When it first appeared, the Dakota was billed as the only mid-sized pickup truck, falling between the moderately popular Dodge 50 (made by Mitsubishi) and the full-sized Ram 150. After the Ram 50 was dropped, Dodge started to call it the beefiest compact truck available. Now, after generations of growth, the Dakota seems more like a Japanese full-sized pickup than a compact or a mid-sized.
The 2005 model grew nearly four inches longer and three inches wider, largely to increase its safety ratings. It can now tow a full 7,000 pounds and carry a gross combined vehicle weight of 11,500 pounds when properly outfitted, which makes it as large and capable as full-sized pickups in recent memory. The base V6 is now a hefty 3.7 liter engine (a far cry from Dakota's original four-cylinder); while the optional V8 is now a 4.7 liter, half a liter smaller than the 318 used in the late 1990s, it provides more power than its bigger, older relative, and a high output version is available (and was on our test truck).
The new interiors provide more space than other mid-size pickups, with optional six passenger seating and heated cloth seats in the Quad Cab; the base model is no longer a two-passenger cab but a Club Cab with standard rear-hinged access doors. The rear seats fold up to provide bulk storage, which we used to good advantage when transporting a large rabbit cage. The Dakota is nearly seven inches wider than the Chevy Colorado, tows 3,000 pounds more, and has more power and more cylinders (albeit with lower mileage and less of a fun factor). It also out-tows the Tacoma, though not by as much, and again with lower mileage.
We tested a Laramie model with the high output 4.7 liter V8 and an automatic transmission. The engine purrs along smoothly most of the time, with a deep growl whenever the accelerator is used more than a hair; that growl turns into a roar quickly. The engine is instantly responsive at any speed, the five-speed automatic providing an extra gear for smooth kickdowns at highway speeds. It seems happiest around 3,000 rpm, but full power is not available until 4,000 rpm, when the engine — though it makes power noises and is fairly responses — really takes off. Until that point, though response is instant, actual acceleration is unimpressive. Fortunately, getting to 4,000 rpm doesn't take too long, and the transmission doesn't get in the way with premature upshifts.
Acceleration and passing were no problem with the Dakota, though gas mileage tended to be poor - we could achieve about 15 mpg city and 20 highway with cautious use of the pedal. Casual drivers who need a pickup for image rather than actual movement of big or heavy objects would do better with a Colorado.
We believe that the 3.7 liter V6 and standard 4.7 liter V8, while both adequate in power, are quieter than the High Output 4.7, so if you want that big V8 sound (from a fairly small V8), the High Output is the way to go; and if you want a quiet truck, the standard engines are more appropriate.
The automatic transmission was always responsive, downshifting smoothly but quickly, and seeming to read our mind about what gear to be in; it didn't lag in upshifts either, as some "tuned for performance" transmissions do. Shifts were not lengthened to make them smoother, but we suspect electronic torque management played a role in the smoothness.
Cornering was generally quite good for such a capable truck, though rough surfaces bounced the bed around, causing minor oversteer on fast turns over bumpy roads (which probably wouldn't be a problem with some weight in the back, but then, if you had the weight you wouldn't be taking turns that quickly). There was no wheel hop on acceleration; while the engine pulled strongly from the get-go, the tires did not squeal or protest. While not a sports car, the Dakota allowed for spirited driving and quick maneuvers without feeling especially heavy or clumsy. That's a compliment for a vehicle that can tow 7,000 pounds. The ride, on the other hand, was big-truck stiff, unlike the first “baby Ram” Dakotas, which rode like Buicks but cornered like Dodges. There was some jouncing but not much, and the firmness was not exhausting or excessive; we suspect that two wheel drive models, those without off-road tires, and those without trailer packages have a more cushioned ride. On the lighter side, while the suspension was stiff, it still cushioned, for a busy but not punishing ride.
Styling is interesting inside and out, with a chunky motif that makes the body look as though it's been heavily modified with teenagers with plastic kits. The interior is a matter of rounded-off squarish bulges, mostly gray plastic with dull chrome accents. In an attempt to provide the best possible storage, the center console bin rises sharply up between the rear seats, with the steep slope down to the center cupholders including the seat warmer buttons, a small cubby for highway passes or whatever (spare change goes into a cleverly designed receptacle inside the covered bin), and a huge cupholder for big mugs. The main front cupholders are both big, with sliding constraints for smaller cups. And then there's another big bin again, in front the of the cupholders. Overall, there are lots of places for little (and big) things; but the glove compartment itself is a bit crowded.
