By on December 31, 2015


2003 Dodge Durango. Image: FCA

Shandor writes:

I used to have an ’84 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. When it died, I replaced it with a new ’99 Dodge Durango. It seemed to be a fairly solid, updated replacement for the Wagoneer. My mechanic, who was a master Jeep mechanic, said that Chrysler came up with the Durango to fill the gap in the market created after the Grand Wagoneer stopped production in 1991.

Recently, I purchased an ’09 Chrysler Aspen, which is an improvement over the ’99 Durango and seems closer to what the Grand Wagoneer might have become if they had continued making the Jeep as a body-on-frame SUV.

I’m wondering, does anyone know if the first Durango was made intentionally to replace the extinct Grand Wagoneer? If so, it seems ironic that Jeep is now coming out with a new Grand Wagoneer based on the current Durango that may cause the Durango to become extinct.

Sajeev answers:

Shandor, your question warms my Lincoln-Mercury fanboi heart, because I think you — and all my loyal readers — appreciate my belief that the world’s supply of awesome fluctuates relative to the number of Lincoln Continentals and Mercury Cougars on the road.

Your mechanic isn’t stupid like yours truly, but the main reason why companies invest/risk on new products is not for fanboi loyalties: It’s all about the money, honey.

And yes, I remember GM pouring massive R&D cash into Corvette platforms during the bad times, but the 1999 Dodge Durango was no eight-year-belated replacement for an iconic wood-toned wagon. The follow-up to the Grand Wagoneer is technically the 1993 ZJ Grand Wagoneer.

SUVs of the 1980s were niche models with modest appeal. Most folks wanted hatchbacks, minivans or station wagons back then. The 1999 Dodge Durango was a different business case for a different decade. It was designed for the large volume, high-margin 1990s SUV market.

I’m sure the success of the Jeep XJ and ZJ was the foundation for Chrysler’s business case to build a Durango, but then examine the runaway success of the Chevy Tahoe and the ubiquitous Ford Explorer. Those latter products from rival automakers are the “house” built on that Jeep foundation.

And it was a house built upon badge engineering. The original Explorer was Ranger-like, the Tahoe was mostly a workaholic Suburban and other players, such as the Blazer and Expedition, deserve honorable mentions for their truck-a-like roots. Dodge needed a piece of that SUV action and a hacked up Dakota really wasn’t Jeep’s modus operandi back then. That changed once Cerberus re-aimed its Compass, but I digress…

The folks at Edmunds said it best, explaining how the Durango’s design sported one foot in the Explorer’s (2-row seating) market, the other in Tahoe (3-row) territory.

The Durango’s Grand Wagoneer connection? It’s there in spirit, but it sure is weak.

[Image: Fiat Chrysler]

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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34 Comments on “Piston Slap: Dodging the Grand Wagoneer’s Destiny?...”

  • avatar

    This made me lol.

    Although I will say that 1st and 2nd generation Durangos never sold all that well around here the ones that did sell seem to be soldiering on pretty well.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes and no, the ones that managed to stay out of the salt do okay, I see them all the time in various states of dilapidation in my neighborhood. Back home in NY these things rusted like no other. Easily worse corrosion wise than any other SUV of the late 90s era. I do really like how they look, make mine a early 2000s two tone silver over slate SXT with the 4.7. In the current day of cheap gas it’d make a great second vehicle.

      • 0 avatar

        Oddly enough the school district I work for has TWO Chrysler Aspens that they bought at fire sale prices during the bankruptcy (along with 3-4 FWD V6 three row Journeys).

        I’ve never gotten to ride in the Aspens which from what I’ve heard are fully loaded models and out of the character of the district which usually buys Tahoes and Suburbans no higher than LS trim level.

        The 1st generation Durangos I see around here are in various states of repair but trucking along. Their is a family down the street where Dad drives an Excursion (V10 4×4) and mom has a first gen Durango (V8 4×4). I’d hate to know what percentage of income is being spent on fuel even in these cheap gas times.

        • 0 avatar

          Excursion V10 mileage when full of people = 10 MPG
          Excursion V10 mileage when towing = 10 MPG
          Excursion V10 mileage rolling down a hill with the engine shut off = 10 MPG

          • 0 avatar

            @bball40dtw, which is what I’ve found to be true of big block gas engines whether it is a carbureted 454, fuel injected 460… etc.

