Dodge Dakota – if you need it it’s the only V-8 in the class

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It seems that Chrysler’s biggest problem is too few products that stand out, that say check me out first before going to another store. And if buyers consistently avoid Chrysler stores, all is lost for the re-emerging company.

Despite Consumer Reports magazine’s recent proclamation that most of Chrysler’s products are generally inferior, Chrysler has some good stuff, certainly worthy of a look and in most cases worthy of a test drive.

But it really doesn’t have the ‘best’ of any one thing. Extraordinary incentives aside, it’s too easy in virtually every segment to cut to the chase and head to Honda, Toyota, Ford or Chevrolet. Save time, skip Chrysler.

We think that’s a mistake in general and especially in the mid-sized pickup truck segment where a very limited number of competitors survive.

We say before slamming down cold cash for a Nissan Frontier, Toyota Tacoma, Ford Ranger or Chevrolet Colorado, look at the Dakota. The 2008 Dodge Dakota deserves a look and an extended test drive before a purchase decision is made.

You might be surprised. We were actually surprised at how much we liked our SLT 4X4 trim level crew cab test vehicle.

Not all is likable, certainly not gas mileage. But compared to the aforementioned competitors, gas mileage — as bad as it is — is a wash, and the mileage in the V-8 is just as good as the standard V-6.

The third-generation Dakota, introduced for the 2005 model year, has been updated for 2008 with styling tweaks both inside and out, and its top-of-the-line V-8 engine has been endowed with considerably more horsepower and torque.

Exterior styling changes are highlighted by a more refined and chiseled grille, a revised hood and fender design and more rectangular headlamp units. We like the modified look.

The interior remains standard Dodge, but the instrument panel and center console have been given a facelift. Fit and finish is also top drawer and the addition of a storage area above the glovebox is welcome. Unfortunately, despite the pleasing design, cheap, hard plastics are still in evidence.

The biggest mechanical upgrade is a new 4.7-liter V-8 producing 302 horsepower and 329 foot-pounds of torque mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. This is a 31 percent jump from 2007’s standard 4.7-liter V-8.

If you want V-8 power in a slightly smaller-than-full-sized pickup, Dodge has the only eight-cylinder in the segment. And from the performance aspect, it is very pleasing.
It also boosts a large 7,000-pound towing capacity.

Dodge says the more powerful V-8, mated to a five-speed automatic, offers better fuel economy than the previous engine. But even at that, an EPA-rated 14 mpg in city driving and 19 mpg highway in the four-wheel drive version is not exactly frugal. If you live in an area where ethanol is sold and you like the idea the V-8 will run on E-85 ethanol.

We were pleased with the performance. It’s everything we would desire in a pickup. Dodge says the ride has been smoothed out and we found it comfortable considering this is a pickup truck designed for heavy-duty hauling. Steering is on the light side, but accurate. And we found no fault with the truck’s handling, especially when you keep in mind that this is a truck, not a sports sedan.

We were also delighted with the interior solitude of the truck. Road and wind noise have been significantly reduced. And we found the front seats comfortable and conforming to our wide body. The best thing was the easy step-in to the vehicle. No hanging on to the steering wheel and hauling oneself up like on a dreadful full-size 4X4.

Although the Dakota is close to full-sized standards, there is no room in the crew cab model for second-row reclining seatbacks. This is not so much a criticism of the Dakota as a way of life for the mid-sized segment. Two adults will fit comfortably in the second row, but sitting upright might be tedious on a long trip.

We found adequate legroom at 36 inches, four inches more than the Tacoma and three inches more than the Frontier, but to get true spaciousness you must move to the full-sized ranks. For instance, the Ford F-150 crew cab features 39 inches of rear leg room.

The Dakota has always been a “tweener,” a little bigger than its direct competitors, but a bit smaller than the full-sized pickups. The competition has grown, too, and the Dakota and the Nissan Frontier both measure about 218 inches in length. But the Dakota crew cab is nearly a foot longer than comparable versions of the best-selling Toyota Tacoma and the Chevrolet Colorado.

The Dakota comes in extended cab and crew cab formats and in six trim levels — ST, SXT, SLT, off-road TRX, Sport and Laramie with prices starting at $20,080 including destination charge. Prices can climb through the trim lines to $31,745 for the Laramie crew cab.

The base editions come with the carryover 3.7-liter V-6 producing 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque with a six-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional. Gas mileage is 16/20 in manual transmission and 15/20 with the automatic.
We have driven the V-6 in other Chrysler products and we expect it to provide adequate performance. Towing capacity and payload (1,480pounds) is rated the same as the V-8.
With gas mileage nearly identical, we would opt for the V-8 as a $985 option.
Standard equipment across the lineup includes rear-wheel antilock brakes, tire-pressure monitoring, electronic brakeforce distribution, air conditioning, AM-FM stereo with CD player with MP3 jack.

Standard features accumulate through the trim levels to include power windows and mirrors, power driver’s seat, cruise control and aluminum wheels.

And the Dakota can be lavished in options. We were blessed with several in our SLT 4X4 crew cab with a base price of $29,765. They included MyGIG Multimedia Entertainment including navigation and Sirius radio, heated seats, steering-wheel mounted controls, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels and a trailer-towing package. Our test truck’s bottom line was $36,220.

The Dakota offers considerable variations including full-time four-wheel drive, two bed lengths and the only V-8 available outside of the full-sized pickup ranks. The truck has a quiet interior and good driving dynamics.

Obviously even the more diminutive Dakota is suffering the same fate as the rest of the big truck and SUV market – there is no escaping the turn in the market for efficiency. But the bottom line — if you need a truck like the 4X4 to make a living the Dakota midsize is worth a look.


Base price: $20,080; as driven, $36,220
Engine: 4.7-liter V-8
Horsepower: 302 @ 4,600 rpm
Torque: 329 foot-pounds
Drive: four-wheel
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 131.3 inches
Length: 218.5 inches
Curb weight: 4,529 pounds
Turning circle: 43.3 feet
Towing capacity: 7,000 pounds
Fuel capacity: 22 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 19 highway, 14 city
0-60: 8.4 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Chevrolet Colorado

The Good
• Only V-8 in the segment
• Impressive towing capacity
• Comfortable front seats

The Bad
• Despite upgrades, there's still acres of hard plastics inside

The Ugly
• Gas mileage is anemic