The all-new 1997 Dodge Dakota
pickup truck is tough to pigeon hole. Dakota first burst onto the scene in October 1986 as a mid-size alternative to Dodge's successful, full-sized Ram pickup. Even though second-generation, 1997 versions retain virtually the same dimensions, marketing brain trusts at Chrysler Corp. decided this time around to position Dakota as a compact truck. This way, Dakota can boast having the roomiest regular and club cab interiors in the compact pickup segment. If V-8 power is on your shipping list, Dakota is a must see. It's the only less-than-full size pickup with an optional V-8 engine. It also has the best turning radius in its class, a helpful distinction when living, driving, maneuvering and parking in suburbia. Because Dodge had such great success redesigning its full-size Ram pickup two years ago, it incorporates many of these same traits into Dakota. Both feature responsive handling and solid chassis. Ram was the fifth best-selling vehicle in the United States in 1996, up from 11th place the preceding year. Dakota's mean look looks like it means business. The front grille and rounded, low-sitting front fenders provide an aggressive, "18-wheel, big rig" image. Full-body, anti-chip primer keeps the finish fresh. When properly fitted, Dakota can tow up to 6,800 lbs. Driver-friendly updates fill the cabin. Old Dakota interiors were sorely out of date for the 90s. Refinements include an easy-to-read instrument panel, and a convenient column of fan speed and direction-control dials. A power outlet for car phones and other modern conveniences is centrally located on the dashboard, in addition to the cigarette lighter. Another nice touch is a large, flat surface over the center storage bin, which serves as a writing surface. With the bin flipped up, three riders can fit into the comfortable 40-20-40 front seating area. Interior quietness is also improved. Dakota has the highest seating position of domestic compact pickups. Combined with large outside mirrors, it provides terrific road visibility. Dakota comes in three trim levels: Base, Sport and SLT. A variety of cargo beds (6.5-foot and 8-foot), cab configurations (regular and club cab), wheelbase lengths and engine sizes are available, as are two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive options. Engine sizes include: 5.2-liter, V-8 with 230 horsepower (10 more than last model year), 3.9-liter V-6 with 175 horsepower and a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder with 120 horsepower. We had a chance to test drive the top-of-the-line, 4 x 4 SLT with 131.0-inch wheelbase and V-8 engine. Club cab editions come only with the shorter 6.5-foot cargo bed. Base price checked in at $19,690. After adding air conditioning, four-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel anti-lock brakes and upgraded stereo options, the bottom line, including a $510 destination charge, totalled $26,591. Regular cab, short wheelbase, two-wheel rear drive Dakotas start at $12,725. Dakota club cabs offers no third-door option as do the Chevrolet S-10 and sister GMC Sonoma, making it easier to maneuver into the rear passenger area. A nice club cab feature is the forward-facing back seat, which flips up providing extra storage under the seat. Dual airbags are standard, but Dakota's passenger-side air bags can not be manually deactivated, which may detour sales to families with young children and infants. Ideally, tiny travelers in car carriers should be placed in the back seat, away from possible airbag deployment. Some pickup competitors offer a flip switch, deactivating passenger airbags in standard-sized cabs. Also, when shifting between two and four-wheel drive, motorists must contend with a floor-mounted transfer case. Not a big hassle, but some rivals offer handy electronic transfer cases, which allows switching by activating dashoard dials or buttons. Fuel estimates for Dakota's V-8 engine checks in at 13 miles-per-gallon city, and 17 mpg highway. It's good our test truck with 4,300 odometer miles was equipped with an optional, 22-gallon fuel tank because combined mileage registered a disappointing 13 mpg. Fifteen gallon tanks are standard. Both Dakota and Ram are built at the Dodge City plant in Warren, Mich. Chrysler Corp. plans on selling 150,000 Dakotas this year to shoppers with a median age in the mid 40s, with median income in the mid-$40,000. Dakota did good by incorporating many, much-needed improvements and updates over first-generation offerings. This vehicle gives domestic competitors Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S-10 a run for their money. Dodge could have gone the extra mile by offering traction control, a third door and a passenger airbag cut-off switch in select models.