2003 Dodge Dakota Review

2003 Dodge Dakota - Plenty of choices.


The Dodge Dakota pickup truck always had a leg up on rivals because it is nicely sized between a compact and full-size pickup.

The first Dakota was introduced in early 1986, but has gained popularity in recent years because many truck buyers are looking for good utility and a more manageable size. A major Dakota redesign came in 1997 and a roomy four-door Quad Cab model arrived for 2000.

All Dakotas have bold full-size pickup styling similar to that of the big Dodge Ram pickup's almost intimidating styling.

There are about 20 different Dakota models with short and long wheelbases and a choice of three engines. Some Dakotas come with a regular cab and two doors, while others are offered with an extended cab and two and four doors. Some have rear-drive, and others come with four-wheel drive.

Dakota buyers thus should bone up on the various engines, body styles and accessories before setting foot in a Dodge showroom.

For instance, there are even two types of four-wheel drive--one can be left engaged on dry roads, while the other must be disengaged. But all four-wheel-drive models have low-range gearing for good going during off-road driving.

Dakota prices range from $16,845 for the regular cab two-door model with rear-drive to $26,450 for the sporty R/T rear-drive Club Cab model with the biggest available (5.9-liter) V-8 and such things as front bucket seats, lowered sport suspension tuned for better handling and wide 55-series tires on 17-inch chrome alloy wheels.

Even the base Regular Cab model has power steering, air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette, tachometer and variable-intermittent wipers.

One of the most popular models is the Quad Cab, which has a roomy back seat for adults and four-wheel drive.

My test Dakota fell somewhat in between the Regular Cab and Quad Cab models. It was a $19,530 Club Cab Sport with two doors and extended cab. There was plenty of room up front, but the rear bench seat was best suited to children.

The absence of two rear doors doesn't make the Dakota Club Cab Sport as convenient as the Quad Cab four-door version, which has rear doors that open almost 90 degrees. But the rear seat of the Club Cab Sport folds down to allow interior cargo room behind the standard front bench seat or the $210 front bucket seats that were in my test Dakota. The seats are accompanied by a console with a deep covered bin.

The 120-horsepower four-cylinder engine has been dropped for the 2003 Dakota, which is just as well because it left this pickup underpowered. Now offered are a 3.9-liter V-6 with 175 horsepower and a 4.7- or 5.9-liter V-8. The V-6 is OK for medium duty work, but both V-8s are superior because most buyers of this truck eventually haul heavy loads.

Regarding hauling, the regular and Club Cab models have a 6.5-foot cargo bed, while the Quad Cab has a 5.3-foot bed.

My test truck had the 4.7-liter overhead-camshaft V-8, which generates 235 horsepower and delivers 15 mpg in the city and 20 on highways. That's virtually the same fuel economy provided by the V-6.

The 5.9 V-8 has a 245-250 horsepower range and more torque. But it's got an old-style pushrod design and is fuel-thirsty, delivering an estimated 13 mpg in the city and 18 on highways.

Four-wheel drive models have slightly lower fuel economy, no matter what engine.

The smooth, quiet 4.7 V-8 is the only engine available with the Dakota's newly available $1,170 five-speed automatic transmission, which was in my test model. It has a dual-ratio second gear for better towing, passing and grade-change situations. It works so responsively with that V-8 that the engine feels as if it has at least another 10-15 horsepower. Acceleration is strong off the line and during such things as passing maneuvers on highways. The fifth gear lets the 4.7 V-8 loaf at 1,800 rpm at 65 mph.

The V-6 comes with either a five-speed manual gearbox or four-speed automatic transmission, while the 4.7 comes with the manual transmission or the new automatic. The mighty 5.9 is offered only with a four-speed automatic, but this engine is needed for heavy towing.

Newly standard are four-wheel disc brakes for superior stopping power on Quad Cab, four-wheel drive models and the R/T.

All Dakotas except the R/T get larger (16-inch vs. the old 15-inch) cast aluminum wheels; bigger wheels always are beneficial--especially with a truck. Rear-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard, but the optional four-wheel anti-lock brakes are very worthwhile.

