will be the ultimate choice for serious towing chores. I'd opt for the 5.2, which moved our tester. It proved to be smooth, quick and quiet.

The engines, along with this truck-wagon's robust frame, result in impressive tow ratings: 3311 kg (7,300 lb) on our tester. Given the vehicle's moderate size and weight, however,

for safety, I'd limit the trailer to 2500 kg and be thankful for the reserve capacity.

But there is one driveline carryover from the Dakota 4×4 that I do not like at all. Dodge has opted for a troglodyte part-time 4WD system as standard equipment. It is shift-on-the-fly, but should only be engaged after the truck is running on a slippery surface. That's too late!

Moreover, the selection lever is positioned up toward the firewall, requiring a reach that takes the driver's attention away from the business of driving – just when things are getting slick.

Perhaps some argument can be made for the throwback simplicity of part-time 4WD in a pickup, but it has absolutely no place in a sport utility. Luckily, the Dakota's system is based on Jeep's CommandTrac. Since cousin Jeep has the excellent and almost-as-simple

SelecTrac sitting in the parts bins, the Durango has it available at extra cost. SelecTrac provides the options of 2WD plus part-time or full-time 4WD. Don't leave home without it.

I can be almost as harsh with Dodge's decision to retain the Dakota's rear-wheel-only ABS. On a pickup, rear antilock brakes do make some sense. A stomp on the pickup's brakes pitches the weight forward, driving it onto the front tires and lifting it off the rears.

Thereby, the fronts increase traction and the rear tires lose most of it. The lightly-laden back tires need that ABS.

On the better-balanced sport utility, all four tires, and the family on board, need the skid control of antilock binders.

Fortunately, the chassis refinements that make the Dakota such a pleasurable and competent ride and drive easily transfer to the Durango.

Achieving quality pickup ride and handling is+G50 always a battle with weight distribution. Adding the balance of the sport ute rear bodywork allows the suspension and tires to have a much easier time of it.

The Durango's ride retains a no-nonsense truck-like firmness, but the shocks and springs have just enough initial softness in their action to maintain passenger comfort on long drives.

The Durango dramatically improves on the Dakota in terms of frame stiffness – being fully three times as rigid. While primarily in aid of reducing body squeaks and the like,

the stiffness adds predictability to the Durango's pavement behaviour and transforms the wagon into a tough off-roader.

One word of warning for those who would traverse the boonies. The Durango's rear lower shock mounts hang down where they could get hung up or damaged. Keep them in mind when passing over an obstacle.

If you are a regular reader you'll know that I chose the Durango over Mercedes' ML320 in the AJAC Car of the Year sport utility category, even though the ML320 was a likely winner.

As it turned out, the Mercedes won its class and was named the overall Car of the Year. I have nary a quibble with that. Definitely deserving of the crown, the ML320 is a wonderful vehicle, as innovative as it is talented and fun to drive. But I maintain that the Benz is a novelty, a hyper-tech anomaly in a segment best characterized by robust simplicity.

Given its brakes and 4WD system, the Durango may err on the side of conservatism, but otherwise it holds fast to some eternal sport ute verities. The Durango maintains the integrity of a simpler view of life. And that, if I'm not profoundly mistaken, is what started the compact truck-wagon craze in the first place.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on weeklong driving experiences in a Durango supplied by Chrysler Canada.

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