Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Let's just get this out of the way right now. No, the 2005 Dodge Dakota does not have a Hemi in it. Unlike almost every other new product in the DaimlerChrylser pipeline, there's no option code that will plant a 5.7-liter V8 under the hood. So if you were hoping to get your chores done and lay some stripes in the process, you might be disappointed with this revamped addition of the original midsize Dakota.
If your expectations are a little more realistic, however, the new Dodge Dakota won't be such a letdown. The Hemi may be MIA, but there are two perfectly capable V8s still available, both of which give the Dakota an edge over its V6-powered competitors. It also boasts a stiffer frame, revised front and rear suspensions and a modern steering setup that pushes this pioneering pickup firmly into the 21st century. And, as is typical of redesigned trucks these days, the Dodge Dakota is slightly bigger than before, giving it added passenger space and better crash protection.
Given the Dakota's long-reigning status as the king of the midsize segment (of which it was the only member), one would think that all these improvements would yield yet another class-dominating truck, right? Not exactly. In years past, the Dodge Dakota could rely on its perfect blend of size and power to give it the nod over its wimpier compact competitors, but that advantage has vanished as those trucks have grown to proportions that now plant them firmly in midsize territory. With that ace-in-the-hole wiped away, the Dakota now has to rely on the details in order to stand out from the crowd, and after spending considerable time behind the wheel, we're not so sure that Dodge spent quite enough time ironing out the small stuff to keep the Dakota out in front.
Most noticeable among those details is the dreadful quality of the interior materials. This was one of the previous model's few weak points, so we expected that Dodge would go out of its way to address the problem. Apparently, it blew the budget on all those World Series commercials 'cause our test truck had all the ambience of a mid-'80s Colt. From the hard and hollow dashboard to the mismatched colors of the door trim pieces, the materials in our Dodge Dakota were average at best. The seats were so unconvincing that a second look at the window sticker was required just to confirm that they were in fact leather. Sure, it's a truck and all, but shouldn't an all-new model be perceptibly better than the old one?
We might have been more apt to give it some slack had our test truck been a reasonably priced midgrade model, but we're talking about a top-of-the-line Dodge Dakota Laramie that rolled in with a sticker price of nearly $33,000. For that sizable chunk of change, we got a decked-out four-wheel-drive crew cab with options like the upgraded V8 (the standard 4.7, not the high-output version), 17-inch chrome wheels, a tow package and various interior amenities like satellite radio and a sliding rear window. The fact that you could score a nicely equipped Hemi-powered Dodge Ram for similar money was never far from our mind.
Thankfully, the design of the Dakota's interior bails it out somewhat as it's a noticeable step up from the old model's more utilitarian setup. Slick black-on-white gauges now reside in the instrument cluster complete with soothing green backlighting at night. The climate controls retain a simple three-dial design and they're integrated into the center stack better than before. The radio setup received similar improvements, as it's now more spread out for easier tuning while a decent-looking plate of metallic trim adds some flash to the otherwise drab interior.
Spend enough time behind the wheel and the economy of the Dakota's environment doesn't seem so bad. The questionable seats prove comfortable over the long haul and ample seat travel allows for plenty of room to get comfortable. Although the new design does add a palpable sense of refinement, there's still plenty of utility built in as well. A monster cupholder resides dead center in the console flanked by two additional receptacles with ratcheting arms that can grab hold of anything smaller than a 55-gallon drum. The center console is nearly a foot deep and buries an extra power outlet inside to boot. From a practical perspective, there's not much more you could ask for.
Although the wheelbase remains the same, the Dodge Dakota Crew Cab offers more than enough room for four adults inside. Not only is there ample head- and knee room in back, there's enough seat back angle to keep passengers from feeling like they're about to inhale the front headrests. When you're not carrying passengers, the seats fold up in one easy motion to reveal a preformed floor that looks as though it was built to corral loose items. It's a nice idea, but a completely flat load floor would be a more useful setup.
Improved overall refinement was one of Dodge's stated goals with this version of the Dakota, and a few long slogs down the highway highlighted the improvements. Wind and road noise is about as hushed as you could hope for in a truck, with none of the whistling and hollering from the window sills and side mirrors that usually accompany such vehicles at speed. Even with the optional off-road tires, the sound of the rubber on the road barely intruded on the otherwise quiet cabin. Engine noise doesn't make much headway either as the 4.7-liter V8 is unobtrusive even when winding itself out to the redline.
Although a decent 3.7-liter V6 is standard in the Dodge Dakota, if you don't want to get gutter-balled by plumbers' vans, an upgrade to one of the two optional V8s is necessary. Ours had the standard version that churns out 230 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, while the high-output version of this same engine ups the ratings to 250 and 300, respectively. We always pegged the 4.7 as the engine of choice in the previous model and not much has changed. It hardly tears the tires off the rims but it does have a smooth, steady flow of power that's well suited to the Dakota's manageable size and weight.
Hooked to a five-speed automatic transmission, the 4.7 V8 managed to turn out a respectable 0-to-60 time of 9.3 seconds at the test track. Not exactly numbers to boast about, and slightly slower than the last Dakota we tested (8.8 seconds), but it's at least as quick as any other truck in its class. Stopping performance was equally respectable with consistent 60-to-0 runs of 131 feet and only moderate ABS racket.
With its stiffer frame and heavily revised suspension setup, the Dodge Dakota doesn't disappoint in the handling department, either. While no owner is likely to ever thread their Dakota through a row of cones, doing so demonstrated the Dakota's ability to handle itself when pushed to its limits. The new rack and pinion steering system delivers acceptable if not precise road feel and body roll is kept well in check for a truck riding on sizable off-road treads.
