The Dodge Dakota was introduced as a mid-sized pickup, then the only one available, to avoid competing directly with the Chevy S-10 and Ford Ranger; the larger size allowed Dodge to have a higher capacity than the compact pickups, and, later, the only V8.
The Dakota was redesigned for 2005, but sales were disappointing and the engineers and stylists were put back to work; the fruit of their labors was a more attractive truck with new interior features and a massive horsepower upgrade, using the same basic frame and chassis. The 4.7 liter engine has been around since 1999, but now it has 302 horsepower, in the same ballpark as the 5.7 Hemi (which is getting pushed up to 380 hp soon) and far above any past Dakota engine. The interior has been dolled up with a hard-drive based stereo, underseat storage containers, and other features. The sides remain the same, but the grille has been cleaned up and converted to the new Dodge style, with good results (compare the 2008 and 2006 models, above).
The basic truck is a fairly high capacity vehicle, what some Japanese automakers would call a full-sized pickup; because of that the ride can be on the firm side, and gas mileage on the poor side. Indeed, the EPA rates the Dakota V8 at 14 mpg city and 20 mpg highway, which is an improvement over the older, less powerful V8 (which used the same “High Output V8” badge).
The ride is pleasant on smooth roads; on concrete roads, the pavement gaps jiggle and make the interior somewhat jumpy and busy, but no more so than most similar capacity pickups. Bigger bumps are not particularly cushioned and there can be some bouncing around, but at least each bump only causes one shock; the truck doesn't bounce around like some competitors. Steering is tight but does not demand constant corrections, making the Dakota easy to drive and enjoyable when one pays attention.
Accompanying the firm ride is surprisingly good cornering, as the Dakota manages to swing around corners better than some cars, with very little body roll and loss of traction; despite the solid rear axle, the Dakota manages to keep a firm grip around turns even when the pavement is broken. It also handles dirt and gravel well, maintaining its composure and acting predictably, at higher speeds than one should really be driving a pickup.
The only place where the tires tended to spin was on full-power takeoffs, and that says more about gear ratios and engine power than anything else. The new 4.7 V8 is a strong engine with torque throughout its operating range; we were surprised by its off-the-line punch, especially given that the original had a more typical power curve, with little available at first and a smooth buildup through the revs. The new powerplant seems to have a lot more grunt to go with the extra horsepower. Getting onto the highway is easy, and it feels as though a full load won't worry the powertrain much; hills and air conditioning have no substantial impact on performance. The engine was tuned to be quiet when idle or at low speed, with a deep “vroom” on acceleration; as with its predecessor, it's a pretty quiet engine that has a sophisticated sound when spurred on (that comes across well in the video, though the engine and wind noise are greatly increased by the auto-level microphone).
The five-speed automatic transmission is a genuine American design, and it feels better than the Mercedes unit in the rear-drive cars and some Jeeps; it seems to always choose the right gear, shifts smoothly but firmly, and is essentially invisible in normal driving, but kicks down when needed. It would be hard to come up with a better transmission, except perhaps by adding another gear to make a higher overdrive for better highway mileage. This transmission also has an alternate passing gear, making it a six-speed if you count all forward gears, but Dodge has never “cheated” that way.
As a snow car, the Dakota pretty much needs four wheel drive to get around, at least on the stock Wrangler RSA tires. Our first foray into snow saw the truck spinning around with the first turn, unable to get a grip; but it easily plowed through the snow barrier the town had built around the driveway, so we figure that those in the snow belt can either get the four wheel drive, which helped a lot, or get snow tires, which would also let them steer and stop. (Hint: get the snow tires.) The Dakota pretty much ignored deep puddles and rain, a testament both to the tires' rain ability and to the basic suspension design.
Outside, the odder aspects of Dakota styling have largely been addressed, and the new grille is particularly attractive in chrome. Inside, the Dakota uses the chunky styling common to contemporary Dodges (and absent from future models). The designers cleverly avoided having huge swaths of plastic by cutting away the bottom of the center stack cut for storage space, and cutting into the area above the glove compartment to create a storage bin. Indeed, storage is the order of the day, with three front cupholders (one having a cutaway so you can use mugs with handles), two of which can be removed for a rectangular storage space; a coinholder ahead of the driver where it is easy to use; two odd-sized exposed bins; a thin but deep center console with CD rack built in; front (but not rear) map pockets in the doors; and those rear underseat storage areas. There is also a phone/iPod holder coming out of the front of the center console with a padded grip.
