What If? 1979 Dodge Durango

Abimelec Arellano

Welcome to What If, a new feature from imaginative illustrator Abimelec Arellano and Hagerty. We’ll be taking you back in time—and possibly forward into the future—to meet alternative-universe automobiles. Even better, our time machine is working well enough to bring “short take” reviews along with the photographs and advertisements. Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

(Originally published in Car and Steerer magazine, August 1978)

Why are foreign cars so great and domestic cars so terrible? That’s the question that underpins every single page of this magazine, pal, right down to the ads in back for the magic male enhancement formulas. The foreign jobs really know how to get it done. They make great cars like the 320i, the Audi 100LS, the MG Midget, and the Renault Le Car, while the Big Three keep putting out trash like the half-ton trucks from Chevrolet, the new front-drive Eldorado, and the Jeep Wagoneer.

The Wagoneer is so terrible, so ancient, that it was probably at least partially responsible for the “merger of equals” that joined AMC and Chrysler five years ago. Naturally, Lynn Townsend’s gang of cronies immediately produced a Wagoneer “Trackhawk” that sold pretty well but didn’t make it through 1975’s emissions regulations. Five years later, they’re back at the same old well, with the Dodge Durango.

What If 79 Dodge Durango low angle front three-quarter
Abimelec Arellano

Anybody can see that it’s a Wagoneer, an ancient platform that dates back to 1964. Imagine the perfect Teutons of Stuttgart still selling a 1964-based car in 1979! It would never happen. The changes that make an old Wagoneer into a new Durango are fairly modest… at least on the outside. You have to lift the hood to see the difference.

Dodge is offering a 360-cubic-inch V-8 in this utility vehicle, but it’s not the 360 you’d find in a Wagoneer or Cherokee. Instead it’s the Chrysler 360, a completely different offering. This is a trick that the company pulled in the Trackhawk, because all you really need is a different set of engine mounts and a little adjustment to the accessories. The 440 V-8 that caused so much fracas in that old Trackhawk has now been fully neutered in Nader-and-Claybrook-pleasing fashion, but it’s still an option for people who want to beat a VW Rabbit off the line.

What If 79 Dodge Durango ad
Abimelec Arellano

The seven-passenger mouse-fur interior is a palatable place to wait out your local gas lines, although you might find that it’s best to just get back in line after filling up; our testing showed an average fuel economy of just over eleven miles per gallon. Interior quality is the same as exterior quality, which is to say terrible. Nothing is assembled quite correctly and the Durango grill doesn’t quite fit the opening for which it was designed.

Dodge makes quite a big deal about an optional sunroof and some power features, but you can get all that stuff on a Saab 900 that will have nearly as much interior room. Twenty years from now, one used Saab 900 will be worth the same as ten used Wagoneers. Count on it.

What If 79 Dodge Durango interior
Abimelec Arellano

Our track test regimen, which mathematically corrects for temperature, elevation, and a creation of a little gap between us and those jokers over at Engine Fad, yielded a quarter-mile time of 13.7 seconds at 103mph.

(Patrick, maybe we shouldn’t goose these numbers so hard? Do something about that before this issue sees print, and don’t forget to take this line out. Also, find out why Felson spends so much time in the bathroom every day, the cleaning staff has filed a written complaint about it — D.O.D. Jr)

Since most utility vehicles live pretty much their entire lives off-road, we went out to the Michigan dunes for some serious sand testing. We can’t say exactly how the Durango wound up on its roof, but we know it was a junior staffer who was trying to show off on the “DARPAnet”, apparently by reproducing a picture electronically using just the different characters in the ASCII set. Does that make any sense to you? It doesn’t to us.

What If 79 Dodge Durango rear
Abimelec Arellano

Chrysler and AMC are in the process of obtaining federal loan money to keep the company going. If they’re going to earn that moolah, we need to see more of the upcoming K-car and less Jurassic junk like this. During our visit to Auburn Hills, we heard an even more outrageous idea from one of Lido’s staffers: they’re going to keep this thing around after their new-generation (probably FWD) utility vehicle comes out, use the new Durango taillights, fill it with leather, and call it the “Grand” Wagoneer! It’s the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard. Unless you want to lose your shirt, we don’t recommend you buy that or this Durango. Get something that will last. Like a Datsun 310. The foreign companies just always seem to get it right.

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