RICHMOND

LAW ENFORCEMENT people like trucks. The trip here in the 1997 Dodge Dakota Club Cab SLT proved as much.

I was running along I-95 South. That road is a mess in the Washington area, where it's congested with urban and construction traffic. But farther south, where the speed limit of 55 mph gives way to a legal 65 mph, I-95 becomes a racetrack.

I clocked the median speed at 75 mph. Since I'm wary of going much faster or slower than the median speed that's about what I was doing, too. Whenever I'm doing the median speed in something like a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, I seem to attract police attention. There could be 15 vehicles ahead of me zooming along at 20 mph above the speed limit, but when I'm in fancy passenger-car metal, I often get some kind of a police escort.

I thought it was a racial thing, being black and all. But after driving the new Dakota, I'm convinced that race had nothing to do with it. Instead, it was a matter of class.

Police people are largely blue-collar, literally and figuratively. They go after fancy-car drivers, black or white, even if those drivers gently trip over posted speed limits.

But trucks, especially pretty trucks like the new Dakota, are something else. Cop after cop zoomed past me in the Dakota in pursuit of folks, white and black, in sports coupes and luxcars.

When flashing lights finally appeared behind the Dakota they turned out to mean something different. The cop, a white fellow, pulled up alongside me and shouted through an open window: "Is that the '97?"

"Yes, sir!," I said, relieved.

"Nice truck," the cop said before speeding away.

Background: The Dakota proves beyond a reasonable doubt that, when it comes to everyday metal, no one makes prettier cars and trucks than Chrysler Corp.

People at rest stops and on city streets crowded around the new Dakota, the latest progeny of a compact pickup truck line that began in model-year 1987. Virtually everyone praised the Dakota's exterior styling, which copies the sheet metal of the full-size Dodge Ram pickups. And the few who got to open the doors and look inside the tan-and-brown club cabin of the test truck were wowed by its simple, functional beauty, including the neatly crafted bench seat in the cabin's rear.

There were even cup holders in the rear, which impressed some observers as much as comments about the new Dakota's ride and handling. Said one man, "You'd expect that any vehicle nowadays would at least have decent ride and handling. It's how it hangs together that counts."

The new Dakota hangs together quite well -- much to the chagrin of Chrysler Corp.'s competitors, who can expect to lose some sales to this one.

The test truck was a rear-wheel-drive version. Four-wheel-drive Dakotas are available. Body configurations include regular cab and club (extended) cab, with cargo boxes ranging from 6.5 to eight feet.

Available engines include a 120-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline four-cylind er; a 175-horsepower, 3.9-liter V-6; and a 230-horsepower, 5.2-liter V-8.

The tested Dakota Club Cab SLT came with the 3.9-liter Magnum V-6, which reaches 175 horsepower at 4,800 rpm. Engine torque is rated 225 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm.

Standard brakes include vented front discs/rear drums with anti-lock assist in the rear. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic with overdrive is optional.

Dual front air bags are also standard on the new Dakotas, which are available in Base, Sport and SLT decorative trim.

Complaints: Clunky hazard-light switch placement atop the steering column, which forces the driver to reach through or over the steering wheel to activate the switch.

Also, for shorter drivers, the side view mirrors obstruct forward vision when, say, trying to get into a tight parking space.

Praise: Overall superior redesign of a compact pickup that already was a darn decent truck.

Head-turning quotie t: Neck- snapper supreme. Another winner from the Chrysler School of Design.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. Excellent braking. No complaints.

Mileage: In the tested two-wheel-drive automatic Dakota SLT, about 19 miles per gallon (standard 15-gallon fuel tank, estimated range of 280 miles on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), running mostly highway with three occupants and light cargo.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette factory-installed by Chrysler. Very good.

Price: Estimated base price on the 1997 Dakota SLT two-wheel-drive is $16,500. Estimated dealer invoice is $15,000. Estimated price as tested is $17,992, including $987 in options and a $505 destination charge. Please note that these are preliminary 1997 estimates that most likely will change.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Chevrolet/GMC S-series pickups, Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma, and Nissan and Mitsubishi pickups.