SUVOAL: 2002 Dodge Durango – A Long Term Appliance With 3 Seats

Don’t shine a black light on any of the seats of my Durango.  2 wives, 3 kids, 5 dogs, and 4 cats have all been ferried around within its confines and therefore just about every body fluid you can think of has been splashed or spilled somewhere in its interior.

Grossed out yet?  You shouldn’t be, because if I were to take my evidence collection kit to any of your vehicles, I would probably find the same residue, its just that my Durango has probably been doing it longer and with more living things.

Because we live our lives in and with our vehicles, and to non-car people, their CamCord/Crossover thingie is just another appliance, like the refrigerator or washing machine to be used as intended and then thrown away or traded for a newer model when its useful life is over or they simply want something different.

And Im not criticizing those people, really Im not, in fact, I often wish I didn’t have such a lifelong obsession and emotional attachment to cars, I would probably actually have a savings account in the bank instead of in the garage.

Welcome to my next COAL.  I still have some more classics and fun cars to write about but this time, Im going to spotlight my family workhorse, my 2002 Dodge Durango.  While it doesn’t have any sexy motorhead stories of midnight engine swaps, long smokey burnouts with blown head gaskets, or six hour drives in my underwear, it does have a lot, well, actually, pretty much all, of my family’s history in it.

In April, 2002, I was living in Texas with my first wife (X) and my oldest daughter was a year and a half old.  X’s Dad was a career GM employee, an engineer that worked primarily in the Delphi division, starting out in starters and alternators and was into batteries and the Volt program by the time he retired a few years ago.  So, X had always leased a new GM vehicle every 3 years through his employee pricing plan, and back then, employee leasing was a really good deal; she was leasing $30K vehicles for less than $200 a month.   She had a blue ’99 Blazer that was coming off lease.  I drove new Tahoes at work and really liked them, and so did my wife, so we went to our favorite Chevy dealer and picked one out.

When we sat down to run the numbers, we found out that GM had changed the rules on the employee leasing plan and there was really no advantage to leasing anymore.  Since I was a cop and she was a teacher, we couldn’t afford to finance a new Tahoe and even buying the Blazer that we were turning in off of the lease was out of our budget.  So we looked at a few bigger cars and she liked the Pontiac Grand Prix but she really wanted an SUV, particularly a mid-sized one like a Blazer.

I really liked the Dodge Durangos when they came out in 1998.  I think that they are best looking out of all of the modern-era SUVs and their looks still hold up well today.  I also liked that they are built on the rugged Dakota frame and it was the only  SUV in its class at the time that came with a V8.  Now that I was a father, I really liked the idea of the 3rd seat and I don’t think there were any SUVs at the time that weren’t full sized models like the Expedition or Suburban that had one.  So, since GM was going to charge us some serious Benjamins for a Tahoe or a Blazer, I said why don’t we check out the Durango, which was sized in between the Blazer and Tahoe but had the 3rd seat.  She was interested and off to the Dodge Boys we went.

She picked out this one, an Atlantic Blue 4X2 with the not-stripped-out-but-not-decked-out SLT package.  She liked all the room and storage space.  I’m a big fella and I never feel cramped or a lack of shoulder, leg or headroom, and I think the seats are pretty comfortable and supportive.  As it was a Saturday, the dealer let us take it home for the weekend for a “try before you buy” kind of thing.  We liked it and after turning on my charming Irish wit and personality into a deal that we could afford,  went back on Monday to sign the paperwork.

Just after we bought it in 2002.

So the Durango became the family truckster.  Coming off of the 4.3L V6 in the Blazer, the X really liked the power from the 4.7L V8 in the Durango, and so did I.  For a SOHC engine, and very much unlike the Ford 4.6, its very torquey at low rpm and its mated to the bulletproof Mopar 545RFE electronically controlled 5 speed transmission, which takes advantage of the 4.7’s powerband and returns an honest 20 mpg on the highway with 3.55 gears.

