When choosing our SUV of the Year winner, we look at many variables beyond the point tallies and subjective rankings of our judges. We also look at the ease of customizing, the availability of parts, and aftermarket support. So, a vehicle that received the most points, may not always be the winner after the editors of this fine magazine duke it out for their favorite pick. Out of all the SUVs we tested for this year, we felt that the new Durango, with its 5.7L Hemi V-8, best embodied the mission of Truckin' magazine and what its readers look for in an SUV.

All new for 2004, the Dodge Durango is a vast improvement over the previous model. Its styling can best be described as evolutionary, although the afterburner taillights and drop fenders were redesigned to evoke the Power Wagon's spirit of the past. Our testers thought the rear view looked distinctive, turning to a somewhat vanilla side profile, and were split on the front-end styling. However, the clean appearance should lend itself well to customizing.

Powering our AWD tester was the popular 335hp 5.7L Hemi, replacing the 5.9L V-8 as top dog in this lineup. With more power and better fuel economy, Dodge made the right choice. Other engine options include the 3.7L V-6 and 4.7L V-8. Backing up the Hemi is a five-speed automatic, which has good gear spacing, but always seemed to find itself one gear higher than we wanted, often causing a double downshift when we got on the throttle. The Durango gets a gold star for having one of the best calibrated electronic throttles in the test, not allowing the lag time found in the Volkswagen. In panic stops, the Durango has good brake feel, but allows too much nose dive, causing the rear to feel lighter than we were accustomed too.

The first thing you will notice while driving the Durango is how quiet the interior is. At super-legal speeds, a normal conversation can be had, and the handling remains stable and predictable. The stiff hydroformed frame provides a solid mounting point for the upgraded SLA front suspension and Watts linkage rear suspension. Dodge decided that a solid axle with the Watts linkage still provided a smooth enough ride, while allowing the Durango to safely and reliably tow as much as 8,900 pounds, without the camber changes of an IRS setup. The ride of the Durango is comfortable and the most truck-like in the test, which is not a bad thing since we are all truck guys.

Another thing we liked about the Durango is stepping up into it, where we were greeted by a friendly and upscale dashboard layout, much more luxurious than the outgoing Durango. The interior has Mercedes influence, and the electro luminescent gauges look modern. Seating surfaces were covered in leather, and all seating positions were comfortable and easily accessed.

In the end, we decided that the new '04 Dodge Durango, with its awesome powerplant, excellent build quality, and its tow rating high enough to yank around our favorite water toy, all at a price less than last year's model, was the best choice in this competitive field to be named Truckin's 2004 SUV of the Year. So get out there and get at it, so we can start featuring new Durangos flame-licked and lifted, or clean-shaven and hammered. Have fun. We'll be waiting.

From the Logbook:The Durango has the best exhaust note and a nice rumble at idle.Editor Steve Warner

The '04 Durango is a huge improvement over its predecessor and truly lives up to the AWD hallmark.Associate Editor Dan Ward

This thing just loves 85 mph; it seems like it could drive all day at this speed.Associated Editor Sean P. Holman