Real-world driving yields even better results, as the Dakota still has a combination of ride comfort and body control that makes it one of the most enjoyable trucks on the road. Its new front suspension setup consists of short and long suspension arms connected to coil-over shocks while the rear remains a traditional leaf spring configuration. It's still a bit bouncy at times, but there aren't many trucks in this class that aren't. You can drive it without regard to road surface or pothole placement and the effects on the ride quality are minimal.
Taken into harsher locales, the Dakota maintains its composure thanks to the well-tuned shocks and a stiff frame. There's no off-road package offered although you can order up skid plates, all-terrain tires and two different four-wheel-drive systems. The standard transfer case is a traditional part-time setup while the optional unit offers full-time operation for those who want to have four-wheel drive at their disposal both on and off the road.
Unlike the previous model, the new Dodge Dakota sits the same regardless of whether it's two- or four-wheel drive. While this might seem like a bonus for those who want the off-road look without having to pay for the extra hardware, in reality the watered-down stance of the new truck lacks the pumped-up look of the previous model. Looks aside, the ground clearance remains the same at 7.9 inches, a not-so-impressive figure that we were reminded of after hitting several obstacles along the trail. The Dakota also lacks the sort of traction control, locking differentials or hill-descent control systems that are now available on other trucks in its class. Needless to say, if you're looking for a serious off-road truck, the Dakota isn't going to cut it.
Although the Dakota's lack of dirt credentials might be disheartening for Dodge boys who like to bash boulders, it's not likely to affect its standing in the truck world much. After all, most trucks are barely used as trucks let alone as off-road trucks. Dodge focused on making the Dakota as appealing to the average commuter as much as it did the weekend warrior. It's more comfortable inside, quieter and delivers the kind of ride you could live with everyday. Throw in a Hemi and some decent plastics and it would be game over, but as it is, the 2005 Dodge Dakota is going to be hard-pressed to defend itself against much improved trucks like the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier.
System Score: 6.0
Components: The Dakota offers an available audio upgrade in the form of a six-speaker Infinity sound system with a total of 276 watts of power. The speaker setup consists of tweeters in the A-pillars and full-range drivers in each of the four doors. The head unit is new and features a much better control layout than the previous Chrysler corporate head unit. Sirius Satellite Radio is also an available option.
Performance: While we appreciate the much improved layout of this system's controls, its performance isn't quite so impressive. It has enough power to deliver plenty of sound, but the lack of a distinct soundstage and distortion at higher levels relegates it to average status. Lows come through with a muddy, hollow sound that makes it sound like the speakers are mounted in cardboard boxes. Highs come through with adequate clarity thanks to well-placed tweeters, but there's not much sizzle to their performance, either. The overall sound comes across as flat with too much overbearing bass that drowns out vocals and leaves anything else lost in the background. It's as if the system is perpetually set to "Rock" with nothing in between. It's definitely better than your average truck system, but not by much.
Best Feature: Simple, well-spaced controls that require minimal study to master.
Worst Feature: Overly pumped-up bass that drowns out everything else.
Conclusion: A good system if your CD collection consists of nothing but Linkin Park and some old Zeppelin CDs; just don't expect to hear anything more than tons of bass and thin vocals. — Ed Hellwig
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
With three redesigned compact trucks coming for 2005, there will be lots of spotlight sharing this year. Of course the Dakota will try to break out from the pack by offering the same features it has in the past: an available V8, class-leading towing capacity and class-leading cargo/passenger space. And while the truck may be "all-new" in terms of design, I found its driving characteristics to be almost exactly what I remembered from the previous version. The V8 engine has impressive torque, but acceleration doesn't feel substantially stronger than the new Frontier and Tacoma. The steering and ride quality are pleasant (for a compact truck), but so is the Toyota's (the Frontier isn't quite up to the standards set by Toyota and Dodge in this segment).
What I found somewhat disappointing about the Dakota is that it's no longer the clear leader in this category. Toyota and Nissan are getting amazing horsepower numbers out of their V6s, and both companies have bumped up the size of their trucks as well. All of them could use an interior upgrade, though I think Toyota now has Dodge beat in this area. Basically, it seems like the new Dakota improved by 5 percent while the Frontier and Tacoma jumped up about 15 to 20 percent. At the very least, that makes the 2005 "best compact truck" competition a much tighter horse race than it used to be .
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
I wrote about the Chevrolet Colorado not too long ago and said its hold as the top dog in the compact truck class was tenuous at best. I felt it beat the competition out due to some nice safety features and everyday drivability compared to its aging competitors, but believed its shortcomings would be easy pickings for the new compact coming from Dodge, Honda and Toyota. Well, this Dakota makes those shortcomings very apparent. While I prefer the softer looks of the previous generation of Dakota, our tester certainly struck a chord with me with its aggressive 18-wheeler-styled grille and hood line and angular wheel wells. The sharp lines were a little too hard for me, but I would by no means call it ugly. I really liked the lines of the interior as well, but the abundance of cheap plastic hurt the Dakota. Just a slight upgrade would have been a major improvement. Despite its rugged looks, I thought the Dakota had an excellent carlike ride thanks to that all-new hydroformed boxed steel frame and coil-over front suspension. I was comfortable driving it for hours on end. Though the available engine was an older design, you can't beat the power of a V8. The 230 ponies were definitely there, but it didn't have the jump I'd like to feel. I'm sure the high-output version of that V8 would cure my ills. Overall, I felt the Dakota was a solid package as long as you can take its hard-edged looks.
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