            Some owners consider it a feature others consider it a liability.

          • 0 avatar

            Well, at least you know what you’re getting.

      • 0 avatar

        Ours is a 2000 Durango and is pretty rust free after 186k miles. Most have been in WI. It has a 318 which is a great little engine and doesn’t have the issues the 4.7 had.

        We do run it through the car wash that sprays all the underside though and the only body rust so far is the front bumper and some in the tailgate which has been sprayed.

    • 0 avatar

      My mom drove a ’99 Durango (or was it a ’00?) from new for almost 15 years with nary a problem — besides the horrendous gas mileage (avg. 14 mpg).

      Out here in California rust isn’t a problem, but the transmission was terrible. I’m not sure if she got a fluke or if this is the same problem plaguing Chrysler automatics today, but we had to have that tranny pulled out at least 7 times. My father iss nothing if not frugal, and by god he would rather pay to keep that truck running than get himself into a car payment.

      It was on transmission #3 and was about to go in for tranny #3’s 2nd rebuild when I drove her over to the dealership 2 years ago.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure there isn’t a little truth to the story.
    The recent Durango is basically a 3 row Grand Cherokee right?

    • 0 avatar

      Well the current Durango is related to the JGC, but the replacement for the Grand Wagoneer was the ZJ Grand Cherokee. The Durango did come out until almost six years after the Wagoneer was last sold. Heck, there was originally a Grand Wagoneer version of the ZJ Cherokee in 1993.

      Pre-FCA, the Durango was always a Explorer/Expedition/Tahoe/Suburban fighter.

      • 0 avatar
        Car Ramrod

        Well, maybe not exactly. The ZJ concept goes back as far as ’89, IIRC the ZJ was originally supposed to be a replacement for the XJ Cherokee. At least that’s the line in “The Story of Jeep”

        • 0 avatar

          Probably not exactly, but they ended up keeping the XJ around, getting rid of the SJ, and for one model year had a ZJ Grand Wagoneer. Maybe that wasn’t the plan going in, but the XJ hung around for ten years after the SJ was gone.

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      Yes, they’re on the same platform.

    • 0 avatar

      You may be thinking of the current Dodge Durango. The 1997 – 2009 model years were a body on frame design based on the Dakota.

      • 0 avatar

        1st gen was based on the Dakota, 2nd gen was based on the Ram truck and 3rd gen is based on the JGC platform.

        • 0 avatar

          I thought the 2nd gen shared things with both the Dakota and Ram. The Dakota and Ram shared a lot more with each other during the Dakota’s last generation. Warren Truck built both the Dakota and Ram at the time.

          • 0 avatar

            2nd generation shared some frame characteristics, and power trains from the Ram. Front suspension is torsion bar which makes room for the 5.7L as it won’t fit in the Dakota.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    This almost makes me want to go find one for a winter beater. A red one like the one pictured would be a nice match for my same-color 1999 2WD Dakota. Best part is a lot of the parts from the front door forward would interchange. But then I remember…

    – 42/44/46RE automatic transmissions are built out of glass.
    – Dakota/Durango 4×4 independent front suspensions are also built out of glass.
    – The 2000 and up models come with the 4.7L SOHC V8 which turns into glass right around 150K.
    – They come with all of the lovely electrical problems every Chrysler is known for.

    Despite all of this, these vehicles (Dakota and Durango) still get a decent following even today and there’s finally a decent aftermarket of parts for them. For what it’s worth my ’99 Dakota has a manual transmission, is 2WD, has the relatively gutless 3.9L pushrod V6, and has manual everything- so I can avoid my list above!

    And as Sajeev mentioned, the first generation Durangos were just Dodge’s answer to the 90’s SUV craze. I’ve wondered before why they didn’t build one off of the first generation Dakota to “replace” the Ramcharger, but they might have started development while the second generation Dakota was already in the works.

    • 0 avatar

      “The 2000 and up models come with the 4.7L SOHC V8 which turns into glass right around 150K.”

