The Dodge Dakota is handily sized between a compact and full-size pickup and finally is enjoying the popularity Dodge hoped it would have when it was introduced as a 1987 model.
The Dakota had a promising new mid-size design. But it was ahead of its time, coming when truck buyers wanted either a small or large pickup. For years, that left the Dakota looking as if it had fallen between two stools. However, the Dakota soldiered along, with its model lineup continually expanded to make it more attractive.
The Dakota finally struck gold a few years ago when smaller trucks and less bulky hybrid vehicles that combine car comfort with truck utility started becoming popular. A greater number of people found that the Dakota was easier to enter or leave and simpler to maneuver than a full-size pickup.
The Dakota offers engine options and cab comfort not offered by smaller pickups. There are a variety of body styles, cargo box lengths, wheelbases and driveline configurations. A major redesign for 1997 essentially made the Dakota the smaller brother of the full-size Dodge Ram pickup, with "big rig" styling, stronger construction and one of the best interiors in the industry. The new 2001 interior looks even better.
Surprisingly, the Dakota still is the only mid-size pickup. And the addition last year of a Quad Cab model with four carlike doors and a roomy back seat, along with availability of a modern new 4.7-liter V-8, has made the Dakota a hot ticket.
"Younger buyers with children especially like the Quad Cab, which accounts for about half of Dakota sales. It's bought by families who bypass cars," Dodge truck communications manager Dominick Infante said at a recent meeting of the Midwest Automotive Media Association.
Infante said about 25 percent of Dakota buyers order the Club Cab model, which has a back seat and two doors, the remainder get the base Regular Cab three-seat model. Regular and Club Cab models have a 6.5-foot cargo box. The Quad Cab has a 5.3-foot box, which is larger than most auto trunks or sport-utility vehicle cargo areas. My quiet test Quad Cab with a smooth 4.7-liter V-8 and responsive automatic transmission was fun to drive, with quick steering, sharp handling and a smooth ride. You sit high, but it's easy to feel that you're in a car with this one.
The Regular Cab model has a fairly long 111.9-inch wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles), while the extended cab models with a back seat have a long 131-inch wheelbase; it helps provide a very comfortable ride and makes these models seem longer than they really are. The Dakota with either wheelbase should fit in most garages.
Prices are all over the place--starting at $13,910 and ending at $22,370. As with most trucks, there's a bewildering variety of options. But buyers on budgets should be careful when ordering extras; options on my $22,370 four-wheel-drive Quad Cab with the ($590) 4.7-liter V-8 pushed the sticker price to $30,660.
The sexiest model is the R/T, which has a 250-horsepower V-8, lowered sport suspension and huge wheels and tires. However, it only comes with rear-drive and you can't get it with a manual transmission.
There's a wide range of base prices partly because the Dakota is offered with a variety of engines. You can start with a 110-horsepower four-cylinder, then move to a 175-horsepower V-6 and V-8s that generate 230 or 250 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is offered with all engines except the burly 5.9-liter, 250-horsepower V-8. A four-speed automatic is available for all but the four-cylinder engine, which provides the best fuel economy: an estimated 20 mpg in the city and 25 on highways.
Of course, the hottest acceleration is with the pushrod 5.9-liter V-8, which only provides an estimated 12-13 mpg in the city and 17 on highways.
The best all-around engine is the 4.7-liter, 230-horsepower V-8. It's the most modern, with items such as overhead camshafts. And it's offered with a special version of the automatic transmission, which has a dual-ratio second gear for better acceleration and more responsive downshifts when passing.
However, I expected a quicker 65-75 mph passing time with the smooth 4.7-liter V-8, which delivers 14 mpg in the city and 19 on highways with rear-drive and the automatic and 13 and 18 with the automatic and four-wheel drive system, which adds weight and rolling friction.
However, my test Quad Cab easily cruised at 70 mph at only 2,300 rpm.
The Dakota comes with rear-wheel drive, a four-wheel-drive system that must be disengaged on dry roads--or a four-wheel-drive system that that can be left engaged on such roads. Low-range gearing helps four-wheel-drive Dakotas keep moving during off-road driving. There are easily read gauges and large, smooth main controls. However, controls for the optional, elaborate sound system in my test vehicle were too small for easy operation when driving. Also, the cupholders are set low and thus might lead to spills. There are plenty of storage areas.
The Dakota front bench seat is fine for two adults, but tight for three. The Club Cab's rear seat is best left for children, and the lack of rear doors hinders entry and exit. But the Quad Cab has a roomy back seat, and its rear doors open very wide to help make it easy to get in and out. Rear windows roll down all the way.
The Quad Cab is the most functional Dakota, but the handy size of all Dakota models gives them a leg up.
Handy size. Versatile four-door Quad Cab model. Smooth ride. Good handling.
Average highway acceleration with most engines. Low cupholders. Tiny radio controls.