Formerly a modest, utilitarian midsize pickup, Dodge Dakota has grown into a pretty formidable truck. Dakota now sports aggressive big-rig styling lifted from the full-size Ram, and it's just a smidge smaller than full- size. It can be ordered with a choice of several beefy V-8 engines, just like the big boys. The four-wheel-drive Quad Cab Laramie that I drove is the top-drawer model, a pricey number that was optioned up to its door handles with features. Most notable among the options was a high-output 4.7-liter V-8 good for 260 horsepower and 310 pound-feet torque, a powerful standout in this mid-size range. There was also an off-roading package with a bunch of critical pieces, such as full skid plates, heavy-duty shocks, all-terrain tires, antilock brakes and some heavy-duty cooling components. Just the stuff for hitting boulder-strewn Arizona trails, and a bargain at $555. Last year, I drove a toned-down version of this truck, a two-wheel-drive Laramie with Club Cab, and I was anxious to feel the difference in performance and capability. The extra V-8 muscle was certainly apparent, even with the extra heft of the bigger cab and four-wheel drive, but gas mileage stayed below 14 mpg in a mix of city and freeway driving, according to the on-board computer. There's no doubt Dakota holds its own niche among pickup trucks. The bigger question here is whether Dakota is a reasonable compromise between full-size and compact trucks or whether it lacks the benefits of either: big-truck ruggedness and roominess or small-truck economy and maneuverability. PERFORMANCE: The high-output V-8 cranks out loads of torque, with plenty of power for brisk acceleration and hill climbing. It also lets out a gutsy roar whenever you get on the throttle, which could excite some drivers, though I found it tedious. Towing capacity is a significant 6,850 pounds. The automatic transmission is unacceptably clunky, even for a truck. I thought there was something wrong with it until I read other reviewers who had the same reaction that I had. Upshifts are jarring and downshifts happen with an audible "thunk." Not good.

DRIVABILITY: Driving around Phoenix, the Dakota felt as you'd expect, like a big, beefy truck with dicey handling and a squirrely ride on rough pavement. But out on the highway, Dakota settles down to a fairly refined cruising attitude. Where Dakota really shone was on some twisting, rocky trails in the nearby Bradshaw Mountains, handling nicely and feeling well-sorted for all-terrain duty.

STYLING: The big cross-hair grille, which started out with the Ram pickup, has become a stable of Dodge cars and trucks, giving them a brawny look. Though I'm not crazy about the four-door crew-cab look on any pickup, I can't fault the versatility. The extra cab space comes directly out of the bed length, which is less than 6 feet. INTERIOR:

The Quad Cab comes either as a six-seater with a front bench seat or as a five-seater with front buckets, like the test truck. Quite roomy up front, although rear passengers could feel cramped for legroom. The cabin has a nice, airy feel, with good-looking and functional dashboard and, at least in the Laramie, high-quality materials. Side air bags were notably absent.

BOTTOM LINE: With a nearly $30,000 base price, or $35,000 as tested, the Dakota Quad Cab Laramie is a pricey truck. But there is a lot of substance. You just have to balance the style and performance with the entry fee and the high price of gas.

Dodge Dakota Quad Cab Laramie

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door pickup, four-wheel drive. Engine: 4.7-liter V-8, 260 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 310 pound-feet torque at 3,600 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 131.3 inches. Overall length: 218.8 inches. Curb weight: 4,690 pounds. Towing capacity: 6,850 pounds. EPA rating: 14 city, 18 highway.

Highs: Strong engine, interior space, rugged styling. Lows: Clunky transmission, dicey handling, paltry fuel mileage.

Pricing

Base price: $29,790. Price as tested: $35,215.

SELECTED OPTIONS -- High-output V-8, anti-spin differential, shift-on-fly transfer case, $1,615. -- Sunroof, $850. -- Off-road group, including heavy-duty shocks, all-terrain tires, aluminum wheels, skid plates, heavy-duty cooling, anti-lock brakes, $555. -- Full-time four-wheel, $395. -- Heated front seats, $250. -- Box bedliner, $245. -- Shipping, $645.