Also unlike the Ford 4.6, the Mopar 4.7 doesn’t have a stellar reputation for longevity, but in typical Chrysler fashion, when you get a good one, you get a good and this is a good one; I forget what year that the upgrades were made, I think its the pre-2002s that are prone to sludge issues.  When this one is cold, I do get some valvetrain noise but, that’s any engine.  The 5.3 LS V8 in my work Tahoe did that from day 1.  I toss a can of Seafoam Green in at each oil change and that keeps it happy and the oil pressure stays up.  Today it has just over 180K on it and shows little, if any, signs of wear; it only burns maybe a half a quart in between oil changes.

We had it for about a year and a half in Texas before I got orders to Virginia.  I really don’t have a lot of recollections of driving it around in that time since I was deployed to various locations in the year and a half following 9/11 and I pretty much missed most of my oldest’s first two years.  I had to report in to my new duty station the day after Labor Day weekend in 2003 but X was a teacher, so she had to be out there the first week in August to start at her new school, plus she would also be the one doing the house hunting until I got there.  She was also 6 months pregnant with number 2.  Originally, I was planning on driving up with her and the baby and flying back on my own until I drove myself up the next month but I wound having to have a hernia surgery a few days before she left and couldn’t go, so my wife made the drive up with her mother instead.  That third seat probably came in handy.

If you’ve been following my COALs, you may remember the story of my blue 2004 Ram.  When we got to Virginia, my wife had the Durango, I had a regular cab 1996 Ram pickup that I dearly loved and still have, plus I had my ’68 Coronet and ’72 Fury.  With my new schedule at my new duty station, I would be off in the mornings and would be sharing child shuffling duties with X, and none of those vehicles quite fit the bill.  So I was able to convince X that I needed a new car (devil eyes)  I stopped into the local Dodge dealer and wheeled and dealed my way into a new Dodge Ram 4X4 Extended Cab, AKA, The Blue Truck.

Problem was, we just could not afford 2 car payments, especially with a new baby coming and a new mortgage payment that would be more than what we had in Texas.  My pickup was long paid off but we were only a year into payments on the Durango.  So I convinced my wife to trade the Durango in and let me get TBT so that I could drop the kids off in the morning with it, she could drive my old truck to work and then she could come home, swap cars and then pick both kids up in TBT at the end of the day since I would be driving my agency-issued car.

That lasted all of about 3 days.

She really missed having a car of her own and shuffling cars around like that was going to be confusing and more work than she wanted.  So we went back to the dealer and bought the Durango back for what we traded it in for.  The dealer had a laugh and said no one had ever done that before.   So, in terms of payments, I absorbed whatever we owed on the Durango into my loan for TBT and my wife was left with whatever was left as a refinance.  Somehow we made it work because more than 15 years later, both trucks are still in my driveway.

So for the next several years, the Durango was our Appliance.  X could care less about cars, she just needed it to do all the Mom stuff-Scouts, soccer, school, grocery shopping.  Then there were the car trips to Disney, back to see family in South Carolina and New York.  During the summer when I was stationed there, X and the kids would come down and stay at my house on base in North Carolina since I lived on the beach, we took lots of weekend trips to the Blue Ridge Mountains and to the Outer Banks.  I did all of the maintenance and repairs all along and no major issues that I can recall.  So in short, it was a good appliance.  It hit 100K sometime in 2010.

Daughter #2 came home from the hospital in the Durango, but it was a struggle to get to that milestone.  She was 6 weeks early, and the day after she was born, she was rushed to the children’s hospital for an emergency surgery for an intestinal blockage.  It was a stressful time as the X was also not doing well post child-birth due to preeclampsia issues.  So, for a couple of days, my routine was to drop my 2 year old off at day care, go to hospital #1 which was 20 miles in one direction to see the X and then go to hospital #2, which was 40 miles in the opposite direction to see the baby and then go pick up my 2 year old.

