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Dodge Dakota mid-sized pickup trucks, 1987-1996

1987 dodge dakota

Info: 1987-1996 Dodge Dakota1997-2006 Dodge Dakota2008-2011 Dakota2016 DakotaForums
Reviews: Dodge Dakota Sport (2000) • Dodge Dakota (2006) • 2008 Dodge Dakota  

The Dodge Dakota first arrived on the scene in late 1986, as a 1987 model; it was styled along the lines of the full-sized Dodge Ram, with a conventional, boxy look that would remain with the truck until 1997. Created to fill a space between the imported, compact Dodge Ram 50 (an un-altered Mitsubishi pickup) and the full-size Dodge Ram 150, the Dakota was initially available with two engines — a 2.2 liter four-cylinder, and a 3.9 liter V6 created just for the Dakota. It would eventually get a V8 as well — and a convertible version.

first generation dakota pickup

The idea behind the Dakota was to have most of the fun-to-drive aspects of a compact pickup, along with their fuel efficiency, while providing most of the utility and ruggedness of a full-sized pickup. The concept worked well, at leaset for the first two generations: in its first year, over 104,865 Dakotas were sold in the United States, neatly beating every other Dodge truck including the entire range of full-size pickups, diesels and heavy duty models included (that range came close to 100,000 units). The Ram 50 was the next best seller with under 77,000 units sold, and then the Ram Vans came in at under 70,000. Sales declined somewhat after the first year until 1992, the first-generation Dakota’s best year, with a massive increase to over 132,000 pickups sold. Then the second generation Dakota, with its “baby Ram” styling, took off.

dakota pickup sales

At launch, the Dakota provided a range of options, with a 112 inch and a 124 inch wheelbase featuring a 6 ½ foot or an 8 foot cargo box; rear and four wheel drive were both available. Payloads in 1987 ranged from 1,250 to 2,550 pounds, with trailer towing up to 5,500 pounds. The long bed was specifically designed to carry 4x8 panels with the tailgate closed (unlike S10 and Ranger); it had provisions for stakes and tie-downs, and used heavy duty steel to prevent dents. The tailgate was easily removed for longer loads.

WTAP building the Dodge Dakota

The front suspension on rear drive models was fully independent, with coil springs and upper/lower control arms, while leaf springs were used in the rear. The Dakota was the first American-made pickup with standard rack and pinion steering. Power front ventilated disc and rear self-adjusting drum brakes stopped the truck.

The 4x4 models used a shift-on-the-fly with no need to stop and lock the front hubs. They substituted torsion-bar front suspensions, which gave them a good ride with decent handling; 4x4s also used parallelogram steering rather than rack and pinion. (Thanks, Bob Lincoln).

Payload was 925 pounds more than the 1987 Chevy S10 and 795 pounds more than the 1987 Ford Ranger. Rear wheel drive models could tow 400 pounds more than either the Ford or Chevy. Dodge also claimed, credibly, superior handling.

dodge dakota dashboard

The cab came with cloth seats with vinyl trim, and could hold three passengers (unlike the Ranger and S10); the seatbacks tilted forward to reveal a storage area behind the seats. The dashboard looked as though it had come out of a car, but had more gauges. A cupholder pulled out of the center stack. Dual mirrors came standard, along with 14 inch wheels (15 inch on 4x4s).

The Dakota had a stainless steel exhaust and the highest percentage of corrosion protection material ever used on a Dodge vehicle, helping to support a five-year, 50,000 mile warranty. The Dodge City manufacturing plant (Warren, Michigan) had advanced assembly equipment, with an automatied sequence of over 11 miles of conveyors, optical gauging to monitor dimensional integrity, over 695 industrial computers to maintain quality, automatic welding for 99.6% of the welds, and robot-assisted painting.

A former Chrysler engineer told us that while the engine was developed within Chrysler, the Dakota itself was engineered by Aero-Detroit, a contract house; some Chrysler engineers were sent to the firm to work with them on the design. The first mule, according to this source, used a Chevrolet S10 body shell. The dimensions of the Dakota were similar to the 1976 International Harvester Scout II Terra, which could qualify as the first mid-size pickup; however, the Dakota had a separate bed.

