Rutland, VT--It may be the newest kid on the block, but Dodge's 1998 Durango offers some attractive alternatives in the increasingly crowded sport utility market.
Smaller than the Ford Expedition and Chevy suburban but longer and more spacious than the Explorer, the Durango combines a roomy interior with ample power, (standard 230 hp V8), easy handling, and comfortable ride.
It also scored well in what I call the toll collector's test. "That's a nice-looking car. How do you like it?" queried one toll sentry. Any vehicle that draws attention amid the never-ending blur of rolling steel must have something going for it. Actually, the Durango's lines seem bolder and less boxy than most competitors.
Traveling in Vermont during near sudden, white-out conditions, I surely appreciated the shift-on-the-fly 4WD, easily engaged by a floor-mounted lever. The extra traction got me safely up the steep grades of Route 4 on the way to Killington Mountain. Ditto for negotiating ice-encrusted parking lots.
Though based on the Dakota pickup, Dodge engineers stiffened the frame, lowered the pickup's ride height, raised the roof, and widened the rear half of the vehicle. The design allows for an optional third seat, allowing the Durango to seat 8 passengers. Both the second and third seats fold down easily for maximum cargo space.
In bitter cold weather, the heating system kept rear passengers quite comfortable. I also liked the easy-to-open center console in the front seat. Its latch faced the front--instead of the irksome side latch on my Mercury Sable's console compartment.
As with any new model, one wonders how reliable it will be over the long haul. Apart from that concern and the high fuel consumption (a V6 version is coming), Durango looks like a strong new entry in the popular sport ute field.