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2008 Dodge Dakota test drive

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2008 Dodge Dakota test drive

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. Dodge enjoyed a higher cargo capacity than the compact pickups; later, it had the only V8 from a non-full-size pickup.

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The Dakota was redesigned for 2005, but sales were disappointing; Dodge worked at making it more attractive, and came out with new interior features and a massive horsepower upgrade.
The 4.7 liter engine was reworked to push out 302 horsepower, in the same ballpark as the 5.7 Hemi (until that engine was also worked over). The interior was dolled up with a hard-drive based stereo, underseat storage containers, and new trim. The grille was cleaned up and converted to the new Dodge style, with good results.

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The basic truck was fairly high capacity, 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 (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 was due to the new 4.7 V8's off-the-line punch and added grunt. 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; it's a 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).

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The five-speed automatic transmission, an American design, feels better than the Mercedes five-speed; it seems to always choose the right gear, shifts smoothly but firmly, and kicks down when needed. It would be hard to come up with a better transmission, except by adding to the range. This transmission also has an alternate passing gear, making it a six-speed if you count all forward gears.

As a snow car, the Dakota 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.

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Outside, the odder aspects of Dakota styling have largely been addressed. Inside, the Dakota uses the chunky styling common to contemporary Dodges. The designers 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. Storage is indeed the order of the day, with many places to put things.

In the Dakota, underseat storage bins require the seats to be up (as in, nobody sitting in them).
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. 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.

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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. 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, 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.

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The four wheel drive control is now a knob that requires no real effort to turn. Gauges are clear and easy to read, with black-on-white lettering, a perfectly smooth indigo-green backlight, and sensible scales. 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.

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Much criticism has been leveled at Chrysler interiors. 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 the fabric is very stiff. 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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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
| Dakota video review

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