1987 dodge dakota interior

Variations: Shelby Dakota, Dodge Dakota Convertible

In 1989, a Shelby Dakota was created to increase visibility of the new pickup. It used the 318 V8, shoehorned into the engine bay two full years before it would become a normal Dakota option; the engine produced 175 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. To get the V8 under the hood meant creating a new cooling system, with an electric fan forward of the radiator, replacing the standard engine-driven fan between radiator and engine. To go with it, Chrysler provided a new heavy-duty four-speed automatic transmission with an auxiliary transmission cooler and high-stall-speed torque converter; 3.90:1 gears were used for faster takeoffs. Cornering was aided by nitrogen-charged shocks and hollow-spoke-style 15x6-inch aluminum wheels with P225/70R15 Goodyear Eagle GT+4 radials. The truck ended up weighing 3,610 pounds, and could do a good-for-the-time 8.0 second 0-60. The Dakota, which came with the usual Shelby markings, sold for under $16,000.

convertible truck

The Dodge Dakota convertible, according to forum poster “dakotaquadsport,” was the result of a 1988 contract with ASC, the American conversion shop. In 1989, Dodge sold 2,842 Dakota convertibles, but that apparently saturated the market; just 909 were made in 1990 and a mere eight in 1991, made to fulfill the contract with ASC. The convertibles came in 4x2 and 4x4 varieties. Standard equipment included a five-speed manual transmission, fog lamps, padded rollbar, velour seats, power windows and locks, rear anti-lock brakes, full gauge package, 3.9 V-6, and tilt and cruise control. Air conditioning and an automatic transmission were the only options. The convertible top itself was manually operated.

dodge dakota convertible

“valiant67” added: For 1989, all Dakota convertibles were based on the Dakota Sport, and were painted red, white, or black; for 1990, there were Dakota SE models with blue available, and “supposedly four cylinder five speed trucks available.” One person claimed to have a black 1990 Dakota SE V6 Dakota convertible without power options.


The corporate 2.2 liter engine was adapted for rear wheel drive, and came standard; its 96 horsepower was not exceptional for its class, but its 121 lb-ft of torque was. This engine would be replaced in 1989 by a long-stroke version, the 2.5, which had a single fuel injector and produce 100 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque.

The new 3.9 liter V6 engine (claimed to be “all-new” but actually the 318 modified into a V6) was standard with 4x4, or optional with rear wheel drive (and required for the 2,550 pound payload package). The 239-cubic-inch V6 pushed out 125 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, and 195 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm, with a 9.2:1 compression ratio, far exceeding the single-barrel-carbureted 225-cube 1987 slant six’s 95 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque.

dodge dakota V6

A new five-speed manual transmission was standard either way, with a three-speed TorqueFlite automatic available with the V6.

Willem Weertman, head of Chrysler engines, wrote:

They wanted to have both fours and sixes for [the Dakota].  So we had the challenge of taking the 2.2 4 cylinder engine which had been designed for only an East-West or transverse location; we redid it and installed it in what is called the conventional drive line, or the North-South driveline, for the Dakota small truck.  And they wanted to have an upgrade power plant from the 4-cylinder so the V-6 was designed as a way of furnishing a V-6 for the least possible tooling costs.

Because of capital investment, we didn’t want to get into a whole new engine. We just wanted see what we could do with what we had and that caused us to look at the V-6 version of the Mound Road Engine [the 318]. ... The engine had to be shorter than the V-8 in order to fit into the compartment.   It was only in later years that enough space was found in order to be able to put the V-8 into place.  But the first ones were powered with a 4-cylinder 2.2 and the 3.9 V-6.

We had a challenge on the V-6 because the crank-pins had to be split in order to get away from the very unequal firing if we had only 3 crankpins, each crankpin having two of the connecting rods as is V-8 practice.  The reason is that the engine would be rather badly out of balance and would have not been acceptable even in a truck engine. So we had to do some redesigning of the bottom end in order to split the crank pins and make the firing order a little more uniform and it seemed to have worked out ok.

Engineer Pete Hagenbuch added:

stalkThe 3.9 was built in Mound Road, on the Mound Road machining equipment which included a 90 degree bank angle, and it was another one of those boom-boom, boom-boom type engines. I had two of them, both automatics and it didn’t bother me a bit but the manuals were awful, especially if you lugged them down in speed. It set off all kinds of sympathetic vibrations, just an awful way to build an engine. And Chrysler at that time had principles; we didn’t build engines that way. I’m confident that it went through the top and came back down with the message that “no way, you can’t do that it’s not commercial.” Then years later we had already admitted that automatic Tempests and F85s were acceptable as long as you didn’t watch them idle under the hood where they were just thrashing around. With the vibration absorption you get in a torque converter they were okay as far as driving was concerned.

