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The “Baby Ram” Dodge Dakota: 1997-2004

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

baby ram dakotaThe “baby Ram” 1997-2004 Dodge Dakota grew in size and capability from the first generation; yet, Dodge switched from calling it a mid-size to “the most capable compact pickup.”

They were the most popular Dodge Dakotas ever made, consistently out-selling the first and third generations alike. Now based on the Dodge Ram and engineered in-house, rather than being largely subcontracted, it could fit V8 engines instead of topping out with a V6.

Under the hood, buyers could choose from an AMC 2.5 liter four, the carryover 3.9 liter V6, a related 318 cubic inch V8, or, starting in 1998, the 360 (5.9 liter) V8, for the Dakota R/T. The 125-horse AMC four-cylinder replaced the first generation's 100-hp Chrysler engine.

Engine Transmissions Max. Towing (2000) Power (200) mpg (man)*mpg (auto)*
2.5 I4manual2,050120 hp, 145 lb-ft20/24(none)
3.7 V6(2004) manual, auto5,600 (2004)210 hp, 235 lb-ft16/2216/20
3.9 V6
NV-3500, 42RE
4,900 lb
175 hp, 225 lb-ft
4.7 V8
NV-3500, 45RFE
6,100 lb
235 hp, 295 lb-ft
5.9 V846RE automatic
8,300 lb
245 hp, 335 lb-ft
5.2 V8('97-99) manual, auto6,700 lb250 hp, 345 lb-ft14/1914/18

* 2000 where possible; rear wheel drive. 4x4 penalty for V6, around 2-3 mpg; for V8s engine, around 1 mpg . NV-3500 is manual trans.

The Dakota started out as a two-door only, but the Quad Cab, with four doors, was added in 2000 (keeping roughly the length of the Club Cab by using a smaller bed). In 2000, a new 4.7 liter V8 replaced the ancient 318, providing a bit less low-end grunt but better economy, lower cost, and higher horsepower. The four cylinder was dropped in 2002.

Dodge Dakota crash test at Chelsea Proving Grounds

Mike Shatto's
623,000-Mile Dodge Dakota

With a sophisticated, well-tuned suspension, the Dakota provided a surprisingly luxurious ride despite good cornering. At the time, we wrote about a test car with the optional heavy duty suspension:

The base models are as pleasant to drive as smaller pickups from other makers, and the heavy-duty model is smoother and more carlike than comparable Ford and Chevrolet models....Handling was better than we expected, and was in fact almost carlike. We don't know if the standard models perform as well as the Sport, but if they do, it's an impressive achievement. There was some wheel hop without a load, but again, that's to be expected of a heavy duty suspension.

The original 1987 Dodge Dakota had been bigger and stronger than the Ranger and S-10, but was reportedly engineered largely by a contractor.

Interior and driving

We wrote in our 2000 Dodge Dakota review:

Wind noise was an issue at higher speeds, as was ventilator noise with the fan at any but the lowest positions.

Visibility was excellent, with large mirrors, strong, well-focused headlights, low windows, and good sun visors (though we missed the two-way visors in the big pickups). ... The Quad Cab's rear doors open all the way, so you can more easily fit large objects into the opening. These are fully independent, real doors, unlike the suicide (reverse-opening doors with internal handles) on the current four-door Rams.

dodge dakota interior

... Unlike past Chrysler V8s, the 4.7 does not have gobs of torque at low rpm and little to spare as engine speeds climb. Instead, it has less torque at lower speeds, and much more power as it approaches redline. The transmission helps to make this transparent to the driver, by downshifting into the power zone as needed. This can cause a little hunting between 55 and 65 mph, but that disappears as the electronic transmission gets used to the driver's style.

Lift kits

Suspension engineer Bob Sheaves wrote:

Lifting Dakotas with $130 torsion bar keys and rear spacer blocks is cheap and will let you fit 33 inch tall tires, but it will also destroy halfshaft joints, cause vibration in the driveline, potentially have contact between front headpipe and front driveshaft... “Sweating the details” is what causes the costs that many people don't want to pay for. The larger diameter tire also increases the force moment arm acting on the brakes, causing longer stopping distances.

