All new for 2004, the Dodge Durango has been redesigned from the ground up, to be even more competitive in a hotly contested and ever-growing market. Dodge says the fullsize SUV segment, which makes up 43 percent of the SUV market, continues to surpass 2 million units in sales per year. The in-between- size Durango, introduced in 1998, has always straddled the large and fullsize markets, capturing the interest of large families who need a fullsize SUV but don't want the bulk.

To keep up with the ever-increasing size of the fullsize competition, the new Durango also expands to present a roomier interior, and once again offer fullsize SUV capability in a smaller package, which also benefits from being more fuel efficient and less expensive than the competition. The '04 Durango is 7 inches longer, 3 inches taller, and 3 inches wider, resulting in a commodious interior that expands legroom, cargo, and headroom beyond that of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Ford Expedition. In fact, the Durango offers the same or greater level of towing capacity and interior space.

As mentioned before, the Durango continues with a solid body-on-frame construction, keeping its true roots as a tough, truck-based SUV. The new body is stiffer and mounted on an incredibly rigid hydroformed, fully boxed frame. Underpinning the Durango is a new A-arm front suspension with rack-and-pinion steering for a smoother ride and more precise handling. Under the rear, a live axle with a Watt's linkage and coil springs replace the archaic rear leaf spring setup of the current Durango, while saving 40 pounds of weight and increasing wheel travel by 12 percent.

The looks are pure Dodge with its family DNA incorporated in the Durango's drop-shoulder front fenders and powerful front end -- reminiscent of the original Power Wagons. Filling the generous wheelwells are standard 17-inch wheels. Afterburner-style taillights are similar to those on other Dodge concept vehicles. Dodge hopes the in-your-face design will separate the Durango from the increasingly crowded competition, especially those sporting more mundane styling.

Dodge's emphasis on creating a friendlier interior starts with the new dash, which has been redesigned to be more ergonomic and simpler to use. The new white-face gauge cluster is comprehensive and easy to read. Ample storage room abounds, and cubbyholes can be found throughout the cabin. A perfect example is the center console which houses a large bin to keep your fast-food bags from sliding around and spilling their contents onto the floor. With a 3-inch increase in the wheelbase, passengers enjoy more legroom at all seating positions.

Power adjustable pedals help the driver to find an optimal seating position. The second-row passengers can now adjust the rear seat rake for more comfort and are graced with their own climate, audio, and DVD controls. The third-row passengers also enjoy increases in leg, shoulder, and hip room, while the distance between the rear wheelwells is a full 48 inches, large enough for containing the ubiquitous 4-foot-wide sheet of plywood. The cargo volume is 15 percent larger than before, thanks to 102.4 cubic feet of cargo room on the fold-flat load floor.

For the first time, a V-6 will anchor the engine lineup on the Durango and completes one of the most expansive engine lineups of all the large and fullsize SUVs. Engine choices are the V-6 210hp 3.7L, the Magnum V-8 230hp 4.7L, and the awesome Hemi Magnum V-8 330hp 5.7L, replacing the former top engine choice, the Magnum 5.9L, with a 10-percent improvement in fuel economy. Either a four-speed or five-speed automatic transmission is standard, depending on the chosen engine. At 6,600 pounds, the GVWR is a Best In Class and has the ability to tow an incredible 8,950 pounds of trailer weight.

Safety starts with the exceptional handling that has been engineered into the chassis and new bumper heights that match most cars. In the event you need more, the Durango has the largest ABS brakes available in its class. Borrowed from the fullsize Ram pickup, the brakes measure 13.1 inches in the front and 13.8 inches in the rear, increasing the swept area over the previous design by 30 percent. All of the seats, including center positions, offer three-point seatbelts and a full complement of airbags, including side-curtain airbags for all three rows of seats. Side-curtain airbags protect passengers from life-threatening collisions. Front seat passengers start to use the next generation dual-stage airbags. To keep collision repair costs down, the Durango-specific frame is designed with special-shaped frame horns that are replaceable after an accident. Anticipating more severe crashes, the new Durango passes the 50-mph offset barrier test.

Dodge says it is the big SUV that is not too big -- and we have to agree. After a day of driving the Durango in nearly all trim levels, all three engine options, as well as while towing a 6,500-pound, 26-foot boat with the Hemi, we were surprised at the stability and agility of this truck. The ride is firm, but comfortable and compliant. Helping out on those long journeys are the pleasing seats and hushed interior. Also impressing us was the quality switch gear and the rich interior materials -- something we are becoming accustomed to with recent Dodge redesigns.

We enjoyed many of the new convenience features, such as the extra-large sunroof, the rear door which opens a full 84 degrees, and the Bluetooth personal electronic device technology. The 384-watt stereo was crisp and clear, while the overall package was livable and easy to drive. If you are looking for a big, capable, and contemporary SUV that isn't too big for everyday use, the new Durango should be high on your list of testdrives. We'll let you know how the Durango stacks up to the competition in our SUV of the Year testing.