The 3.9 liter V6 was created for the Dakota, but a single year after its launch, it replaced the venerable slant six in the full-sized Ram trucks as well. The engine may have been less than ideal in smoothness, but thanks partly to fuel injection, it had a real edge in horsepower over the smooth, durable slant six, and would establish a good record for reliability.

V8 power arrived in 1991 after all, with the 318 (5.2 liter) V8 getting shoehorned into the engine bay. The 318 was, for this one year only, producing 170 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.

1996 dodge dakota

For 1992, the V6 got the Magnum treatment, dramatically raising horsepower and torque; the major changes were sequential multiple port fuel injection, which increased responsiveness across the full range of engine operation, airflow, and head design. 80% of the prior components were redesigned, stopping oil leaks, slashing pollutant emissions, and increasing durability while finding more power. The 1992 V6 now produced more horsepower than the 1991 V8 (though not as much torque). Dodge claimed a 0-60 time of 8.3 seconds for the V8 and 9.3 seconds for the V6 with the new Magnum engines.

In 1993, a new manual transmission was made available for easier shifting. Trailer towing was boosted to 6,400 pounds with the V8 Club Cab and 6,900 pounds on the V8 regular cab, with appropriate options and equipment.

In 1994, the exhaust manifolds were shrunk to 1 5/8" and the exhaust was reduced to 2.5" from 3", eliminating 5 horsepower but no doubt saving some money; the torque curve was also adjusted via cam timing. In 1996, EGR was eliminated.

  1987 HP 1992-93 HP 1996 HP   1987 Lb-Ft 1992-93 Lb-Ft 1996 Lb-ft
3.9 V6 125 180@4,800 175 @ 4,800 195 225@3,200 225 @ 4,800
5.2 V8 170 230@4800 220 260 280@3,000 295 @ 3,200

While the V6 and V8 stayed the same in displacement and family, three different four-cylinder engines were used:

 Engines 2.2 Chrysler 2.5 AMC 2.5
Years used 1987-88 1989-1995 1996
Horsepower 96 99-100 @ 4,500 120 @ 5,200
Torque 121 132 @ 2,800 145 @ 3,400
Fuel Carb Single injector 4-injector

In 1996, two manual transmissions were available: AS82 and the New Venture Gear NV3500. They were both available, depending on model and buyer choice, with 3.21, 3.55, and 3.90 transmission/axle ratios, as were the two automatics — 42RE and 46RE, differing largely in capacity (both were four-speed overdrive models).

Fleet buyers could get a compressed natural gas version of the 318 engine. In 1996, this version produced 200 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque, with a gasoline-equivalent gas mileage of 11 city, 14 highway.


In 1988, the 3.9 V6 gained fuel injection, with a single injector, and a roller camshaft; power remained at 125 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque but driveability improved. A four-speed automatic-overdrive automatic, based on the time-honored TorqueFlite, replaced the three-speed Torqueflite itself as the optional transmission.

In 1989, a chassis cab was added to the mix; rear-wheel antilock brakes were made optional; and a full-size spare was also used instead of the original donut. The 99-horsepower, fuel-injected 2.5 liter four, with 132 lb-ft of torque, replaced the 2.2. Sales fell somewhat from 1988, but remained strong compared with other Dodge trucks. A convertible was introduced.

dakota stereo

The Dakota grew again in 1990, with the addition of Club Cab models; the cab was extended by 18 inches to make the addition of two standard forward-facing seats possible. Club Cabs had optional front bucket seats, with 25.2 cubic feet of room behind the front seat and six passenger seating (by 1993 this was 19.5 cubic feet).

The big change for 1991 was a V8 engine, the 318, producing 165 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque for 1991, via a single fuel injector. The Club Cab was available with four wheel drive; the hood was extended to fit the V8 engine, and the front appearance was upgraded somewhat.

For 1992, the engines were given the Magnum treatment for a substantial power boost (see the engines section) and better gas mileage and driveability, which may explain the sudden sales boost that lasted for several years.

In 1993, the Dakota’s bucket and bench seats, and their seat belts, were redesigned for greater comfort. Four-wheel ABS was made optional (it was originally rear-wheel ABS); a new work package was set up for long-box 4x2 models, grab handle access was improved, a quieter five-speed was used with the four-cylinder, a full stainless steel exhaust system replaced the older one, and the power window and lock switches were moved to be more accessible.