The underseat storage is unusual; in most vehicles, there are cavities under the seats, but in the Dakota, the storage bins require the seats to be up (as in, nobody sitting in them). Lifting the seat is easy and does not require pulling or pressing anything.
The bins match the width of the seat; they fold flat when the seats are down, and can be unfolded when the seats are up as convenient grocery (or whatever) storage. The bins are removable when unfolded and in box form, and you can get more at the Dodge dealer, so you can get collections of tools or camping gear, put them into the bins, and then swap them in and out of your car as needed. They take very little time to unfold into box form, and a bit more to collapse again; and they don't seem to affect seat comfort. They don't solve the other problem, that is, how to store stuff up front when you have rear passengers; but that's what the 2009 Dodge Ram's RamBox is for, and hopefully the Dakota will get one before it ends production.
The controls are generally sensible, with a traditional-feel column shift that lets you restrict the gears to first and second, but not third or fourth; at the end is a tow/haul button, identical to the Chevrolet control, that adjusts shifts for greater transmission longevity and control. Cruise buttons remain on the steering wheel; headlights are on the dashboard. Heat/vent controls are also traditional, with dials for fan, heat, and vent position, and a separate air conditioner button; it's a shame they weren't able to use the new chrome-edged Dodge controls, which look and feel better, but at least they were able to quiet down the fan to luxury-car levels. Heat comes out just a minute or two after it would on a four-cylinder car, and quickly comes up to roasting levels to make cold days easier.
The four wheel drive control is now a simple knob that requires no real effort to turn; it's next to the seat-heater buttons. All controls feel fine, and none are especially illogical. Likewise, the gauges are clear and easy to read, with black-on-white lettering, a perfectly smooth indigo-green backlight, and sensible scales that have minimal “you can't go there” turf. The gauges are conventional and limited to speedometer, tachometer, temperature, and gas level, all large enough to allow for quick, easy readings, day or night, dawn or dusk. The only annoyance is the standard problem of the navigation system - it demands that you agree to its “use at your own risk” language every time you turn it on, but every nav system does that. If they didn't, presumably the first person to hit something would sue the manufacturers into oblivion, and the sole exception would disappear.
Much criticism has been leveled at Chrysler interiors, partly with justification, and partly because people tend to think in packs. The door panels are indeed somewhat stiff and cheap-feeling, as is the center console lid, but I must admit to not having noticed until looking for problems. The steering wheel is pleasant enough, as are knobs and switches; seats feel good when sitting on them, though rubbing them with a hand reveals a fairly stiff fabric. That stiffness is the price of the YES Essentials fabric, which is, according to their press releases, almost impervious to stain and damage; if you pet your seats or tend to wear short-shorts, it might not be worth it, but if you just sit in the seats, the fabric should be fine. The pattern is not disagreeable - at least, not to me, but I have to admit I have differences of opinion with people over my preference for wood over carbon fiber, so you might not agree on the pattern.
The exterior of our truck was well protected with a heavy plastic bed liner, which protected the rear from the scratches endemic to plain painted pickups. The tailgate was heavier than it needed to be.
Like many Chrysler vehicles, the Dakota has a MyGIG option; this is a stereo that includes both satellite capability and a 30 gigabyte hard drive for music storage. It can be fed from CDs (it labels songs and artists using a built-in database), DVDs, and the USB port (assuming you have the right equipment), and with the premium sound package in our vehicle, had excellent sound. Copying a CD takes a few minutes, and is easy to do even for the true novice. Choosing CDs is done from a pushbutton interface, using a touch-screen - not necessarily something we want drivers to do on the road, but easy for a passenger to manage (or to do from a traffic light). It's much more distracting than the old mechanical-button stereo, but better than trying to deal with an iPod or some competing systems. Likewise, the direct-dial feature for radio stations can be a real time-saver but requires a lot of eyes-off-the-road. Everything worked very well except for satellite radio, which was a little more prone to dropouts than usual, and took a bit of time to switch stations compared with some competing systems. Getting to bass and treble controls took more work and required more eyes-off-the-road time than it should have; adding another knob and allowing those functions to be controlled by the normal “push and twist” method would help.
