Getting in is easy, and the interior is comfortable and convenient, with controls that are easy to reach and operate. The rear doors on Club Cabs and Quad Cabs open wide, and the Quad Cab can accommodate six. The Club Cab has earned five-star safety ratings in both front and side impact testing by the federal government (NHTSA).
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. A high-output version with over 310 pound-feet of torque is available if that's not enough. Dakota's 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.
For 2007, the V8 is now flex-fuel capable, meaning it can run on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol. A dual-position tailgate is now standard on all models, maximizing versatility when hauling long building materials. One-touch lane-change signaling is available for those who like that feature. And a new power accessory delay allows the radio and other features to continue to operate for period of time after vehicle is keyed off.
New options include a remote starter, stain-resistant fabric; and 18-inch wheels.
If you want a pickup that's big and brawny, but not as big as a full-size, the Dodge Dakota is the biggest and the brawniest.
Dodge Dakota ST Club Cab 2WD V6 ($19,135); 4WD ($23,285); ST Quad Cab 2WD ($21,835); 4WD ($24,685); SLT Club Cab 2WD ($22,850); 4WD ($25,700); Quad Cab 2WD ($24,180); 4WD ($27,030); Laramie Club Cab 2WD ($24,950); 4WD ($27,905); Laramie Quad Cab 2WD ($26,250); 4WD ($29,205)
The Dakota shares its design with the full-size Dodge Ram and Durango SUV. All three share the retro big-rig grille motif and bulging fenders that have become trademarks of the Dodge Truck brand. Still, Dakota boasts sharper, crisper lines and flatter planes than its relatives; and its grille is laid back, not vertical. Front fender lines deliberately extended halfway along the length of the door. The intersection of the front fenders with the multi-element, twin-lens headlamps and raked chrome grille makes the whole design work beautifully. The current Durango looks a bit stubby in comparison.
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.
Black-on-white gauges are outlined with chrome rings, and the central speedometer is about twice as large as the other two gauges. The angular center stack houses the sound system, climate controls and vents. The thick four-spoke steering wheel features audio and cruise controls. Brushed metal accents brighten the cockpit, and the whole design works very well in terms of usability, convenience, and reach. The plastic materials look good but not great. Interior fits and finishes are good.
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, with over 102 cubic feet of passenger space. 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 37 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat. A center console and lots of cubbyholes provide space to stash stuff.
The optional V8 is worth every penny. In standard tune, the 4.7-liter V8 generates 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. And with 15/20 mpg in 2WD manual models, and 14/19 with 4WD and an automatic, there's almost no penalty in fuel economy. And in most states it now runs on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol (E85).
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 1,660 pounds or towing up to 7,150 pounds.
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 drops to 14/18 mpg either 2WD or 4WD.
The base 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. It's been upgraded for '07 with electronic throttle control and exhaust-gas recirculation. Fuel economy ratings range from 15/19 city/highway with automatic and 4WD to 16/22 with 2WD and the stick-shift.
The automatic 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw is based in Dearborn, Michigan.