For 1994, the high-mounted rear brake light was added, a driver’s side airbag was made standard, and a new cam improved low-end torque on both V6 and V8 engines; an overhead trip computer/convenience console became optional. The Mitsubishi pickups were dropped, making the Dakota Dodge’s smallest pickup (an event which seemed to have no impact on Dakota sales). The V6 exhaust manifolds were shrunk to 1 5/8" and the exhaust was reduced to 2.5" from 3" to cut weight, but bends were made smoother and the pipes were straightened, leading to similar performance. Returnless fuel injection was used on the V6 and V8 for the first time; this was an innovation first made on the LH series of cars, which cut the fuel line going back to the tank by regulating fuel pressure in the tank rather than under the hood. The camshaft was revised to broaden the torque curve of both V6 and V8 engines, with the 318 boosted to a whopping 295 lb-ft of torque. Non-CFC refrigerant appeared, a driver airbag and knee bolster passive restraint was made standard, and the unpopular chassis cab was dropped along with the short wheelbase cab. Five horsepower was lost, perhaps from the exhaust manifold shrinkage.

1994 dakota (dodge truck)

Other changes for 1994:

  • An adhesive-bonded rear window had a tighter seal and added structural strength to the roof; glass was encapsulated in a RIM urethane frame. A bead of semi-liquid urethane sealing material was applied to the frame and the assembly was pressed into the back window opening of the body.
  • A high performance plate and fin evaporator and new expansion control system gave the Dakota air conditioning system a 10-15% improvement in performance, despite switching to R-134a. Expansion was controlled by an orifice tube inserted in the condenser outlet line, simpler and more reliable than the thermal expansion valve.

  • Electrically driven speedometer and odometer (no cable drive).
  • The switch turned on the parking lights when the fog lights were activated. Previously, the headlights were automatically lighted.
  • The Dakota overhead console included reading lamps, an electronic compass and outside temperature display, and two storage compartments. The compass had continuous automatic recalibration.
  • New seating surface fabrics on all Dakota seats started with cloth, rather than vinyl; cloth was also used on the standard cab cloth bench seat option. The center-arm-rest bench seat on regular cabs usesd "Prism" cloth, the same material as the club cab premium seats and optional sport high back bucket seat trim. The standard cab base seat had a new, better-feeling heavy-duty vinyl.

Minor cosmetic and feature changes were made for 1995, including a standard rear step bumper and aero headlights on some models. Power steering became standard; and fleet buyers could get natural gas versions of the V8 on some models. Manual transmissions had to have a clutch-starter interlock.

1996 dodge dakota 4x2

In 1996, the Dakota entered the final year of its first generation, looking very much like the first 1987 model (and the full-size pickups which had entered their final year in 1993). EGR on the V6 was dropped, improving driveability; it was no longer needed due to the more precise fuel injection system. Wheels, colors, and decals were changed, bucket seats were upgraded, and the automatic transmission was made smoother. The JTEC (Jeep-Truck Engineering) powertrain control model replaced the original Chrysler computer; OBDII diagnostics were implemented for all engines; and four-speed automatics gained electronic governors.

Perhaps most significantly, the 2.5 liter engine was replaced with the AMC four-cylinder that upped power to 120 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque (partly through multiple point fuel injection). This engine would remain with the Dakota as long as it had four-cylinder engines. The engine mounts were improved to deal with the higher power at the same time.

1997 dodge dakota "baby ram"In 1997, the “Baby Ram” Dakota was brought out. The body had one major part in common with the first generation: the box floor. The powertrain choices were identical except for minor year-to-year improvements, and the use of sequential multiple-point injection instead of standard multiple-point injection. This Dakota would be more successful than the original, with sales peaking in 2001.

1987 Dodge Dakota specifications and such

  Chevy S10 Ford Ranger Dodge Dakota Chevy C10 Ford F150
Gas mileage*
23/27 26/29 22/27 18/20 17/18
Max payload, lb 1,625 1,760 2,550** 2,525 2,490
Max towing, lb 5,000 5,100 5,500** 6,000 7,700
Warranty 2/24 2/24 5/50 2/24 2/24

* EPA city/highway miles per gallon
** By 1996, this had increased to 2,600 pounds payload and 7,100 pounds towing.

