The Dodge Dakota has been marketed both as the highest-capacity small pickup, and as a medium-size pickup. We're going to look at it as a big small pickup, so we can compare it with the S-10.
Also sold as the GMC Sonoma, the S-10 is in the end of a seven-year production cycle, with a major renovation scheduled for 2002. Still, it's competitive with the biggest seller, the Ford Ranger. With the four cylinder/five speed combination, the S-10 has decent speed and relatively good gas mileage. Our tested vehicle, the crew cab with a V-6, had room for five adult passengers, and could tow over 5,000 pounds if needed. The Dakota can tow more, but at the expense of fuel economy, parkability, and cost.
Both crew cabs have four doors which open like car doors. The interior of both is roomy, with the Dakota having the edge. Controls are good in both vehicles, but we definitely prefer the Dodge cruise control. Likewise, instrument panels are clear and easy to read, and there is lots of storage in both cabs. The Chevy has a clever two-part center console, but the lid is hard to close if you're driving.
The Chevy V6 has good power, but it felt like the automatic was losing some of it. The Dodge's engine is also good, but again, the transmission was a weak spot - except with the next-generation 4.7 liter V8. The Dakota's transmission also feels better when shifting. The Dakota is available with two V-8 engines and one V-6, and generally felt faster and more responsive except with the four. However, gas mileage on the Dakota is substantially below the S-10, thanks to greater weight and, except for the 4.7 V8, older designs.
Neither the S-10 nor the Dakota had especially good handling, but again, the Dakota felt more confident around turns. Both had large turning circles. Both also had easy-to-operate four wheel drive systems.
The Dakota's ride easily beat that of the S-10, comparing two wheel drive to two wheel drive, four wheel drive to four wheel drive. As with all pickups, heavier duty suspensions and four wheel drive tend to stiffen the ride.
Both interiors are well-designed, with the Dodge having a better cruise control and easier-to-open center console, and the Chevy having a nifty CD storage area, overhead storage, and coin holder. Both stereos were good, though we'll give Chevrolet the edge for sound quality and ease of use. Chevrolet also gets the nod for clever little touches like power memory (the radio and power windows can be used until the doors are opened) and automatic interior lights.
The S-10 and Dakota are both good trucks. Both could use a transmission upgrade. Both are noticeably faster with the five-speed than the automatic. And both have a large turning radius, comfortable interior, four real doors, average handling and braking, and a cadre of dedicated fans. Their main difference lies in their size. The S-10, by virtue of being a standard-sized small pickup, is easy to park, relatively easy on gasoline, and feels easy to drive. The Dakota, due partly to its larger size and weight, can haul a little more (not as much more as you'd think) and rides better, but its gas mileage is lamentable. The Dakota has bigger engines, but it needs them.
In the end, we'd have to say it depends on your needs. The S-10/Sonoma is a capable little truck. The Dakota is there if you need more than the S-10, but not enough to justify a full-size pickup. At the time it was built, Chrysler seemed content with that niche.
If you're not happy with either one, this is a good time for you - in a year GM will introduce the next generation of the S-10, which we'd expect to have substantially upgraded brakes, handling, and turning circles, not to mention their new straight-six which produces the power of an eight, with better gas mileage. Wait two years or so, and Dodge will have a new Dakota, with a more efficient V6 and, we suspect, a more efficient transmission and, maybe, the new small-block Hemi, with a hybrid-electric powertrain down the road.
If you need a truck now, rest assured that both the S-10 and Dakota are good choices.
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