EXPERT REVIEW

Our view: 1998 Dodge Dakota

And now, for a bit of Geezerspeak:

When I was a kid, we confounded young smarties showed our individuality by customizing passenger cars.

But today, the customizing urge is more likely to manifest itself on pickup trucks. The process usually results in a lower, sportier vehicle bedecked with plastic front spoilers, wild wheels, and low-profile tires.

Beginning with Ford’s limited-production Lightning pickup several years ago, the domestic automakers have been amending the custom truck formula to include sporty performance as well as sporty appearance. The result is what you might call the factory sport pickup.

The latest addition to the factory sport pickup stable is the Dodge Dakota R/T.

The Dakota is a rather special pickup in its most mundane form simply because of its size. The rest of the pickups in the marketplace are full-size or compact. The Dakota is a cross between the two that Dodge calls a “midsize.” So, when you make a sport truck out of it, you have a rare bird, indeed.

The R/T treatment also converts the Dakota into a great-looking stoplight carnivore. It includes sporty styling touches, a sport suspension, big tires, and a really big engine.

The R/T is powered by Dodge’s 5.9-liter V-8, a 250-horsepower behemoth that probably accounts for half of North America’s proven iron reserves every time Dodge casts one. This beastie boy transforms a workaday Dakota into one of the fastest pickups I’ve ever driven.

Zero to 60 is accomplished in a scant seven seconds, which is blinding for a pickup. The only thing faster that comes to mind is the Cyclone, a limited-production, turbocharged compact pickup that GMC built in the early ’90s. (That vehicle would get off the dime with a Corvette, and run up to 60 in about five seconds.)

Technically, that big Dodge V-8, and the beefed-up four-speed automatic transmission it requires, are prerequisites for the R/T package, not part of it. The engine is a $1,585 option; the gearbox, a $950 item. The R/T package itself is a $2,275 option that includes a limited-slip differential and a lowered, sport suspension equipped with stiffer springs and shock absorbers, and a heavy-duty rear stabilizer bar.

The R/T goodie bag also contains special badging and graphics, body-colored bumpers, speed control, tilt steering, high-back buckets, 17-inch alloy wheels, and low-profile tires.

In addition to its good looks and ability to fly at the speed of light, the R/T is a very nice-handling truck that stays flatter and markedly more composed in the corners than conventional pickups.

Obviously, a sport pickup such as this has a constituency. Obviously, there are a lot of people who like to blend the macho functionality of a pickup with the speed and agility of a high-performance automobile.

Personally. I’ve never quite gotten it. If I want sports-car performance, I’ll get a sports car. If I seek the services of a truck, I’ll bu y one. A compromise doesn’t really appeal to me. A nice-handling pickup still isn’t in a league with a sports car. You can tweak a pickup truck’s relatively primitive suspension until the cows come home, and you aren’t going to wind up with anything close to a Dodge Viper’s agility.

Although the R/T’s performance may not be a big turn-on for me, the Dakota’s styling is. The Dakota borrows its retro look from the full-size Dodge Ram pickup — and it is dynamite. I particularly like the front end, which evokes a Kenworth big rig.

The Dakota’s interior is also handsome business, not to mention quiet and functional. The instruments and controls are readily accessible, and the seats are comfortable.

The extended-cab model I tested also offered a rear bench seat. It was pretty cramped, but it sure beat those silly jump seats they use in the compacts.

DODGE DAKOTA R/T

Base vehicle: Rear-drive, 3.9-liter engine; five-speed manual transmission; variable-assi power steering; power disc/drum brakes; 15-inch steel wheels; P215/75R15 all-season radials; dual air bags; intermittent wipers; stereo/cassette; stainless steel exhaust system.

Test model: 5.9-liter engine; four-speed automatic transmission; R/T package (special badging and body graphics, limited-slip differential, sport suspension, body-colored bumpers, speed control, tilt steering, deluxe insulation, overhead console, high-back buckets, 17-inch alloy wheels, P265/55R15 tires, leather-wrapped steering wheel, wheel-opening flares, power door locks with keyless entry, power windows, power mirrors, air conditioning, sliding rear window, upgraded sound system).

Base price: $16,455

Test model: $23,700 (inc. shipping)

EPA city rating: 13

Test mileage: 15

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