The first Dodge Dakota was billed as the only mid-sized pickup truck, falling between the Mitsubishi-sourced Dodge 50 and the full-sized Dodge D-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. 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). All that power and bulk comes at a cost, though — in gas mileage and maneuverability.
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 now a Club Cab with rear-hinged access doors. The rear seats fold up to provide bulk storage. The Dakota is nearly seven inches wider than the Chevy Colorado, tows 3,000 pounds more, and has more power, but lower mileage and less of a fun factor. It also out-tows the Tacoma.
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 responsive at any speed, the five-speed automatic providing an extra gear for smooth kickdowns at highway speeds.
Acceleration and passing were no problem, 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.
Cornering was good for such a capable truck, though rough surfaces bounced the bed around, causing minor oversteer on fast turns over bumpy roads. There was no wheel hop; while the engine pulled strongly from the get-go, the tires did not squeal or protest. The Dakota allowed for spirited driving and quick maneuvers without feeling heavy or clumsy. The ride 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; we suspect that two wheel drive models, those without off-road tires, and those without trailer packages have a more cushioned ride.
Styling has a chunky motif that makes the body look as though it's been heavily modified with teenagers with plastic kits. The interior is full of rounded-off squarish bulges, mostly gray plastic. The main front cupholders are both big, with sliding constraints for smaller cups. 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 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.
Controls are generally sensible and what you'd expect. Air conditioning is quick and powerful, with a blower that quickly gets noisy but moves a lot of air. All controls are designed to be used with gloves on. The stereo 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.
Chrysler's overhead trip computer is easy to see and to use, and includes a compass, temperature, average mileage, distance to empty, 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.
In size and capacity, the Dakota is more an old-fashioned full-sized pickup than a beefy compact. 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 (trucks without off-road tires will probably be a bit quieter). Front seats are overly firm but fairly supportive and 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.
Visibility is good in most directions, with large 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. With that you get 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 a slightly smaller-than-full-size pickup rather than a larger compact; its unusual heft takes away from gas mileage and acceleration (which is why it has the V8 option). The Dakota has serious capabilities, which makes it a true truck and an excellent working companion but not particularly good as a casual driver. 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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