1997 Dodge Dakota best-in-class features (at launch)

  • Highest towing capacity (6,800 lb with RWD regular cab and V-8); highest gross combined weight rating (10,500)
  • Best ride and handling; tightest turning circle
  • Highest payload - 2600 pounds
  • Quietest interior
  • Most stable steering column

dodge dakota cutaway image

  • Largest pickup box and roomiest regular and club cabs
  • Highest domestic US seating position
  • 6 x 9-inch power mirrors provide the largest optional-mirror field of view
  • Most powerful and fastest accelerating engine (318) and most powerful domestic four-cylinder engine (2.5)
  • Largest glove compartment in class
  • Widest range of engines (2.5 to 5.2)


  • Transverse, rubber cab-to-box sealing flap on regular cabs
  • Front wheelhouse liners
  • 40-20-40 seat; forward facing, three-passenger club cab rear seat
  • Only V-8 engine available
  • Only domestic US compact pickup with electro-coat painted frame
  • Large-diameter spool-type engine mounts
  • Only compact pickup with a standard passenger air bag

Dodge Dakota performance upgrades

dakota pickup salesThese performance upgrades were suggested in a longer, more substantial Mopar Muscle (January 2001) article:

  • Mopar Performance computer for higher engine speeds, more fuel, and more spark advance.
  • Exhaust system. Mopar Performance sells headers with oxygen sensor mounts, as well as a complete catback exhaust system to reduce airflow restriction. A Dynomax dealer may be able to install a similar, custom-made system for less money.

Quality and production

The Dodge City/Warren Truck Assembly Plant underwent a $170 million renovation that included a new body shop, a new 96,000 sq.ft. full-body anti-chip paint shop and a new test track facility for every vehicle. At full production the plant was expected to produce 1,016 Dakotas a day on two shifts. Major body panels for both the Ram and Dakota were provided by Chrysler's Warren Stamping Plant, next door.

International Dodge Dakota pickup trucks sales

Dodge Dakotas being made in BrazilThe Dodge Dakota was expected to add to Chrysler Corporation's then-rapid international expansion.

Light trucks made up most of Chrysler's international sales, though mainly these were Chrysler Voyager minivans, and the Jeep® Wrangler, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee.

Since Chrysler's re-entry into the international arena in 1987, sales increased year-over year by double-digit percentages to 204,362 units in 1995.

The new Dakota was expected to open markets in Latin America, Asia­Pacific, and Europe. Tom Gale, head of product design and international operations, wrote, “In Brazil, for instance, sales of large and medium size pick-up trucks increased 66 percent over the four year period, from around 30,000 in 1992 to just over 50,000 units in 1996. And the market shifted from virtually 100 percent large pick-up trucks to more than 60 percent mid-size pick-up trucks. In 1995, the sales of mid-size pick­up trucks totaled 30,000 units. Other international markets showed similar trends.”

Dodge Dakota changes by Year

Midyear in 1998, the Dakota R/T was launched with the 360 engine (5.9 liters, 250 hp, 345 lb-ft of torque); this was launched in April 1998 for the same model year. Next-generation front airbags were used as they became available, and a passenger airbag switch was added as a running change.

For 1999, the major change was the use of the NV1500 five-speed manual transmission with the four cylinder.

For 2000, the new Dodge Dakota Quad Cab arrived, with four full-sized, wide-opening doors, a full size rear seat, up to 26 cubic feet of storage space in the cab, a five-foot, three-inch bed, 1,450 pound payload, and a choice of three engines — the original 3.9 liter V6, the new 4.7 liter V8, and the big old 5.9 liter Magnum V8. There were new colors and new interior trim and fabrics; the adjustable, retractable cupholder was redesigned. With the Quad Cab, though, came the loss of the eight foot bed.

The 4.7 liter V8 was new, and was combined with a 45RFE automatic transmission that had four regular gears and a special kickdown gear for better highway passing. The base V6 got a new manual transmission, and the optional full time transfer case eliminated two wheel drive mode.

4x4 Dakotas had a new front axle with higher capacity and lower weight; a smoother and easier to use transfer case shifter; and an optional full-time four wheel drive transfer case. The rack and pinion steering system on 4x4s was changed for better precision, and used lifetime-lubricated tie rods. Optional composite skid plates gave 4WD models better coverage with lower weight.

front suspension

The Dodge Dakota switched to weight-saving tubular stabilizer bars, and revised the steering geometry to reduce low-speed cornering tire wear; a hybrid engine cooling fan was quieter yet delivered better performance. A 22 gallon gas tank was standard on regular and Club Cab.