Our test vehicle also had a navigation system and UConnect built in; UConnect uses the owner's Bluetooth-enabled cell phone with the car's speakers and microphone, and allows voice dialing, albeit after pressing a couple of buttons (one real, one touch-screen). The navigation system was fairly speedy and had a 3D mode; the touch-screen controls made it a bit easier to use than usual. Some options seem to have been well hidden, such as the volume of the navigation voice, but on the whole it was one of the better systems.
Seating was fairly generous in front and back, other than a ridge that blocks the top of the rear doorways; headroom was good front and back, and the rear passengers had a decent amount of space. (There is no “regular cab” now — all Dakotas have four doors and two rows of seats). Visibility is good in nearly all directions, with a fairly narrow rear roof support and glass everywhere; of course there is a blind spot directly behind the bed, as with any pickup, but the Dakota has no option for a backup alarm.
Back in front, the sunshades slid out a few inches on their supports to increase their coverage, and the headlights were fairly effective. The wipers worked well but the defogger could have worked on the ends of the windshield more effectively.
Our test vehicle included a remote starter, which worked smoothly and sensibly: clicking twice on the remote-start button brought two honks, followed after a few seconds by the engine starting up. The doors remained locked and the car would immediately shut off its engine if you tried shifting from Park without first putting in the key. Amusingly, putting the key in and moving it to On brought up the usual dashboard-lights-up process, a safety feature because the driver is supposed to check for key lamps (e.g. Check Engine, Brakes) while they're all lit up.
The Dakota is not exactly cheap, especially compared with the bigger Ram; it is, though, a little easier on gas, easier to swing around corners, and a lot easier to park, fitting within the width of normal car spaces. Our well-equipped SLT 4x4 ran $29,765 plus options (a base model with rear drive is $20,080); it included tire pressure monitoring, utility rails in the box, tow wiring, anti-spin differential, cruise, part-time electric shift-on-the-fly four wheel drive, remote power locks, power windows and mirrors, fog lights, universal garage door opener, satellite-enabled CD stereo, air, tilt wheel, six-way power driver's seat, trip computer, underseat storage, and the rear sliding window; wheels are 16 inch aluminum alloy, and standard tires are P245/70 on-and-off-road jobs. Antilock brakes are included - but only the rears, which are drums (front brakes are discs).
Our test truck had numerous options, which boosted the price to a steep $35,130. Some were small - special paint at $150; automatic transmission at $75; 3.92:1 axle ratio at $40; and under-the-rail box bedliner at $245. On the opposite end was MyGIG, including an automatic rearview mirror (which we don't like because they're not as effective as manual day/night mirrors) and UConnect; that settled in at $1,445, neatly beating the premium sound group (with a six-disc DVD player, remote start, Alpine speakers, 276-watt amp, and wheel-mounted audio controls) at $1,010, or the 4.7 liter V8 engine itself, at $985. The in-betweens included heated front seats ($250), side curtain front and rear airbags with four-wheel antilock brakes ($640), and trailer towing, with bigger mirrors, battery, and engine cooling as well as a transmission cooler ($525).
Is it all worth it? Well, that's hard to say. It all depends on why you use a pickup. Gas mileage is 1-2 mpg better than the base model Ram with the same engine, or with the Hemi (both have the same mileage ratings, because the Hemi's MDS makes up for its larger displacement and power output). The price is similar; the bulk is lower, which makes for more convenience when driving and parking, and less when loading up the bed. The height is a bit lower than the Ram, making entry and exit - and bed loading - easier. With sales where they are, getting a good deal should be fairly easy, and it's quite an enjoyable truck, with cornering that will surprise you and instant power from what was once derided as a “no-punch” engine. Dodge has done a lot to make the Dakota more attractive, and it deserves a new look.
Read more about the Dodge Dakota at allpar.com
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