On top of that, Hurricane Isabel had just hit the area pretty hard.  The house we had put a contract on was damaged by tidal flooding and it set the closing back a month, which turned out to be just a couple of days after #2 came home from the hospital.  So in the middle of my child being born, her subsequent emergency surgery, my wife being in the hospital for an extended stay, I had a 2 year old I was taking care of by myself, we had just relocated to where neither of us had any family or friends and we were essentially homeless.

No stress there, right?  But the Durango got us all through it.

As far as my oldest, she was a trooper through the whole thing and she doesn’t remember much about that time.  She was just a few weeks shy of her 3rd birthday so I don’t know if she fully grasped that the cute little baby she was visiting at the hospital every day was actually her sister that was going to be living with us.  So, on the day we brought #2 home, #1 was at day care and we picked her up with #2 in the baby seat in the Durango.  When #1 saw her in the baby seat that was actually in our car and that #2 was going home with us forever, she burst out in tears.  Today they are best friends.

Meanwhile, I kept up on the regular maintenance and repairs on it.  I remember it got recalled for the ball joints in around 2005 or so, where Chrysler cheaped out on with non-greaseable units that were prone to early failure so they replaced them with Moog units that are still on it. I know I did the tie rod ends at some point too but I don’t remember when.  Its on its 2nd set of shocks, maybe 3rd set of brakes, 2nd set of plugs and 3rd (maybe 4th?) set of tires.  The windshield was replaced one winter after it cracked really bad and wouldn’t pass the state safety inspection.  Its on its third battery.  X liked bumping into things in parking lots so I’ve had to touch up the bumpers a few times.

For a modern vehicle, most components are fairly easy to access.

My biggest complaint is the air conditioner.  From day one, it never really worked great, and Ive talked to other Durango owners that said the same thing.  From what I understand, it’s the first year of the dual zone air conditioner in the Durangos and from what I can tell, Chrysler didn’t upgrade any of the components, just the temperature controls, so that the driver and passenger settings can be adjusted individually (a dumb feature in my opinion) using the same compressor, drier, condenser, etc., but now with a greater load.   After years of experimenting with it and replacing the radiator, the compressor, expansion valve and the condenser, I came to the conclusion that the combination of the big engine in a small space and air conditioning components that weren’t upgraded, the underhood heat buildup was too much at idle and when sitting in traffic for too long, the fans couldn’t pull enough air out of the condenser and it would stop blowing cold air, despite the fact that there is both an engine-driven clutch fan and an electric puller fan mounted inside of the radiator.

The only thing that really helped was when I installed a heavy duty fan clutch, so now its an iceberg when moving but it still warms up if sitting in traffic for too long; the engine doesn’t overheat, the air conditioner just doesn’t blow as cold.  I’m open to suggestions if anyone has any.

While writing this, I asked my kids what were their favorite Durango memories.  Oldest told me that when she was in about 1st or second grade, X had taken her to get a Happy Meal and the toy was a doll from whatever they were promoting at the time.  Apparently, X had given her specific directions not to hold the doll out the window while she was driving so that she wouldn’t drop it and lose it.  Well, guess what she did.  She held it out the window and dropped it.  She was so embarrassed, she didn’t tell the X and still hasn’t to this day.

#2 said that around the time she was in kindergarten, I was driving them somewhere and she told oldest that she was actually the older one because her birthday was in November and oldest’s was in December, so since her birthday came earlier in the year that she was actually the older one.   Apparently it turned into a heated argument that I don’t remember but she does and laughs about it hysterically today.

Thinking back to my last COAL about my Dad’s Plymouth, I said that my happiest childhood memories weren’t of family trips or special occasions, it was just spending time with my parents, doing the things that we as adults call mundane or routine but could otherwise be special to a child.   As a parent, its not what you do with your kids, its just that you do it.  Just be there.  My kids are remembering the same things about the Durango that I did about my Dad’s Satellite (and my Mom’s Oldsmobile COAL that’s coming) they aren’t remembering the big trips, they just like the daily routine and that they are spending time with us.

