Trucks have always held a special place in the hearts of Americans, and the constant demand for bigger, better versions of our favorite haulers has forced the breed to rapidly evolve over the past few decades. From basic utilitarian work tools to do-everything family vehicles, trucks are now the Swiss Army Knife of vehicles. However, while the full-size truck market has been well defined by the same key players for over half a century, the mini-hauler segment has featured a parade of interesting, innovative and often bizarre products over the years. Who could forget nameplates like El Camino, Ranchero and Brat?
Apparently most people could, since the odd car/truck half-breed has gone the way of the dodo and been replaced by the small truck segment, in which no less than six different manufacturers have an entry. We've sung the praises of these compact pickups before, and the previous-generation Dodge Dakota conquered all. In fact, when it comes to providing the perfect combination of light-duty hauling capability and carlike ride and handling, Dodge has been in a unique position since the company introduced the first Dakota back in 1987. With the small and nimble D100 beneath it in the model lineup and the mighty Ram towering above, the original Dakota was considered the first midsize truck on the market. The introduction of the segment's first V8 engine in 1987 and the first club cab three years later helped solidify Dodge's middle child as a stout and successful player in the American truck arena. A lot has changed in the 17 years since it first rolled into showrooms, but the premise of a fun-to-drive truck with sporty suspension and plenty of power remains the same.
All new and totally redesigned for 2005, the Dakota benefits from three excellent engine options and wild, in-your-face styling that will ensure all your neighbors know you drive a Dodge. Rather than slapping some fresh sheet metal on a tired, old platform, Dodge engineers designed a brand-new chassis that makes the Dakota the largest, strongest and most powerful midsize pickup ever built. A fully boxed hydroformed frame provides eight times more torsional rigidity than the previous design, and an all-new coil-over-shock front suspension and power rack and pinion steering lend the platform a nimble, carlike feel.
The overhead valve six that provided standard power in the Dakota for years is finally gone, replaced by a stellar 3.7-liter, single-overhead cam V6 borrowed from the Jeep Liberty that pumps out a respectable 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. The big news in the engine compartment, however, is the availability of not one, but two V8s. The standard 4.7 Magnum V8 is carried over from the previous model, offering a solid 230 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque on tap. However, Dodge is all about performance these days, so the company has added an optional high-output version of the 4.7 to the lineup as well. This more potent V8 utilizes classic hot-rodding tricks, such as revised cylinder heads, bigger cams, a higher compression ratio and tuned exhaust to bump output to over 250 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque (final ratings have not yet been specified). No Hemi is available as of yet, but we have to think that with all the attention that engine has been getting lately, it's bound to happen sooner or later.
In order to put all that power to the pavement, V6 and standard V8 buyers can choose from either a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission, while the high-output V8 is only available with the automatic. Dodge also gives buyers two distinctly different four-wheel-drive options by offering either a traditional part-time transfer case with high- and low-range gearing, or an optional full-time all-wheel-drive system that ensures traction in just about any situation.
While the Dakota's drivetrain options have been expanded for 2005, the number of available body style configurations has decreased. With the declining demand in regular cab pickups over the years, Dodge chose to discontinue that body style along with the old eight-foot-long bed option. The standard extended cab (Dodge calls it a Club Cab) comes equipped with four doors, forward-facing rear seats and a 6-foot-6 bed, while the crew cab (known as a Quad Cab) model utilizes four full-size doors and a 5-foot-4 bed. No matter which bed length you choose, bolt-on cargo tie-downs and recessions for 2-by-6 box dividers come standard.
Speaking of the Dakota's body, while it looks similar to the Durango SUV at first glance, company designers insist that the two models have few parts in common. In an effort to carry on the bold brand-specific styling Dodge has become known for, a large crosshair grille is prominently affixed to the front of the truck, followed by the familiar dropped-fender look popularized by the previous-generation Ram and Dakota. The bolt-on fender flares that were used on previous-generation 4x4 and RT models have been eliminated, as the new truck features boldly shaped wheel openings designed to convey a muscular look, while simultaneously providing ample room for larger off-road tires. The lines of the truck were kept sharp for a more aggressive look, and extensive wind-tunnel development makes this one of the most aerodynamically efficient pickups ever built.
