Never mind the new look if you don't care for it. The 2008 Dodge Dakota has a V8. We've been told our entire lives it's what's inside that counts.

Longtime Dodge fans, repeat this adage above so as not to miss what the new Dakota can do. With a 31 percent increase in horsepower and a 13 percent increase in torque, it's still the only vehicle offering an eight cylinder engine in the compact/mid-size truck segment. So yes, the looks could grow on you.

The Dakota also offers the largest crew and extended cabs, 6-foot-6-inches of bed, plus a towing capacity of 7,050 pounds. This beats the closest competitors by several inches to over 500-pounds (Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier can each tow up to 6,500-pounds when properly equipped).

But I'm just buttering loyalists up so as not to take offence the squared face-lift of the Dakota reflects a desire to capture new, or younger group of Dodge fans that might look elsewhere for a compact vehicle able to meet their active, outdoor needs. It's a crowd that is attracted to the fresh look of the Nitro. Dodge's words, not mine.

Business Week voted the Dakota America's Best Small Pickup for 2008, but it hasn't won any additional automotive beauty pageants for its bold changes; just in-house accolades from its creator for having the best standard payload in its class.

Also expect interior upgrades for the 2008 model, including a new instrument panel, center console, and the much talked about, and very cool, Crate 'N Go removable storage option under the rear seats.

I tested a 2008 Dodge Dakota TRX4 with an Extended Cab and the 302-horsepower 4.7-liter V8 with 329 lb-ft of torque. Make no mistake the efficient small pickup is a diminishing breed with the Dakota's 14- city/19-highway driving. It has FFV (Fuel Flexible Vehicle) and ethanol (E85) options, but that isn't much of a carbon-neutral plug anymore.

Gas stats are roughly what you'll find with the Nissan Frontier's 261-horsepower 4.0-liter V6. Having just previously tested the Frontier, it was on my mind to carefully compare it with the Dakota.

The Frontier's comfortable second row seating, 6.1-feet bed length (with a factory spray-in bed liner), and responsive acceleration had dazzled me. Would I feel the Dakota, at a total vehicle price of $32,510, would be a better buy than the Frontier's cost of $31,660?

I gave the Dakota a fair chance to pull ahead by testing it in the snowy mountains of the Tahoe Sierras.

The Dakota is built on a fully boxed ladder-type frame created for a smoother, quieter ride. Combined with the independent front suspension and coil-over shock absorbers, the ride does give the Dakota a carlike feel, but the live rear axle does causes jounce over rough terrain, especially on the pock-ridden Highway 80 that sees its fair share of tire-chain abuse.

The Dakota had available 4-wheel anti-lock brakes with brake assist plus a mechanical rear locking differential. When the truck hit black ice, the Dakota quickly corrected itself before any real loss of vehicle control was detected. And unlike the Frontier, the Dakota's rack-and-pinion steering was smooth and with an infinitely better turning radius. It was a relief to have that kind of control and navigation for expected (and unexpected) turns and tight spaces.

A part-time electronic shift-on-the-fly transfer case came standard on my Dakota, but a full-time transfer case is offered. The available Multi-Speed Overdrive Automatic transmission is a 5-speed automatic with a slightly bigger axle ratio of 3.92 for off-road adventure and price tag of $1,210. There is also the standard 6-speed manual and available 4-speed automatic with the V6. The standard 3.7-liter Magnum V6 itself offers 210-horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque with a gas estimation of 15-city/20-highway.

But I thought I was missing something when I pushed the acceleration to its limits: I wasn't feeling an extraordinary amount of surging V8 power. It was consistent up steep and long grades with slightly noticeable shifting from the Multi-Speed Overdrive transmission, but the Nissan's V6, and the V6s of many other compact trucks and SUVs, had netted the same response and delivery. It's moment to shine fell a little flat climbing hills.

For off-road capability, the standard part-time 4-wheel drive on my model had 4LOCK and 4LO modes. If under a full-time transfer case, four positions are available. The TRX4 Off-Road Group features with the Multi-Speed automatic transmission (but at that extra cost), 16-inch cast aluminum wheels with standard P265/70R16 OWL On-/Off-Road tires, front and rear rubber floor mats, and of courses, the fancy decals. An under-the-rail box bedliner is an additional $245.

