Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Niche-y Is Peachy

Dodge, Ford fill niches with clever SUV and wagon

By Marc K. Stengel

JUNE 14, 1999:  A thousand years hence, anthropologists will have a field day speculating about the present state of socialization as expressed by our vehicles. I'll leave it to them to explain the faceless, drone-bee mentality that inheres behind the steering wheels of so many bland iterations of Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. And the turn-of-the-21st-century stampede toward sport/utility vehicles will no doubt provide intellectual sport for some future Margaret Mead.

Personally, my reincarnated self will be most interested to read about the role of differentiation in shaping the psyches of both makers and buyers of autos. I suspect that a conscious insistence on "being different" will remain as mysterious tomorrow as it is today. It is a mystery, after all, why Dodge Durango's uncommon approach to SUV design yields striking popularity, whereas a determination to make the Mercury Sable wagon conspicuously different yields only controversy.

Dodge Durango SLT Plus

I have to confess: The latest version of the Dodge Durango has helped me out of a tight spot. Now I can effectively banter back at cocktail parties when asked that insufferable question: "Hey, since you get to drive 'em all, what's your favorite sport-ute?" My latest reply is invariably Socratic: "Have you driven the new two-wheel-drive Durango?" If my interlocutor ever has, or will, get behind the wheel of a Durango, the answer to his question is self-evident.

Bold claim, I realize. But consider this: Durango is bigger inside than such mainstays as Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Chevy Blazer, yet it remains impressively easy to drive. Credit for both of these advantages is due the ultra-rigid Dakota truck platform that nevertheless allows the seven-seater Durango to outmaneuver prevailing Goliaths like Chevy Suburban and Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, and Toyota Land Cruiser. Sure, these leviathans boast nine-seater capacity. An optional front bench in Durango gets you to eight if you gotta have it. Beyond that, well, anyone who has to fill all nine seats has a special cross to bear no matter what.

The point with Durango has more to do with smarts than space anyway. Call it "vanification" if you must, but the Dodge Truck guys obviously cribbed an idea or two from their brethren over at Minivans. With the optional third-row bench seat ($550), and the standard 40/20/40 second-row, passenger and cargo permutations are deliciously abundant. Seats fold flat or tumble out of the way in such random ratios as one-fifth, two-thirds, six-fifths. The idea, of course, is that each driver has manifold options for personalizing his space. There's even a clever storage bin under-floor just inside the tailgate.

For 1999, Durango further enshrines its solitary niche between Gargantua and Lilliput by offering a two-wheel-drive powertrain that saves $2,000 compared to 4WD. With the smaller of two optional V8s (i.e., 5.2 liters vs. 5.9), Durango totes 1,656 lbs. of payload and tows 5,900 lbs. of trailer. Best of all, road feel with 2WD is especially cruiser-friendly, albeit typically consumptive for its class at 14 miles per gallon/city, 19/highway.

Having sidestepped the Hugeness Sweepstakes that currently ensnares Ford, GM, and several other automakers, Dodge has dared to be different with its Durango. If you're absolutely convinced that an SUV is what you need--or if you've let yourself fall victim to the prevailing herd mentality--a modicum of moderation (not to mention individuality) can still be yours with this latest classy offering from Dodge.

Mercury Sable LS Station Wagon

One day, being different makes you smart; the next day, however, maybe you're just weird. At least that's how I feel when I follow up my recommendation for the Durango with a similar endorsement for Mercury's '99 Sable wagon. My only retort is that anyone who sniffs at the admittedly unorthodox form of this car is casting a blind eye to its function.

What, after all, is so doggone offensive about standing out in a crowd? Is hiding within a welter of look-alike Toyota and Honda wagons that far superior? It just so happens that Mercury's Sable wagon (along with its sibling Ford Taurus) is an ingenious design exercise that can accommodate six passengers and almost 40 cubic feet of cargo simultaneously. Compare that, if you must, with Durango's standard seven passengers and 19 cubic feet for cargo with all seats in use.

Then, while you're at it, consider the Sable's $20,645 base price, which grows to $23,790 as tested when you add luxo leather, six-CD stereo, and four-wheel ABS. An optional 3.0-liter Duratec V6 ($555) boasts twin-overhead cams and 200 horsepower. The tasteful tan interior in my tester was an oasis of calm and enjoyment on the road. The very distinctiveness of the ovoid dash layout--which so many Philistines find objectionable--is one of my favorite features of the Sable. This says more about me than the car, surely. But in their separate little ovals and circles, all related functions, such as radio, HVAC, and various adjusters, are logically grouped. Come to think of it, our universe is arranged in collections of concentric circles too. How clever.

Best of all, the Sable wagon drives, rides, feels like a car. Call me a has-been enthusiast, but if I wanted a truck, I'd have started a construction company by now. I prefer to drive a maneuverable, responsive, spacious vehicle that embraces the latest technologies rather than hiding them inside regulation loopholes meant to distinguish passenger cars from working trucks. Symbolically, the Sable wagon's mileage rating of 18/city, 25/highway is hardly world-class, yet it still bests Durango and its ilk by more than 30 percent on the average.

So let's see if I've got this right: Here's a vehicle with darn impressive space and performance, decent price, unusual looks. So why not shop for a truck? Aw, let the anthropologists figger that one out at the turn of the next century.

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