Dodge Dakota makes mid-size bigger

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The little truck is gone.

Those little Toyota, Nissan and Ford miniatures that puttered around with their paltry 4-bangers in the ‘80s are now just a piece of automotive history. Trucks, like engine sizes, are getting bigger, and the death of the true compact truck is indeed at hand.

In fact, we read the obituaries in 2003 with the introduction of the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon and last fall with the introduction of a new Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier.

Virtually everything originally compact has moved into the mid-size category.
This is not a bad thing. Those little guys were underpowered and could carry just two adults and a very modest amount of cargo. Trucks today, even the smallest among them, need more capability not only for hauling and towing, but for passenger chores as well.

Dodge started the trend toward bigger is better with the original Dakota back in 1987. It was bigger than the competition, big enough to be called mid-sized but still considerably smaller than the full-sized pickups.

Dakota is still leading the pack in size. An all-new 2005 Dakota has grown 3.7 inches in length while retaining the same 131-inch wheelbase as the previous iteration.

By comparison, the Dakota is 11 inches longer than the new General Motors twins, 10 inches longer than the new Tacoma and 13 inches longer than the new Nissan Frontier. It’s 16 inches longer than the aging Ford Ranger.

Almost needless to say, the Dakota has more interior volume than anything in its class. We can call the Dakota in either the club cab or quad cab form (there’s no regular cab offered this year) spacious. And we can also call the new Dakota almost full-size.

When does mid-sized morph into full-size? We guess when it has the Dakota name on the side.

But again size is not a bad thing. People looking for room, but in something smaller and more manageable than the full-sized Dodge Ram or Ford F-150 are prime targets for the new Dakota.

The new Dakota also leads the segment in power and torque, offering twoV-8 engines, the only mid-sized truck with eight-cylinder capability. The standard engine is a 3.7-liter V-6 rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. It can be mated to a 6-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.

Two 4.7-liter V-8 Magnum engines are available, one with 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque and a high-output version with 250 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. Both engines come with a 5-speed automatic.

Unfortunately, for the hotrodders among us, a manual is not offered with the V-8s.

The Dakota’s muscular stance translates into a class-dominating payload capacity of 1,740 pounds and towing capacity at 7,150 pounds.

We drove the smaller V-8 in club cab format and found it satisfying in all aspects of the driving experience from quick starts to passing finesse to road holding ability.

The rack-and-pinion steering is quick and precise with excellent on-center feel. The new Dakota is all truck, but rides and drives more like a refined sport utility vehicle primarily due to the new chassis that tuned toward the gentle side of the truck equation. The hydroformed, fully boxed frame is stiffer yielding a solid, rattle-free demeanor.

We like the new rendition of the Dodge in-your-face school of styling. The big crosshairs grille has grown in size much like it did on the full-sized Ram a couple years back. The Dakota has a more chiseled look with boxed headlights and sharply creased fenders. If you want to drive macho, this is the one.

The interior has also been significantly freshened with a revamped center console and white-faced gauges. Most of the switchgear is intuitive. Large knobs and switches for the stereo and climate control are welcome.

A driver sitting in the Dodge for the first time will find no mysteries. After the initial recommended reading keep the owner’s manual safely ensconced in the glovebox only to remind you about radio operation or how to change the time.

Dodge paid attention to interior cloth and plastic materials, which look first class. That first-class look is enhanced by excellent fit and finish.

We found the seats in our club cab test vehicle to be comfortable. A good seating position was easy to find.

The Dakota was surprisingly quiet inside with both road and wind noise well muted. This is partly due to the improved aerodynamics of the new truck. Dodge has also paid attention to reducing unwanted racket with improved insulation and thicker front door glass.

While our club cab had scads of front-seat room, the rear compartment, even with forward-facing seats was good for storage or transporting a couple of kids at best. Despite the larger size of the Dakota, less-than-full-sized extended cabs are still not big enough to carry passengers in back. To accomplish this task, the Dakota quad cab must be the choice. It has more passenger room in back than anything in the segment.

The Dakota comes in three trim levels; ST, SLT and Laramie. Our Laramie club cab came loaded with such amenities as the 230-horsepower V-8 engine and 5-speed automatic transmission, automatic headlights, leather seating, remote stereo controls on the steering wheel, power windows and locks, alloy wheels and a stereo with CD changer.

The Dakota truck beds are standard-sized for the class, 5-foot-4-inches in the quad cab and 6-foot-6-inches in the club cab. Both configurations can be purchased with either 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive.

Standard safety equipment includes rear-wheel ABS and front airbags. Optional equipment includes four-wheel ABS, side-curtain airbags and an electronic accident response system.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just announced that the Dakota has earned a best five-star rating for both frontal and side-impact tests.

Our test truck carried a base price of $25,120 and an estimated as-tested price of $27,000. Prices range from $20,155 for the ST V-6 to $29,460 for the Laramie quad cab with 4-wheel drive.

Competition in the mid-sized truck segment is becoming fierce. There are suddenly a number of very good products in showrooms. We think the Dakota stands up very well against the best the other guys have to offer.