The Dakota looks big. Completely redesigned for 2005, it's larger than before and looks almost as big and tough as the full-size Dodge Ram. With sales of basic small trucks in steady decline, the market is headed toward bigger, more powerful, better-equipped pickups. (If you want a small, basic truck, you have a choice between the Ford Ranger and used pickups.)
The current Dakota is substantially longer than the previous-generation (pre-2005) version, with styling that mirrors the recently redesigned Durango SUV. Getting in is easy, and the redesigned interior is comfortable and convenient with controls that are easy to reach and operate. The Club Cab version of the Dakota achieved a five-star safety rating in frontal and side-impact crash tests conducted by the federal government.
For 2006, the rear doors on Club Cabs have been redesigned to open wider. Otherwise, changes between 2005 and 2006 are limited to packaging: A new sunroof and new sound systems are options for 2006 Club Cab models. An auxiliary audio jack has been added to allow playback from personal audio devices, such as an iPod. Sirius Satellite Radio now comes standard on 2006 Laramie models. Special-edition packages have been added to personalize your 2006 Dakota.
If you want a pickup that's big and brawny, but not as big as a full-size, you should visit your local Dodge dealer. Dakota is available with a choice of V6 and V8 engines. Underway, the Dakota is smooth and quiet. The optional 4.7-liter V8 burbles subtly in the background when cruising, but really scoots when the throttle is mashed. Yet its fuel economy is rated within 1 mpg of the standard V6's. The steering is light for easy maneuverability in crowded parking lots and the Dakota responds quickly on mountain roads and tracks nice and straight on the highway.
Dodge Dakota ST Club Cab 2WD V6 ($19,785); 4WD ($22,635); ST Quad Cab 2WD ($21,185); 4WD ($24,035); SLT Club Cab 2WD ($21,540); 4WD ($24,390); Quad Cab 2WD ($22,940); 4WD ($25,790); Laramie Club Cab 2WD ($24,750); 4WD ($27,600); Laramie Quad Cab 2WD ($26,240); 4WD ($29,090)
The new size came with a new look, with sharper edges on the grille, roof, fenders, doors and bed; and fender lines deliberately extended halfway along the length of the door. The Dakota retains its family resemblance to the Dodge Ram and Durango, though it looks crisper and the grille is laid back, not vertical. The intersection of the front fenders with the multi-element, twin-lens headlamps and raked chrome grille makes the whole design work beautifully.
The frame, completely new for 2005, is eight times as strong in twist resistance and twice as strong in bending resistance as the old frame (which dated from 1997). Dakota's frame is shared in part with the Durango SUV.
A coil-over-shock independent front suspension is used on both 2WD and 4WD models, with conventional leaf springs at the rear. All models come with front and rear tow hooks and tie-downs in the bed.
The driver's seat looked good and felt good with its upper and lower support wings and good padding where it counts. Interior room, even for tall drivers is excellent.
Club Cabs have auxiliary rear doors that swing open nearly 180 degrees.
Quad Cabs feature four huge doors; the rear doors open out to nearly 90 degrees, so ingress and egress are very good. Quad Cab interiors are roomy. By making the Dakota larger, Dodge expanded the Quad Cab interior to nearly 56 cubic feet. The rear seats are deliberately stepped up on their bases so that rear-seat occupants can see out more easily, and they are split into 40/20/40 folding sections with two rear cupholders. Rear-seat room is generous for family use, with 33 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat. A center console and lots of cubbyholes provide space to stash stuff.
The Dakota drives bigger than it looks, with a hefty, Ram-like way about it, a nicely muscular street swagger.
The V8 is worth every penny. The V6 feels a bit light on power for this big, heavy pickup and it doesn't offer a big fuel economy advantage.
The 3.7-liter V6 is rated 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. The 4.7-liter V8 generates 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. The 4.7-liter High Output V8 is rated 260 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, thanks to higher compression and more aggressive valve timing. Fuel economy differences between the V6 and V8 are not great when four-wheel drive and automatic transmissions are involved. A V6 4WD automatic is rated 15/19 mpg City/Highway by the EPA; a V8 4WD automatic rates 14/19. Most frugal is a V6 2WD with manual transmission.
Our Quad Cab with the standard 4.7-liter accelerated with uncommon vigor and a wonderful exhaust note. At highway speeds it settled down to a nice background burble in overdrive fifth gear. Its strong torque means plenty of low-down grunt for pulling payloads of up to 1,800 pounds or towing up to 7,150 pounds.
The transmission has perfectly spaced ratios for trucking, and worked without complaint, roughness or harshness, even in high-rpm full-throttle upshifts. With only two occupants and no load, it really scoots from the stoplight despite the nearly 4800-pound weight of the Quad Cab 4X4. For towing, there's a Tow/Haul setting that alters the shift pattern of the automatic transmission.
Dakota's rack-and-pinion power steering is a bit over-assisted for our taste, but the chunky steering wheel feels great in the hands. The truck tracks extremely well, responds quickly to inputs, and stays hunkered down during mountain road playtime. Its 265/70R16 B.F. Goodrich Wrangler tires gripped corners yet were quiet at highway speeds, adding a measure of plushness to the ride quality that we really appreciated. We liked the ride and handling, though like all pickup trucks it can get choppy over small, high-intensity bumps and ruts.
The Dakota comes with rear-wheel anti-lock brakes as standard safety equipment, but four-wheel ABS disc/drum brakes are optional. We deliberately tried the rear ABS on a straight, flat, dry road for several maximum-g stops with no load and no passengers, and it worked well, keeping the unladen, light-in-the-rear pickup straight and coming to crisp stops four times in a row without locking the rear wheels.
The Dodge Dakota is on the large end of the mid-size pickups. Dakota is unique in its class, with its brawny style, generous size, powerful V8 engines for towing, and plenty of room for a typical family.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Jim McCraw is based in Dearborn, Michigan.