      This has me a bit worried, my ’02 Dakota with 4.7 has been fine so far and it just crossed the 100K mark. It is basically only used to tow my boat on weekends thus the low mileage. The truck has been a workhorse spending its entire life at 70 MPH with the boat behind it in the Florida heat year after year. The transmission has needed value replaced and the torque converter often decides at random that it doesn’t want to lock up in top gear while cruising. The interior looks like new but the wheel wells in the bed are starting to rust from saltwater being kick up on them, in the snow belt the bed would have be gone years ago.

      • 0 avatar
        Ian Anderson

        For what you’re using it for JMII, I’d just keep it and run it until it blows up. Maybe do a full coolant change, water pump and thermostat, since even a slight overheating will kill off a 4.7. There’s plenty of them out there pushing 250-300K. It seems like the ones primarily driven by soccer moms in families who would be better off driving and abusing Camry’s are the ones that die off.

        The ’99 I have is only in good shape because while the original owner bought it up here in Philly, the owner before me had it in South Carolina from 2002 to 2013 when he moved up here and unloaded it to buy a 4×4 truck. The bottoms of the wheel arches are just starting to rust and the front bumper has a hole in it. I’m either going to replace it with a larger truck for work or outfit it for work and drive it to 200K. It’s just annoying when old car age decides to catch up to it on my way to work in the form of a bum alternator or fuel pump.

  • avatar

    Who said the new version would be Durango based?

  • avatar

    Well, whether the GW and Durango are spiritual brothers or not, they do handle the same kinds of chores with the same ease. I always thought a loaded up Aspen or Durango Limited would make an entirely acceptable functional replacement for a GW.

    Funny, I just traded off my wife’s ’04 Durango Limited yesterday. Hemi and all. Couldn’t see dropping $3000 into rust abatement (and god how those damn things rust), new tires and mechanical repairs on a vehicle worth $2500. She’s happily driving the roomier and more fuel efficient midsize crossover she actually belongs in now, and it will soak up 4×8 drywall sheets just as well.

  • avatar

    My friend’s mom had one of the first Durangos. His dad owned a Chrysler family dealership so his mom always had a demo. Being a year older than my friend, his mom let me drive it back from the movies one night because I was the first out of the group to get my license and she wanted us to take the big, safe SUV* instead of my Impreza. Goodness, did that thing wander all over the place on the road. My parents had a 1997 Yukon that I’d driven quite a lot at the time, and the road manners were light years better. After 3 Durangos or so, she moved on to Grand Cherokees.

    My same friend ended up with a 1998 5.9 Limited Grand Cherokee during my senior year. That thing was frighteningly quick at the time. It was floating around his dad’s old lot not too long ago. I’d expect that it would fetch a decent sum of money these days.

    * Funny enough, my friends rolled a 1999ish Expedition coming back from the movies not long after. I didn’t go because I’d won the lottery and had managed to get a girlfriend, so I had different, stupid goals that evening. Now that we’ve finally managed to get body on frame SUVs that handle decent, the market has essentially killed anything smaller than full size.

  • avatar

    I’m going to agree with Sajeev on the “tweener” aspect of the Durango and how it was a quick product built for the 90’s SUV boom, but I will add one more important reason for its existence: platform extension exercise.

    Here’s the Dodge Ram production figures per Wiki:

    1996 383,980
    1997 350,257
    1998 410,999
    1999 350,275
    2000 380,874
    2001 344,538
    2002 396,934
    2003 449,371

    Now here’s the Dakota:

    1999 144,148
    2000 177,395
    2001 154,479
    2002 130,712
    2003 111,273
    2004 105,614

    So in most years its less than one half to one third Ram sales. But Durango -built on a Dakota chassis- doubles the figures in most of its earlier years.

    1997 20,263
    1998 156,923
    1999 189,840
    2000 173,567
    2001 130,799
    2002 106,925
    2003 108,010
    2004 137,148

  • avatar

    My only Durango experience – got a 2nd gen one as a rental one stormy night a LaGuardia for a work trip to Joisey. When on high, the wipers shook that pile of jello of a truck in suck a way as to make me quite nauseous at stoplights. Highly annoying.

  • avatar

    The difference between Grand Wagoneer and Durango isn’t function, but perception. The GW was always a vehicle for the .1 percent and the first-gen Durango was an extraordinary mullet mobile almost from the beginning.

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