It had been brewing for about a year and a half, but in the summer of 2011, my wife left.  I’m not going to get into the details but despite all of my best efforts to try and save the marriage, she just wanted out.  Counseling, weekend reconciliations, none of that stuff worked; when a woman makes up her mind, its a done deal.  We have since settled into an amicable parenting partnership but it was hard-really hard-at the time.  It was odd waking up in the morning and going out to pee off of my back porch and not seeing the familiar blue Durango in its normal parking spot.

So I filled that spot with a red ’78 Trans Am with a 4 speed and T-Tops.  It was an impulse eBay purchase while I was watching Smokey and the Bandit one rainy Saturday afternoon just after she moved out.  It was better than therapy at the time and probably cheaper.  I had my time with it and I sold it in 2015 when it was eventually replaced by the 1987 Grand National that I wrote about previously.

She kept the Durango for 4 more years until 2015, with just shy of 150K on it, after growing tired of keeping up on the maintenance and repairs of a 13 year old vehicle, plus she wanted something smaller, X bought a new Kia Soul.   We agreed to hold on to the Durango though, as my oldest was now 15 and would (hopefully) be getting her license within the next year and that would be the perfect first car for her as it was big, safe and reliable.   I brought it back to my house since she lived in an apartment and I would take over the insurance and upkeep on it, and I drove it to work every so often to keep it roadworthy until oldest started driving.

A quick body fluid story.  In February of 2016, my German Shepherd got into a fight with my Boxer/Lab mutt (BLab) over food and BLab damn near ripped my Shep’s ear off.  I got them broken up after taking a bite on my own leg but he wouldn’t let me touch it to bandage it for the $600 trip to the emergency vet so I just put him in the Durango and rushed him there as quick as I could, unbandaged.  Of course he was in pain and he kept shaking his head, and everytime he did, he would shake little droplets of blood all over the truck.  I purposely left some of them on the backs of the seats so that it serves as a reminder to my daughter’s boyfriends if they do my little princesses wrong.  Anyway, the vet patched my doggo up and you would never know he almost lost his ear.  Since then, they have been fed separately and thankfully, there haven’t been any more fights, in fact, as I’m writing this, I’m laying in bed and those two chuckleheads are laying on top of each other up against me.  Dogs rule.

About 2 years ago, for the first time in my life, and with all of the cars I own and have owned in my life, I lost a set of car keys and it was the keys, along with the key fob, to the Durango.  I looked for hours trying to find them to no avail.  I chalked it up to my aging mind and luckily I still had the original spare key and fob.  But the next day, a fellow from my neighborhood who was out for a morning run knocked on my door and asked if the mangled and bent up set of keys that he found laying on the bank of the creek across the street from my house were mine.  They were.  Apparently, I had left them laying on one of my other cars and drove off.

Life with the Durango continued on.  As my oldest approached driving age, I began teaching her to drive in it; my other cars too, but the Durango was her primary teaching vehicle since it was probably going to be hers anyway.  The low end torque surprised her quite a few times when pulling away from STOP signs.

I got remarried in 2017.  I say this in the most loving way possible but my new wife is quite the character.  She is a speech therapist with her own practice that specializes in patients with traumatic brain injuries, particularly veterans and youth athletes and she is affiliated with a couple of hospitals as well.  So, at the risk of sounding arrogant, she makes a comfortable salary, and could therefore, within reason, afford almost any mass-market vehicle that she wanted.  She also shares my (somewhat)pragmatist views where we generally don’t see the need to replace material objects with the latest and greatest unless its something that we really want and can afford.  She’s also has quite the free-spirit attitude towards life and saw no need to replace her 2002 Saturn SC2 with almost 300,000 miles on it.  She bought it new and just doesn’t want to get rid of it.

The goats would hang out on the Saturn and she would often go pick up bales of hay in it.

I knew I liked her.