As for gas mileage, it did not vary much despite the major power boosts and technology changes. In 1987, the four-cylinder was the 2.2 and the V6 had a carb; in 1990 the 2.5 liter four was used, and the 3.9 V6 had fuel injection. The Magnum power given to the V6 and V8 engines did not affect their gas mileage in EPA tests, though individuals might have found a difference; but by 1996 gas mileage had risen by a full mile per gallon on these engines (the 1996 2.5 was the more powerful AMC four, used in just that year, and swapped in because the Dakota was the last remaining user of the old corporate 2.2/2.5 engines.)

Gas mileage I-4 V6 V8
1987 22/27 18/24 (none)
1990 21/28 16/22 (none)
1991 21/27 16/22 14/19
1992 21/26 16/22 14/19
1996 21/25 17/23 15/20

* (EPA city/highway, manual trans., RWD. V8 with automatic.)

Front axle capacity was 3,300 pounds regardless of package; rear springs were dual stage on all but the lightest RWD model. Disc brakes were 11.4 x .87 inches, except on the base rear-drive model, which used 10.7 x .87 brakes; most models got 9 x 2.5 inch drums (2,550-pound-payload RWD and 2,000-pound-payload 4x4s got 10 x 2.5 inch drums). All had a 10.6 inch diameter vacuum power brake booster.

78-amp alternators were standard across the board in 1987; the following table shows some other 1987 Dodge Dakota specifications.

Type (Payload/Drive) 1,250 RWD 1,800 RWD 2,550 RWD 1,450 4x4 2,000 4x4
Rear axle capacity 2300 3650 3650 3650 3650
Standard axle ratio 3.55 3.90 3.55 2.94 2.94
Battery 335 am 335 amp 500 amp 400 amp 500 amp
Front spring capacity 2400 2500 2600 2680 3000
Rear spring capacity 2400 3000 3700 3000 3700

Vehicle weight in 1987 ranged from 2,825 pounds all the way to 3,658 pounds (for the eight-foot-bed 4x4); most models were under 3,000 pounds. By 1996, the lightest model was 3,042 pounds (short-bed standard-cab light-duty models with four-cylinder engines); the heaviest was 4,044 pounds (Club Cab 4x4 SLT V8). 4x4 added around 360 pounds over rear wheel drive; the V6 added around 250 pounds, and the V8 roughly another 110 pounds over that. Going to an eight foot bed added around 100 pounds. The Club Cab added around 230 pounds. Going to a higher trim line or greater payload also added weight.

By 1996, there had been numerous changes. The standard alternator produced 81 amps, with a 136 amp optional unit; the standard battery was 600 cold cranking amps, with a 750 CCA battery optional. Gas tanks were 15 or 22 gallons. Vented disc brakes were 11.3 x 0.9 inches; rear brakes were 9.0 x 2.5 inches with passive ABS. The total swept area was 369 square inches. Optional brakes boosted rear drums to 10 x 2.5 inches.

dakota pickup salesFor rear wheel drive, ground clearance was at least 6.5 inches for all models, with a 28.5° approach angle; the ramp breakover angle went from 13.1° for the club cab to 15.8° for the short-box regular cab. Drag coefficient was a not particularly enviable 0.49 for the short box regular cab (other models were within .01 of that). Frontal area was 25.23 square feet.

For 4x4 models, wind resistance was higher, with the drag coefficient at .56 (except club cab, where it was .52). Ground clearance was 6.3 inches on regular cab, 6.9 inches on club cab. Approach angle was at least 35.2° on regular cab; breakover angle and departure angles were 15.7 for the short-box regular cab and 13.8° for the long-box regular cab. Frontal area was 25.84 square feet.

Type (Payload/Drive) 1,250 RWD 1,800 RWD 2,550 RWD 1,450 4x4 2,000 4x4
Rear axle capacity 2300 3650 3650 3650 3650
Standard axle ratio 3.55 3.90 3.55 2.94 2.94
Battery 335 am 335 amp 500 amp 400 amp 500 amp
Front spring capacity 2400 2500 2600 2680 3000
Rear spring capacity 2400 3000 3700 3000 3700

The following figures are all from 1993:

  Regular Cab Club Cab (Front) Club Cab (Rear)
Headroom 39.6 39.8 38.5
Hiproom 56.1 56.2 53.4
Shoulder room 58.7 58.7 58.0


Info: 1987-1996 Dodge Dakota1997-2006 Dodge Dakota2008-2011 Dakota2016 DakotaForums
Reviews: Dodge Dakota Sport (2000) • Dodge Dakota (2006) • 2008 Dodge Dakota

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