A sporty new, youth-oriented "Stampede Group'' is standard on the R/T and optional for Regular Cab and Club Cab models--the reasoning being that it's most appealing on lower-priced Dakotas more affordable to younger buyers.

The group features unique monochromatic custom front and rear body color fascia moldings, ground-effect side body moldings for a slicker look, wheel flares and a rear stabilizer bar for better handling. You can get the Tire and Handling option group found in the Stampede Group option for $360-$400, depending on the model.

My test Dakota had the Stampede Group, which drew admiring stares from young truck fanciers. Its power steering was a bit heavy, but quick. Handling is almost carlike, making the Dakota fun to drive. However, as with most pickup trucks, the ride occasionally gets choppy on bumpy roads when the bed has no heavy load. Braking was good, with nice pedal feel.

A low floor makes it fairly easy to get in and out of the Dakota. Its quiet, nicely designed interior has good gauges and strategically placed controls--although the transmission shift lever is unusually long.

Radio controls are small, but at least are put above the climate-system controls, which generally aren't used as much. There are a good number of beverage holders, although a few are under the center dashboard--and thus a long reach for front occupants with shorter arms. Hefty grab handles by the front windshield pillars can help less athletic occupants to get in the front.

The Dakota seems perfect for those who don't want a large pickup but need more power, room and towing capability than offered by a compact pickup.


Nicely sized. Fast with V-8. Good handling. New five-speed automatic transmission. Racy Stampede option.

Small radio controls. Tight rear seat in Club Cab models. Occasionally jerky ride with empty pickup bed.

Dan Jedlicka

Dan Jedlicka's Website

Dan Jedlicka joined the Chicago Sun-Times in February 1968 as a business news reporter and was named auto editor later that year. He has reviewed more than 4,000 new vehicles for the Sun-Times--far more than any newspaper auto writer in the country. Jedlicka also reviewed vehicles for Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Autos Internet site from January, 1996, to June, 2008.

Jedlicka remained auto editor at the Sun-Times until October, 2008, and continued writing for the newspaper's AutoTimes section, which he started in 1992, until February, 2009. While continuing his auto writings at the Sun-Times, he served as assistant financial editor of that newspaper from 1970 to 1973, when he began his automotive column.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NBC's "Today," ABC's "20/20" and "The CBS Evening News." He was a host, consultant and writer for Fox-TV Channel 32's 1991 New Car Preview show and that Chicago-based station's 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 Chicago Auto Show Previews.

Jedlicka's auto articles have been printed in national magazines, including Esquire and Harper's. His auto columns have been reprinted in U.S. government publications and economic textbooks and he is profiled in the "World's Greatest Auto Show" history book about the Chicago Auto Show. In late 1975, Jedlicka was host and technical advisor for three one-hour television specials, "Auto Test 76," which aired nationally on PBS and were the first nationally televised auto road test shows.

In 1995, Jedlicka was the recipient of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois Inc.'s Consumer Education Award, given annually to a person who has gained distinction in the field of consumer education. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Media category and inducted into the Legends of Motorsports Guild at the Carquest World of wheels custom car show in Chicago in January, 2006.

Jedlicka was a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year jury, composed of a select number of auto journalists from throughout the country, from 1995 until 2009. From 2010 to 2012, he was a member of Consumer Digest magazine's auto experts panel that gave Best Buy new vehicle recommendations.

He is a 1987 graduate of the Bob Bondurant Race Drivers School and later of the BMW "M" and Skip Barber Advanced Driving schools. He was a member of the U.S. team that participated in the 1987 1,000-mile Mille Miglia race/rally in Italy and has been a race winner at the Chicago area's Santa Fe Speedway.

Jedlicka has owned 25 classic cars, including 1950s and 1960s Ferraris and 1950s and 1960s Porsches, a 1965 Corvette, a 1967 Maserati and a 1957 Studebaker supercharged Golden Hawk. Jedlicka resides with his wife, Suzanne, in the Frank Lloyd Wright historic district of Oak Park. They have two children, James and Michele.

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