Although sufficient on snow and easy to use, I felt the off-road package lacked real dazzle. With the V8, the computer read an average approximation of 16.5-mpg during my trip.

The Dakota still offers two body styles, the Extended Cab and Crew Cab; no regular cab is becoming commonplace with this segment. There are 6 trim levels to choose: ST, SXT, SLT, TRX4, Sport and Laramie.

Cruise controls are at the wheel, along with hidden audio system switches located behind instead of in front. The white-faced electroluminescent gauges turn blue at night. There are no automatic headlights lights, but there is an overhead trip computer with a compass and outside thermometer.

My ride did not have Dodge's MyGIG navigation system with the 20-gigabyte hard drive, but it did have the Premium Sound Group for $1,010 that included a 6-disc DVD/MP3 player, remote start system, 6 Alpine speakers, and the steering wheel mounted controls.

Overall, the interior isn't fussy or busy, which is nice. It took awhile to get comfortable with the driver's 6-way power seating, but I found the front row rather roomy. You won't feel like you are sitting in a compact truck, and that's a bonus for compact truck enthusiasts.

But forget about seating anyone comfortably in the Extended Cab jump seats. You'll be lucky if the dog doesn't complain about feeling cramped. But Extended Cab is as Extended Cab does, and it has its highlights - one of them being the 170-degree swing on the rear access doors. Fold up the jump seats for 30 cubic feet of storage space with a total of six storage hooks on the rear interior panel.

The Extended Cab I had came with the available 40/40 rear-folding seats, while Crew Cab models have a standard 60/40 split-folding rear seat. The Extended Cab has earned five-star safety ratings in both front and side impact testing by the federal government (NHTSA).

I had to image what the Crew Cab with the four full-size doors might feel like with leg space of 37.1 cubic feet, the roomiest in its class. I also had to image what the new Crate 'N Go system was like. This collapsible and removable cargo management system allows gear to be packed and lifted out of the back.

As far as other general storage options for all models, there is a storage bin is located above the glove box and the new center console has a pull-out bin specifically designed to hold electronics such as an MP3 player, cell phone or Personal Digital Assistant.

The bed has two built-in utility rails on the sides. Sure, they are infinitely adjustable as advertised, but the four plastic cleats for tying down cargo were minuscule in both size and quality. The Frontier offers four large stainless-steel cleats for their system, plus there are two more rails located on the floor. A third side rail located directly behind the Dakota cab would have been useful for securing gear better.

The Dakota doesn't have a spray-on bedliner. The test truck had a drop-in plastic box protector. Its two-position tailgate can be secured half or all the way down.

For extras, it did have a very nice MOPAR chrome tubular side step at $525. Additional MOPAR accessories include fiberglass tonneau cover, 18-inch aluminum wheels, hood scoop, bed extender, chrome front air deflector, and fuel filler door. My model also came with the Trailer Tow Group for $345, including fold away mirrors, a hitch, and a wiring harness.

Facelifts are a common procedure celebrities undertake to remain young and fresh in a competitive field. With sales down for nearly all small pickup manufacturers, Dodge needed to rework the interior, exterior, and powertrain components in hopes to stand out as the most attractive and capable, yet still most efficient choice for compact truck drivers. Not an easy roll to fill.

A vehicle like the Dodge Dakota and Nissan Frontier stand together but separate on the big car lot stage, waiting to be picked for the part of your active lifestyle. A V8 or V6? A spacious Frontier Crew Cab with a bed space of 6.1 feet, or Dodge's 6.6 feet but under an Extended Cab?

Although the Dakota has an obvious edge with the V8 offering, fingers point to the Nissan Frontier for all-around small truck satisfaction in this comparison.

If the Dakota I had driven came with more upgrades, maybe my opinion would change, but the point being made is when compared to a similar vehicle with the same price and attributes, the Dakota lacks that certain star quality.