It's also an easy truck to live with. Getting in is easy, and the interior is comfortable and convenient, with controls that are easy to reach and operate. The rear doors on Extended Cabs and Crew Cabs open wide, and the Crew Cab can accommodate six people. A new under-seat storage system for Crew Cabs provides useful cargo carrying capacity. The Extended 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 is improved for 2008, with more power and better fuel economy. It burbles subtly in the background when cruising, but really scoots when the throttle is mashed. It is also flex-fuel capable, meaning it can run on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol. 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.
For 2008, Dakota gets several significant changes: The 4.7-liter V8 is boosted to 302 horsepower (from 230). The former 260-hp high-output version is no longer available (for obvious reasons).
On the outside, the hood, grille, front fascia, headlights, fenders and rear spoiler have been modified for 2008, and built-in cargo box utility rails have been added. Inside, the instrument panel and center console are new for 2008, Dodge's MyGIG navigation system/radio is newly available with a 20-gigabyte hard drive, heated bench seats are offered, and the Crew Cab body style's rear seats get an underseat, collapsible storage system.
If you want a pickup that's big and brawny, but not as big as a full-size, the Dodge Dakota fits the bill.
Dodge Dakota ST Extended Cab 2WD ($19,435), 4WD ($23,685); ST Crew Cab 2WD ($22,135), 4WD ($25,085); SXT Extended Cab 2WD ($20,995), 4WD ($25,245); SXT Crew Cab 2WD ($23,640), 4WD ($26,590); SLT Extended Cab 2WD ($23,950), 4WD ($26,900); SLT Crew Cab 2WD ($26,170), 4WD ($29,120); TRX Extended Cab 2WD ($24,360); TRX Crew Cab 2WD ($26,550); TRX4 Extended Cab 4WD ($27,545); TRX4 Crew Cab 4WD ($29,745); Sport Extended Cab 2WD ($25,135), 4WD ($28,060); Sport Crew Cab 2WD ($26,565), 4WD ($29,475); Laramie Extended Cab 2WD ($26,745), 4WD ($29,725); and Laramie Crew Cab 2WD ($28,150), 4WD ($31,100)
The Dakota shares its styling themes 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. The front fender lines are deliberately extended halfway along the length of the door. The rear fenders reflect the fronts with bulges that extend all the way to the rear of the truck. The intersection of the front fenders with the multi-element, twin-lens headlamps and raked grille makes the whole design work beautifully.
Sport models have a body color grille and side trim, TRX models have black fender flares and body trim, and Laramies have chrome trim.
Added for 2008 are built-in utility rails for the cargo box that provide unlimited attachment points for tiedowns. Cargo box top protection is also newly available.
Visual changes for 2008 include a grille that is more integrated into the hood, which also has new character lines. The front fenders also now extend over the headlights and are trimmed with bright surrounds. The changes are subtle, but noticeable.
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 bright 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 is home to the cruise control buttons. Brushed metal accents brighten the cockpit, and the whole design works very well in terms of usability, convenience, and reach. The dash and console are dominated by plastic, however, showing the Dakota is built to a price. The materials look good but not great, and interior fit and finish is generally good.
The available MyGIG Infotainment System has an integrated navigation system and 20-gigabytes of hard drive space to hold music, pictures, and navigation map information. It has voice control, and the nav system has real-time traffic. Dodge says the hard drive will hold 1600 songs.
All but base ST Extended Cab models have auxiliary rear doors that swing open 170 degrees. The front doors must be open to open the rears. Crew Cabs feature four regular doors; the rear doors open out to nearly 90 degrees, so ingress and egress is quite easy.
Crew Cab interiors are roomy, with more than 102 cubic feet of passenger space. The rear seats are deliberately stepped up on their bases so rear-seat occupants can see out more easily, and they are split into 60/40 sections. Rear-seat room is generous for family use, with 37 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat.
New for 2008 is a handy under-seat storage system. It includes two milk crate-type bins that are collapsible and removable. Like the Chrysler minivans' new Swivel 'n Go seating system, this storage system is another example of Chrysler Corp. engineers developing a useful feature unique to the class.
The optional V8 is worth every penny, especially with the 2008 upgrade. Power is up this year to 302 horsepower, 31 percent better than last year's base V8, and torque has been increased to 329 pound-feet (a significant increase from the previous 290).
Fuel economy from the V8 is improved for 2008. Two-wheel-drive manual models get 16 mpg City and 22 Highway. Those numbers drop slightly to 15/21 with 4WD and an automatic. When compared to the standard 3.7-liter V6, there is almost no penalty in fuel economy. And in most states, it runs on gasoline or 85-percent ethanol (E85).
The Crew Cab accelerates with uncommon vigor and emits a wonderful exhaust note from its V8. At highway speeds it settles down to a nice background burble in overdrive fifth gear.
The 4.7-liter V8's strong torque means plenty of low-down grunt for pulling payloads of up to 1,520 pounds or towing up to 7,050 pounds.
The V6 feels a bit light on power for this big, heavy pickup. The 3.7-liter V6 is rated 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy ratings range from 15/19 mpg City/Highway with automatic and 4WD to 17/22 mpg with automatic and 2WD.
The automatic transmission has perfectly spaced ratios for trucking, and works without complaint, roughness or harshness, even in high-rpm full-throttle upshifts. With only two occupants and no load, the Dakota really scoots from a stoplight despite the 4800-pound weight of the Crew Cab 4x4. For towing, there's a Tow/Haul setting that alters the shift pattern of the automatic transmission.
We liked the ride and handling, though like all pickup trucks it can get choppy over small, high-intensity bumps and ruts, and it has more body lean than most any car. 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 Dakota tracks extremely well, responds quickly to inputs, and stays hunkered down when driving quickly on mountain roads. Its 265/70R16 tires gripped corners yet were quiet at highway speeds, adding a measure of plushness to the ride quality that we really appreciated.
The Dakota comes with rear-wheel anti-lock brakes as standard safety equipment, but four-wheel ABS disc/drum brakes are available. We deliberately tried the rear ABS on a straight, flat, dry road for several maximum-g stops with no load and no passengers; it worked well, keeping the unladen, light-in-the-rear pickup straight and bringing the truck to crisp stops four times in a row without locking the rear wheels.
The Dodge Dakota is unique among midsize pickups. Its large size and available rear seat storage system offer plenty of room and utility for a typical family, and its powerful V8 engine makes it quicker and gives it more towing capacity than most competitors. The availability of full-time four-wheel drive and Dodge's new hard drive radio are other plusses that make Dakota worth a look.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw contributed to this report from Dearborn, Michigan, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.