If any large, gas-guzzling vehicle has flown beneath the environmental and safety radar in this country, it is the pickup truck.

Unlike the SUV -- often perceived as a waste of space and fuel and a perilous road beast -- the pickup truck is seen as utilitarian and necessary. And, frankly, pickup truck drivers don't generally drive like yahoos the way many SUV operators do.

Yet trucks are now offered in as wide a variety as any SUV, from small econo-haulers to Hemi-powered monsters perched atop huge, gouging tires.

Today's test truck, the 2006 Dodge Dakota Quad Cab Laramie, is a niche truck parked within a niche.

Billed as mid-size, it is also quietly promoted as the biggest of the mid-sizes. And it is. Plus, it comes with an optional 4.7-liter V-8 engine -- a big truck in a small package.

Inside, the Dakota feels bigger than its competitors. And access is easy from any point to any seat.

It features the gaping grille of the bigger Ram pickup. It may sit lower, but it still looks imposing. Add its four big doors (four doors being a must for pickups these days) and, unless you saw it beside a Ram on the highway, you'd just assume, ''There's another big Dodge."

And like virtually all of today's trucks, the Laramie is meant to serve, when needed, as a family vehicle capable of comfortable travel.

The Dakota Quad Cab Laramie comes with a standard 40/20/40 split front bench seat and a 40/60 split rear. This means that a family of six could ride in this rig, with gear stored in the bed.

The test truck, however, came with an optional bucket seat arrangement up front that featured leather trim (driver's seat a six-way power unit), power windows, power locks, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, a year of free Sirius Satellite Radio, and a six-speaker sound system.

The news on safety features is good and bad. True, it has multistage front air bags. Side curtain bags for front and rear are options. ABS is standard only for rear brakes. If you want it up front, you pay more. Stability/traction control, the life-saving benefits of which have been convincingly documented, is unavailable.

Inside, the Dakota feels bigger than its competitors from Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, or Nissan. Headroom is ample front and rear, and access, with the expanded rear doors, is easy from any point to any seat.

The base Dakota comes with a standard 3.6-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual transmission. The test truck had a 4.7-liter V-8 with a towing capacity that, Dodge says, tops 7,000 pounds. That's pretty good tug for a ''mid-size" truck.

It also had an optional five-speed automatic whose smoothness in shifting, coupled with its hefty engine, would make it an almost ideal vehicle for any potential trucker whose needs require strength, but not necessarily the bulk of larger trucks such as the Ram series.

On the road, the V-8's roar was absolutely guttural as it pushed more than two tons of truck ahead in the passing lanes as though it were a fleet-footed sprinter. The suspension was distinctly truckish, prone to some roll in corners or lane merges, the live rear axle given to hopping on rougher roads. Loaded up, it would probably be far calmer. Steering was nicely light at slow speeds and in big parking lots, where maneuverability is a must. It felt confidently heavier at higher speeds, with excellent wheel-to-steering-wheel feedback.

Our base price of almost $27,000 was boosted to just over $29,000 by opting for the automatic transmission, bigger engine, and power sunroof.

You'd also pay more (probably a couple of thousand dollars more) if you went for full-time all-wheel-drive as opposed to the rear-wheel-drive test model we drove.