Our main issue with the interior other than aesthetics, which are in the eye of the beholder, was with the tight fit under the dashboard, which made it hard for some drivers to swing their legs into place. This is influenced by seat height, driver height, etc., but can be an issue. Once in, room was not an issue.
Controls are generally sensible and what you'd expect. The cruise is Chrysler's usual three-buttons-on-the-wheel system, requiring little thought and providing big buttons with tactile cues; the middle button is a temporary cutoff (“cancel”). Headlights are simple, traditional, and on the instrument panel. The climate control, likewise, is traditional and has separate fan and vent dials. Air conditioning is quick and powerful, with a blower that quickly gets noisy but moves a lot of air. The 4x4 control is a recessed dial which again requires little thought or effort; and all controls are designed to be used with gloves on. The stereo, Chrysler's new corporate unit, is easy enough to figure out and provides more control over bass, treble, balance, and fade than most factory stereos. The sound from our optional unit was excellent, with strong stereo separation.
Chrysler's traditional overhead trip computer is easy to see and to use. In C/T mode it provides a compass and the temperature; you can also step through average mileage, distance to empty, current mileage, and a trip odometer. This year's Dakota took a step backwards by not letting you program various door-locking, light-activating, and other controls via the trip odometer, but they can still be programmed in fairly easily using the owner's manual.
Though our test truck had the optional chrome bars/steps on the side, they weren't necessary for most people to get in and out, because the cab height is not full-size-pickup high. Indeed, in size and capacity, the Dakota is more an old-fashioned full-sized pickup than a beefy compact (or even a mid-size, if there is such a thing outside Chrysler's marketing department). The bed was also relatively easy to get into and out of, thanks to a not-too-heavy gate; our test truck had a Mopar bed liner of thick plastic which protected it from scratches and dents.
The interior had a good deal of ambient noise on the road, mostly from the tires and the engine rather than wind noise, and it is not necessarily unpleasant (models without off-road tires will probably be a bit quieter). The rumble/roar of the engine does not end up as a loud steady drone, as it does on some loud-exhaust vehicles. Front seats are firm but fairly supportive and quite adjustable; the rear seats, on the other hand, are fairly low to the floor and perhaps too firm.
On the lighter side, they fold up to provide ample rear storage space.
As one would expect, visibility is good in most directions, with generously sized mirrors and bright light from the oversized headlights; the rear pillar created a bit of a blind spot but the large mirrors compensated for it. At night, even green Indiglo
backlighting makes the instrument panel more attractive and just as easy to read.
The base price for the well-equipped Quad Cab Laramie with four wheel drive is a whopping $30,000, which is well above the entry level Dakota. Along with that you get a long list of features, including the 4.7 V8, front disc brakes and ABS, 600 amp battery, electronic shift on the fly part-time four wheel drive, front and rear stabilizer bars, intermittent wipers, air, power everything, tach, tilt wheel, cruise, 6-disc CD stereo, satellite radio hookup, Alpine speakers, 275 watt amp, remote keyless entry and security alarm, garage door opener, and overhead console.
Our test car also had the skid plates and tow hooks ($170), sport appearance ($295), towing group including heavy duty cooling, service, larger, heated mirrors, hitch receiver, 750 amp battery, and extra transmission cooler ($525), four wheel antilock brakes ($495), side curtain front and second row airbags ($495), five-speed automatic transmission ($75), full-time four wheel drive electronic transfer case ($395), high-output V8 with anti-spin differential ($1,615), rear sliding window, heated front seats, chrome side steps ($525), engine block heater, UConnect, off-road tires, chrome-clad wheels ($595), and bedliner ($245). All those extras brought the price up to $36,690.
The Dakota is an attractive alternative to a full sized pickup, but gas mileage is low even for its class (albeit not for full-sized pickups), and its unusual heft means that you don't get the acceleration you'd expect — not that acceleration isn't strong and available at all times with the high-output V8, or quite adequate with the base V6, but the two-ton weight of the body clearly indicates a work truck, not a casual driver. The Dakota has serious capabilities for carrying or towing heavy loads up steep hills, which makes it a true truck and an excellent working companion but not particularly good as a casual driver. For people who want a truck for image alone, we recommend professional counseling followed (in case that doesn't work) by a Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma. For those who need the truck form but don't have anything particularly heavy to haul, again, a lighter duty pickup would probably be a better all-around choice, given cost, gas mileage, and ride. However, the Dakota might well be a good alternative for those who would normally get an F-150, Silverado, or Ram, but who would prefer something a little less bulky and a little more economical, without giving up much in the way of capability and usable power.
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