All that work in the wind tunnel helped increase fuel efficiency and cut noise, but Dodge engineers didn't stop there. They were issued an edict to make this the most refined Dakota yet, so a revised A-pillar shape, new sideview mirrors, revised door seals and 20-percent thicker glass were utilized to help cut wind and road racket. The refinement continues inside, where form is emphasized just as heavily as function. Both cab configurations offer the most interior space in their class, and the rear seats flip up to reveal built-in storage trays for added convenience. Dodge engineers claim that extra effort was also put into the shapes, design and aesthetics of the interior, which we grew to appreciate during our short stint in the new truck. After spending a day wheeling a Dakota over the back roads and highways of rural Tennessee, we walked away with a notebook full of driving impressions and a yearning for more.
Our time was spent in a 4x2 Laramie Club Cab equipped with the 4.7 high-output V8, five-speed automatic transmission and chrome-plated 17-inch wheels. The Laramie is Dodge's top-of-the-line trim level, which includes such niceties as leather interior, tilt wheel, cruise control, an Infinity sound system, a six-disc CD changer, power driver seat and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The base price for this package is $24,984, and it includes just about everything one could ask for in a modern pickup truck (the high-output V8 is an added-cost option). Our tester also featured heated seats, Sirius Satellite Radio and the Uconnect hands-free phone system, for a grand total of $29,529, including destination charge. That price sounds a little steep to us, but when one considers that many of those options aren't even available on other small trucks, it becomes slightly more acceptable.
Sliding behind the wheel, the first thing one notices is the excellent ergonomics. The truck sits just low enough to make entry and exit a breeze, while still maintaining the proper "tough truck" stance. The seats are firm and supportive, and the driving position feels much more carlike than anything one would expect from a truck. The front seats offer plenty of legroom, but the already-tight rear seat in the club cab suffers when the driver seat is pushed all the way back. However, we tend to think of the extended cab configuration more as extra storage space than as an actual usable seating area for long trips. If you need to haul around a family, the spacious Quad Cab is probably a better option.
It's quite obvious that a lot of thought went into designing this interior, as the window and door lock switches are comfortably within reach, the easy-to-use climate controls are set in a nicely finished faux aluminum bezel, and the shutter-type dash vents are attractive and functional. The panels used for the interior are made of nicely textured, two-tone plastic, and the quality, fit and finish are absolutely outstanding, especially for an American pickup truck. The all-new Infinity stereo is intuitive to use and sounds wonderful, a vast improvement over previous Chrysler designs. Finally, there's the gorgeous chronograph-style instrument cluster. White-faced gauges and precision metal trim are designed to evoke thoughts of the high-performance vehicles in the Chrysler lineup, and it did remind us of the Crossfire SRT-6 that recently passed through the Edmunds fleet. The large speedometer and tachometer are easy on the eyes and informative at a glance, an element several competing truckmakers could take note of. In case you couldn't tell by now, we were very impressed by the design and overall polish of the new Dakota interior, which seems to set new standards for build quality in domestic-brand trucks.
On the road, the word refinement springs to mind. The high-output 4.7 is no Hemi, but it has plenty of power and offers tons of torque when the need arises. The truck is very quiet inside at any speed, as we couldn't detect a hint of wind or road noise. The exhaust emits just a hint of a grumble, which turns into a throaty roar when you stomp on the go-pedal. The chassis feels very stable, with no detectable shakes or rattles, and while the ride is a bit taut, it soaks up ruts and bumps with ease. The rack and pinion steering is immediately noticeable, as the Dakota is tight and responsive in the corners, which is one of the main reasons for buying a truck in this category as opposed to a full-size pickup. The transmission shifts were crisp but not snappy, and the four-wheel disc brakes provided plenty of stopping power. Dodge claims that a truck equipped in this manner is capable of towing up to 7,150 pounds, and we don't doubt it.
Overall, the new Dakota drives like a well-sorted sedan. Power is smooth and plentiful, the interior is refined and well designed, and the suspension is nimble and responsive. The beauty of this package is that while it drives like a car, this midsize pickup actually has payload and towing capacities that rival some of the full-size pickups on the market. Dodge claims that a four-door, V8-powered Dakota can be purchased for less than $20K, a $1,000 price reduction over last year's model. While we're going to wait and see if that promise actually pans out, we can confidently state that this boldly styled truck truly is in a class of its own.