Ram's less bulky brother

Friday, December 10, 2004

srobertson

Dakota rewrites midsize truck specifications

I'll bet that when Tim "the tool man" Taylor thinks about trucks, he pictures a massive, in-your-face chrome grill like the intimidating Dodge Ram's. You know -- something like a hemi V-8 breathing through a set of loud glass-packs. But while Americans love the truck image, not everyone wants the biggest, loudest truck on the street, nor are they interested in finding a parking space for such a behemoth. For these folks, Dodge has a truck made to order. The Dakota has the looks and much of the personality of the full-size Ram, without the bulk. If the Ram is the "mayor of Truckville," then the Dakota is the city manager.

Don't think for a minute that the Dakota is a wimpy car-based truck powered by a four-banger! No, this is the genuine article, with a real Dodge Magnum V-8 engine that can tow a real trailer, haul a real load, and carry four people -- all at the same time, if necessary. It's too big to be called a compact truck, and it's not big enough to be classified as a full-size truck.

When the company introduced the first Dakota back in 1987 it already offered a compact truck called the D100. The Dakota became the first midsize truck on the market. Under its hood was an available V-8 engine and three years later along came the first club cab. The Dakota established itself as a solid alternative to full-size trucks at a time when suburbia had discovered line dancing and cowboy boots.

Totally re-engineered

The Dakota was totally redesigned for 2005, and benefits from three strong engine options. Even the frame was re-engineered, making Dakota the strongest midsize pickup you can buy. The company says their fully boxed hydroformed frame provides eight times more torsional rigidity than before, and an all-new coil-over-shock front suspension and rack and pinion steering give the truck a new dimension. A 3.7-liter, single-overhead cam V-6 engine borrowed from the Jeep Liberty pumps out a respectable 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque, but I suspect most Dakota buyers are going to be attracted to one of two available V-8s. The 4.7-liter Magnum V-8 that I drove is carried over from the previous model, and offers 230 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. If that's not enough, Dodge has an optional high-output version with revised cylinder heads, bigger cams, a higher compression ratio and tuned exhaust, that is good for another 25 horsepower. A hemi is said to be in the works.

V-6 and standard V-8 buyers can choose from either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission, while the high-output V-8 is only available with the automatic. My test vehicle had the automatic, and it provided eager downshifts for passing or freeway ramp acceleration. The combination gave more than adequate performance. It is rated for 15-mpg/city and 20-mpg/highway.

Dodge offers two four-wheel-drive options-- a traditional part-time system with high- and low-range gearing, or a full-time all-wheel-drive system that eliminates the need to turn knobs or move levers. My vehicle had the traditional electronic shift-on-the-fly system using a single rotary knob on the dashboard that was simple to operate.

Although the aggressive front end has that massive look that appeals to today's truck buyers, the Dakota is surprisingly aerodynamic, thanks to strenuous wind tunnel testing. New sideview mirrors, revised door seals and 20 percent thicker glass cut wind and road noise. The refinement continues inside, where you'll find the most interior space in the class and storage features in the center console and beneath the rear flip-up seats. But those seats are too small and the backrests are too erect for extended trips. I think the extended cab area is best suited for hauling stuff that you don't want to put in the truck bed. However, the front passenger area draws no complaints; it is a comfortable place to ride and offers a commanding view of the road ahead.

There are just two body styles now that Dodge has dropped the regular cab design. Regular cabs have not been selling well for some time, so Dodge chose to discontinue that body style along with the old eight-foot-long bed. The standard extended cab, which Dodge calls a club cab, has two traditional, forward-opening doors, two smaller doors hinged at the rear, and a 6-foot-6-inch bed, while the larger quad cab utilizes four traditional doors and a 5-foot-4-inch bed.

My 4x4 SLT club cab included a 7-year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty, heavy-duty suspension, and attractive 17-inch aluminum chrome-clad wheels. Its MSRP was $29,434, but a careful shopper can find financial incentives for a more attractive deal.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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