She came to the marriage with horses, goats and a donkey.  She did have a late model Cummins Turbo Diesel Dodge Ram 3500 dually pickup that went with her X when they split up and since I had TBT, we were fixed good truck-wise for horse and hay hauling duties.  She also came to me without any kids and within a month after we were married, as I am still a healthy, fully-functional male, I did my duties as a husband and got her pregnant with her first and my third child.

My new kid was not going to be carried around in a 300K mile Saturn coupe.   I have nothing against the car but I spent a career in accident investigation and one thing I learned early on was that gross tonnage always wins and little cars always lose, no matter what NHTSA says their crash rating is.

So my wife and I started new car shopping, but truthfully, there were very few that actually interested us.  She wanted a bigger SUV, both for the baby and for hauling the horse stuff around.  I drove a new Tahoe at work and wasn’t thrilled with it; I liked the older models better.  Neither of us liked the Expedition.  She liked the 4Runner but they were overpriced for what they were, the dealers were cocky a-holes and they gave me Iraq flashbacks.  We both liked Jeep Grand Cherokees but the dealers all either had fully decked out Overlands or stripped out V6 models.

And the thing is, all of these new monster SUVs just have too much ‘stuff.’  Neither of us like or want all of the electronic gimmickry that comes stocked in modern cars.  A TV screen belongs in my living room, not my dashboard.

When we were at the C-D-J dealer looking at the Grand Cherokees, we looked at the new Durango too, and, just like back in 2002, my wife liked the 3rd seat and space in a not-monster-sized SUV.  But neither of us liked the $60K sticker price.

How about used ones?   Even they were $40K+

Then it occurred to me, wait a second stupid, I already OWN a Durango!   Why buy another one?

By this time, my Durango had about 160K on it.  I had owned it since new, did all of the maintenance and repairs on it, there were no mechanical issues and it still looked and ran good.  Why did I need to add another vehicle with a car payment, insurance and additional maintenance?

Well, there was child #1, who was supposed to get it as her first car.  But at that time, she was 17 and, like many kids her age in her generation, still hadn’t gotten her license yet.  And neither has her boyfriend or anyone in her group of friends.  But unlike so many of the other kids, its not due to complacency or laziness that she is not driving, she is just very cautious and apprehensive about driving and I don’t have a problem with that.  She is working on it though and she set a goal for herself to get her license by the time she graduates high school this semester.   Now I have a different car, with another COAL, for her.

So wife #2 agreed to drive wife #1’s old car.  No weirdness there, right?

But now it really does get weird.  Wife #2 became preeclampsic with child #3 and, while I was out on the firing range at work one day, I got an emergency call from my wife that she was being admitted to the hospital for an emergency induced delivery 2 months early.  And child #3 had to be rushed to the same NICU at the same children’s hospital as #2 child did 15 years earlier.  And just like 15 years earlier, wifey had to stay in the hospital for several days after delivery to stabilize while the baby was at a different hospital.  And just like I did 15 years earlier, I drove 20 miles to one hospital in the morning to see my wife and then drove 40 miles in the other direction to see the baby.  In the same car.  And just like 15 years ago, it was a very stressful time but, at least this time, I had a support network of family and friends and I wasn’t in the middle of a move.

And just like 15 years ago, my wife stabilized and was released and baby #3 came home (in the Durango) after about 3 weeks in the NICU.   Almost a year later, Mom, Baby and Durango are all doing fine.

We still have the Saturn too, its got 320K on it and it still runs and looks good. She drives it to work on days that she doesn’t have the baby and uses it as the barn car.  We won’t let it die.

Business in the front….

….party in the back

So, it’s 2019.  After 17 years, and all those kids, wives, dogs, and goats, the Durango has earned its permanent spot in my garage of keepers.  We won’t let it die either.  I’m in my mid 40s with a kid about to start college, another in high school and another in diapers, and all 3 have been hauled around in the same car I’ve had since I was in my 20s.  Not only that, but its also the same car that my ex-wife drove and now my current wife drives, and we actually all get along quite well.  I get a good chuckle at that sometimes.