For 2001, the Dakota gained electrically shifted transfer cases for easier use, the New Venture NV233HD and NV244HD; pickups with the optional alarm gained keys with radio-encoded messages to make the ignition lock harder (if not impossible) to pick; and the interior was redone, with a new instrument panel, gauge cluster, floor consoles, and trim panels.


A new SXT was launched on Regular and Club Cab; two existing décor packages were renamed to Sport Plus and SLT Plus; gross vehicle weight ratings increased on most models; side impact protection was increased via an inner door redesign; a brake-shift interlock was added for automatics; and larger tires (P235/75R15) tires became standard on the rear wheel drive Quad Cab.

2003 Dodge Dakota Changes

For 2003, the 545RFE five-speed automatic was optional with the 4.7 on the Sport, Sport Plus, SLT, and SLT Plus. The 2.5 four-cylinder AMC engine was finally gone. Four-wheel disc brakes with rear-wheel anti-lock were standard on 4WD models and 2WD models 5350 lbs. GVWR and over. 16" x 7" cast-aluminum wheels were standard on all models except R/T.

A Stampede Ground Effects Group for regular and Club Cab Sport Dakotas (standard on R/T and optional on Regular and Club Cab 2WD models) included body-color front fascia with extension, rocker cladding, rear body color bumper with step pads, and tire and handling group. A four-gauge cluster was standard on base and SXT models, and a six-disc CD changer became available midyear.

The 4.7 used a new engine computer and vacuum leak detection via a pump. Onboard Regueling Vapor Recovery System was added to all Club Cab models.

2004 Dodge Dakota changes

The 2004 Dodge Dakota replaced the old 3.9 liter V6 with a new 210 horsepower V-6 engine. The Dakota Quad Cab had four full-size doors. Bucket seats were standard on Quad Cab. The Dodge Dakota R/T and the 5.9-liter Magnum V8 were both dropped, while Molten Red paint was added.

Dodge's development claims

Dodge claimed that most Dakota buyers wanted it for personal transportation. Tony Richards, General Manager, Jeep-Truck Product planning, wrote, “They told us we had to demonstrate competitive superiority in these seven areas in order to reach them. With this as a guideline, the team developed a truck that either met or exceeded customer expectations in each of these areas.”

Durability and Reliability: Body dimensional integrity was improved by using Ram frame technology, with higher torsional stiffness. Electro­coated frames provided better resistance to corrosion, while full body anti-chip primer gave more resistance to paint chipping. Mr. Richards said, “We logged more than four million miles of chassis testing and increased our durability testing by 50 percent over previous launches. We set a very aggressive internal target to be best-in-class in durability and reliability.”

rear of 1997 dodge dakota pickup trucks

Overall Size and Roominess: Already the biggest truck in its class, the 1997 Dakota was made even bigger and wider. With a full-facing rear bench seat in the Club Cab, Dakota provided six-passenger seating.

Powertrain Performance: Dakota boasted the only V-8 engine in the compact market, and added 10 more horsepower (230) and an additional 10 ft-lbs. of torque (300) to the 318 at launch, supporting the highest hauling capacity and towing capability among compact trucks. Gearing was altered for a lower first and second gear (2.74:1 instead of 2.45:1 in first gear), to provide a better launch feel and quicker low-speed passing; the new 45RFE transmission used with the 4.7 liter V8 was 18 pounds lighter than the old 46RE, had less inertia, and less parasitic drag, to increase gas mileage. This transmission would continue to be developed into the 65RFE.

Ride and Handling: The Dakota team refined the steering and suspension geometry, increased wheel and tire sizes, and altered the shock absorbers and bushings, the chassis will respond to tuning. Dennis Moothart, Executive Engineer for Truck Chassis Engineering, wrote, “We put our money into getting the basics right. We didn't abuse our purpose by creating a multitude of optional suspension packages. We [created] one basic package each for the two- and four-wheel drive models and one optional handling package with bigger tires, wider wheels and a rear stabilizer bar.”

dakota pickup chassis

Vehicle Quietness: was developed by viewing the truck as a total unit.

Safety and Security were boosted with standard driver and passenger airbags; adjustable shoulder belts; and rear wheel ABS was standard (four-wheel ABS was optional). The largest outside mirrors in the class provided better visibility.

Styling: The “baby Ram” look. Inside, seat travel was increased along with rear seat access on Club Cabs; a new instrument panel followed the shape of the grille.

More Dodge Dakota information

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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