The Dodge Dakota of the late ’90s was one of the early midsize pickup trucks on the market. It was ahead of its time in that regard, as most other once-small pickups have since grown to match the Dakota’s size.
Dodge’s revisions to the Dakota for 2008 fall short of a full redesign, but the changes do add a little life to the truck (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model). While its updated styling should enhance its appeal, and its base engine delivers acceptable performance, the Dakota’s stiff ride may be an unappreciated surprise to first-time truck buyers.
The Dakota’s overall shape is largely the same as it was before, but the front is more streamlined thanks to a new hood, headlights and fenders. It also manages to be more aggressive than the previous design’s wide-eyed look, which is always good in the truck market. An oversized version of Dodge’s crosshair grille dominates the front. The overall appearance is less about toughness and more about street style. The optional 18-inch chrome wheels help in this regard.
This won’t surprise anyone, but the Dakota’s forte isn’t in the ride and handling department. It can get jostling at times, and there’s some slight cab shudder on rough roads, but overall it’s not excessive for a truck.
The Dakota steers with light effort thanks to the highly boosted steering system. There’s not much feedback from the wheel, but it’s easy to hold your line on the highway.
The standard engine is a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 that produces 235 pounds-feet of torque. The Dakota is one of the few midsize trucks that offer V-8 power, and that V-8 gains 42 hp over the strongest version offered last year; it now has 302 hp and 329 pounds-feet of torque. V-6 Dakotas can have either a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission, but the V-8 is only available with a five-speed automatic. I tested a V-6 truck with the six-speed manual and four-wheel drive.
The V-6 and manual transmission make a nice pair in the Dakota. The V-6 provides decent power, and I didn’t find myself longing for the V-8 (I didn’t, however, haul a heavy load or trailer with the truck, which is when the extra grunt of a V-8 tends to shine). Over the course of one 20-mile drive that featured stop-and-go, highway and suburban driving, the truck averaged 16 mpg. At 70 mph, wind noise is a problem in this truck.
The six-speed manual has longish throws, and it requires a decent amount of effort to shift from gear to gear; it kind of feels like you’re moving a broomstick around in a bucket of cement. Though clutch pedal effort is rather heavy, it engages smoothly and is quickly mastered.
An antilock feature for the rear drum brakes is standard; ABS for all the wheels is optional. When stopping, the driver enjoys natural brake pedal effort that’s very progressive. Well done, Dodge.
My wife thought the cabin had a cheap appearance, though some might call it utilitarian. The dash is made of hard plastic, but it does have nice graining, and there’s a cubby on the passenger side of the dashboard for odds and ends. Other interior finishes are good in some respects, like the plastic trim on the A-pillar, and unremarkable in others, like the fuzzy headliner. Inexplicably, there’s no vanity mirror for the driver even though the front passenger gets one.
The manual air conditioning and stereo systems feature large knobs and buttons that should be well-suited for work-gloved hands. Storage spaces include large door pockets.
Two front-seat configurations are offered: bucket seats or a three-place bench that includes a flip-down center armrest. The split-bench seat provides good comfort. Upholstery choices include cloth, stain-resistant fabric and leather.
The extended cab Dakota has two small rear seats, but they’re only suitable for small children; our 5-foot-1 colleague climbed back there to test them out and reported that she didn’t have much room. The space is better used for storage, and the rear seats’ bottom cushions flip up easily to make space for belongings you need to store inside the cab. If you want to carry more than a couple full-size adults in this truck, including the driver, you’ll have to opt for a crew cab version.
Side curtain airbags are optional, and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for the front seats are not offered. A tire pressure monitoring system is standard. In the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset crash test, the Dakota received an Acceptable rating, the second-highest score.
Extended cab trucks come with a 6.4-foot cargo box, while the crew cab’s is about a foot shorter. The tailgate is a little heavy to close, and the bed is 17.6-inches deep, which is about the depth of the beds on competitors like the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma.
An optional utility-rail system includes cleats that can lock onto rails anywhere along the cargo box’s side walls. It’s not as advanced as the three-rail system Chevrolet offers for the Silverado, which has an additional rail along the front wall and cleats that have a quick-release pin lock; Dodge’s need to be screwed down using a knob.
Where the Dakota shines compared to its competition is in towing capacity; when properly equipped, a V-8 Dakota can tow up to 7,050 pounds, which easily surpasses the maximum trailer weights of the Frontier (6,500 pounds), Tacoma (6,500 pounds) and Ridgeline (5,000 pounds).
Extended cab Dakotas can have optional Full Swing rear-hinged half doors that open 170 degrees, making it easier to access the rear portion of the cabin in tight spaces.
Like other Chrysler products, the Dakota is available with the MyGIG entertainment and navigation system. MyGIG features a 20GB hard drive that can store songs uploaded from a CD or USB flash drive. The system can also display uploaded photos and play DVDs. When available, Sirius Satellite Radio can provide traffic information.
With models like the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma having grown in size over the years, and new trucks like the Honda Ridgeline hitting the scene, the Dakota no longer has the midsize truck segment all to itself. However, when you consider that recreational buyers who purchase midsize trucks are sensitive to gas-price swings and most consumers who need a truck choose full-size models, midsize trucks in general appear to be left searching for buyers in today’s market.