The biggest little truck on the planet.

by Don Fuller

The full-size Dodge Ram, introduced three years ago, brought big-rig styling and a host of innovative features and design details to the pickup truck market. For 1997 Dodge has applied the Ram look and feel to its mid-size pickup, the Dakota. We predict this almost-all-new Dakota will have a similarly resounding success.

Perhaps most important for many, the Dakota is a uniquely nifty size, bigger than compact pickups such as the Ford Ranger, Toyota Tacoma and Chevy Sonoma, yet smaller than the full-size models. Dodge calls the Dakota a compact, but there's nothing else quite like it. It's a little roomier than its smaller competition, but not as cumbersome around town as a full-size pickup.

The Dakota also offers a wide range of powerplants. At the bottom is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder -- 120 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque. Next up is an optional 3.9-liter V-6 that gives a very useful 175 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. It's the top choice for many buyers, particularly those whose lifestyles don't include trailer hitches.

At the top is a Dakota exclusive: an optional 5.2-liter V-8, easily the strongest engine available in any truck anywhere near the Dakota's size. With 220 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, it gives the Dakota a maximum towing capability of up to 6700 pounds, and an appetite for hard work you can't match without moving up a size class.

Walkaround

The new Dakota looks, and feels, like a slightly smaller Ram. Based on reactions from people on the streets and in the parking lots, we think it will be every bit as popular as its big brother. We like the rugged, no-nonsense look, and it seems a lot of other people do, too.

Like most pickups, the Dakota offers buyers a lot of choices. In addition to the three engine selections, there are: five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions, regular cab and the extended Club Cab, cargo box lengths of either 6.5 or eight feet, two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive and roughly 40 or so options (some of which, admittedly, can't be ordered together). There are three trim levels: base, without much glitz; Sport, with the body-color look; and SLT, fancier, and with more chrome.

Our subject vehicle was a very nicely equipped -- make that loaded -- Club Cab 4X4 Sport with the 5.2-liter V-8 and automatic transmission. The base price on the window sticker was $19,690, but by the time the good people on the assembly line were finished welding and bolting this particular Dakota together, the bottom line read $26,753, and that included the "Dodge Discount" of $1000. There were still a few more things that could have been added, but not much we needed; check the specification box for details.

As you would expect, the performance and pulling power of the V-8 is several steps above that of most competing V-6 engines. The Dakota isn't particularly fast (even empty, ours weighed over two tons), but it's capable of dealing with serious loads, whether those loads are in the cargo bed, hooked onto the trailer hitch, or both.

We also noticed a pleasantly high level of quality. Things were screwed together tight and snug, the doors and tailgate shut with an authoritative slam and nothing creaked or rattled. That couldn't really be said for the previous Dakota.

The Inside Story

It took only five minutes inside our tester to understand why people like the Dodge approach to truck building. It's roomy, comfortable and full of the kinds of features, big and small, that can ease getting down the road.

Our Dakota had the optional front bucket seats, but the standard seat is a bench, split into three parts on a 40/20/40 basis. The center portion (of the standard bench) has a folding back that also serves as a center armrest and includes a quite large, multi-function storage console. With the bucket seats, there's a huge center console that's subdivided for tissue paper, maps and cassettes or CDs. And for us, the front bucket seats were comfortable and offered good lumbar support.

Some other neat touches: three cupholders in the forward portion of the center console, in three sizes, for a two-liter bottle, 20-ounce bottle and soft-drink can -- just right for Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. In the Club Cab, the rear seat cushions are split 60/40, to allow carrying combinations of additional people or cargo. The rear cushions fold up, revealing a flat floor so your suitcase or toolbox will stay upright.

Under those rear seat cushions are two storage compartments; one houses the jack and tools and provides a little storage space, the other is a fairly generous storage bin. In addition to the front cupholders, there are cupholders in the quarter panels for the rear-seat passengers. Order the automatic transmission and the place where the manual transmission lever would poke through the floor becomes yet another little tray for loose odds and ends.

But there were some little things we thought our Dakota lacked. For example, no visor vanity mirror -- maybe somebody at Dodge figured truck passengers don't do makeup on the way to the Tex-Mex restaurant. The headrests are non-adjustable, a real comfort issue.

The passenger seat doesn't fully recline. Fold the front seats forward to allow access to the rear, and there is no memory feature to allow the front seats to be easily returned to their former position. No grab handle above the passenger door to ease climbing in.

Something else that's missing is the option of a third door, to make access to the rear easier. The Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma are the only trucks in this general class that offer this option, but we expect to see it on the next Ranger, due later this year.

Back on the positive side, there's a must-have feature for trailer-towers: the optional 6x9-inch mirrors are the biggest we've ever seen outside a truck stop, provide a big boost in rearward vision, and cost only $160.

You can't reasonably expect an extended cab pickup to offer stretch-out room for rear-seat passengers. But the Dakota Club Cab is wide enough for three adults, and with cooperation from those in front, the three in back should find the trip livable at least to the football stadium parking lot.

Ride & Drive

Trucks keep getting better in ride quality, but they're still trucks. Unloaded, there's little chance the Dakota will make you think you're in a sedan. But like most pickups, the ride gets better with a load in back.

Other aspects of comfort, like the decent seats and loads of front seat room, make the Dakota just fine for all-around driving.

We think the Dakota's handling will feel pleasantly surprising, especially to those familiar with bigger pickups. It has relentless straight-ahead stability, yet it works well when the pavement takes a few turns, as well. One important day-in, day-out aspect of handling is nimbleness, the ability to deal with tight spaces and crowded conditions. Here, too, the Dakota will be appreciated, where its tidier size allows it to fit easily through traffic and into that last available spot in front of the grocery store.

In short, as with several other characteristics important to truck buyers, the Dakota's just-right size seems to give it several advantages with few apparent shortcomings.

Final Word

Some truck buyers have been stuck in a quandary: don't need that big honkin' full-size pickup, but the next size down doesn't meet the power requirement to tow the boat to the lake.

Like no other truck on the planet, the Dakota fills that niche perfectly. If you need to tow or haul something bigger than the Dakota will handle, then face it: you need a full-size pickup. If you don't contemplate heavy loads, one of the other compacts might do just fine. But if you have needs that are somewhere in that great middle ground, there's nothing else available that will do the job like the Dodge Dakota.

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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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