Chrysler Corp. introduced the Hemi V8 engine — named for its trademark hemisphericalshaped heads — in 1951. Over the years the design has become synonymous with high performance, having powered several winning Nascar and drag-racing cars. Three decades after ceasing production, DaimlerChrysler brought back the Hemi last year for its line of heavy-duty pickups and now offers it in the Dodge Durango sport-ute.

How well does the new Hemi run? Forget the neck-snapping acceleration and roar of 1960s Hemi-powered muscle cars. This is, after all, a full-sized SUV. And in that framework, the Hemi Durango is highly competitive. The 2004 5.7-liter Hemi Magnum V8 makes 335 hp at 5,400 rpm and 370 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. That's 40% more horsepower and 12% greater torque than the previous-generation 5.9-liter V8. The Hemi is also 10% better on gas than its predecessor, with EPA estimates of 13 city and 18-mpg highway. Our 4WD test vehicle got 16 mpg in combined driving.

The big truck has a GVWR of 6,600 lb and is able to tow 8,950 lb. A Watt's linkage fitted to the straight rear axle improves stability, especially when towing heavy trailers. The design also let engineers lower and widen the rear cargo floor so it could carry a 48-in.-wide sheet of plywood, an industry benchmark. The ample interior comfortably seats seven adults with a third row of seats folded down. Available are a full complement of options people have come to expect in SUVs, including leather seats, automatic climate control, power “everything,” a high-wattage stereo, and a rear-seat video system.

The Durango is notably smooth, quiet, and sure-footed, thanks in part to a new-for-this-year hydroformed frame. The fully boxed chassis boosts torsional stiffness and improves crashworthiness. Octagonal front frame-rail tips better absorb frontal impacts and simplify collision repairs. Dodge engineers also moved the steering rack behind the front suspension to reduce energy transfer to the driver in an accident. And an improved braking system borrowed from the Dodge Ram 1500 pickup shortens stopping distances by up to 13%.

Expandable polyurethane foam injected into the body cavities helps prevent the frame from acting as a conduit for road noise. Improved door, glass, and body sealing cut body air leakage by 35%. And the front door glass is 20% thicker, again to lower interior noise levels.

Long trips on open roads is where the Durango shines, though short hops to the grocery store aren't bad either. A surprisingly small 37.5-ft turning radius eases navigation in tight parking lots. However, a retractable or inthewindshield antenna would be a nice touch because the fixed whip antenna annoyingly whacked the 6-ft-6-in. ceiling in the parking garage. I also wasn't particularly impressed with the design of the external mechanism that articulates the right windshield wiper. I found the large linkage cover to be a distraction when the wipers were in operation.

Overall, I liked the Durango Hemi and would consider one if I were shopping for a full-sized SUV. Base price is $34,255. Our test model plus goodies including the Hemi engine ($895) brought the total price to $38,580.