Bargains loom as the Dakota heads for big changes. by Mitch McCullough
At some point, the designers of the Dodge Dakota must have thought of the story of the three bears. It's smaller than a full-size pickup, a bit larger than a compact, designed for people who want the power, room and toughness of a full-size truck with the value, style and maneuverability of a compact.
The Dakota became the first mid-size pickup -- self-anointed -- when it was introduced as a 1987 model. It still holds that distinction today, though compact pickups -- Ford Rangers, GMC Sonomas and Chevrolet S-Series -- have gotten bigger.
Dodge is so bullish on its mid-size truck that it doesn't even sell a compact. That makes business sense, because sales of compact pickups have recently been declining. Compact pickups were bought by millions of baby boomers in the 1970s and 1980s, people who wanted the utility and image of a truck without the higher prices and bigger parking requirements of a full-sized model. Compact pickups in those days came with low prices and competed with subcompact sedans.
Nowadays the price of a loaded compact pickup puts it in the same territory as lower-priced sports cars, mini sport-utility vehicles and midsize sedans. Many compact trucks still have an attractive base price, but the average transaction prices are much higher. A modestly equipped compact pickup typically tops $15,000.
The higher prices have driven many of the new generation of entry-level buyers away. And the baby boomers are now older, raising families, making more money and are driving roomier, higher-priced sport utilities and luxury sedans. Auto makers blame the higher prices on increasing safety and emissions regulations. This has left manufacturers with three basic choices: wage the price war with stripper models devoid of profit, market loaded high-end trucks with strong image, or get out of the compact truck business.
Ford, Chevrolet and GMC are fighting in the trenches with their competitively priced compacts. Toyota has gone upscale with its sporty Tacoma 4wd trucks. Nissan's compact truck is showing its age, Mazda's B-Series trucks are Ford Rangers with a different front end, and Mitsubishi has given up on the segment.
The Dakota straddles the fence. It competes with the compacts in terms of price, while offering a little more size, as well as the only V-8 engine option south of a full-size truck. While a Dakota can be appealing to small businesses that don't need a full-size truck, most of them are bought for personal use. People use them to haul snowmobiles, personal water craft, surf boards. Or they buy the 4X4 Sport model and turn it into an image machine.
The Dakota has been around for nearly a decade now and its boxy styling is starting to show its mileage. Dodge will launch a totally redesigned Dakota this fall with new styling -- probably derived from the full-size Ram -- a new interior and significant changes to the powertrain.
Meanwhile, the current model still attracts attention. Young guys look at it and immediately start talking about lift kits and other modifications. They see it as a sport truck. Older buyers seem to like its no-nonsense looks, so Dodge managed to strike a good balance between these two groups.
Like the full-size trucks, the Dakota offers a vast range of drivetrains, cab configurations and bed lengths: There's two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, a choice of a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, 3.9-liter V-6 or 5.2-liter V-8, standard or regular cab, 6.5-foot short bed or 8-foot long bed. There are five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions, three rear-end ratios with or without limited-slip, three wheelbase lengths and three tire sizes.
We drove a regular cab 4X4 Sport model with the 5.2-liter Magnum V-8 engine, 4WD and a five-speed manual transmission. At the end of the test, we decided we might have equipped this truck differently had we ordered it for ourselves.
First, there's the engine choice.
Power has been increased by 20 percent on the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine for 1996 to 120 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque. This setup is best for those who don't need a lot of power and are looking for economy. All three of the Dodge engines burn regular 87 unleaded, but as you'd expect, the four-cylinder gets the best fuel economy -- 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway, according to the EPA. This compares with 17/23 for the V-6 (16/20 with the automatic transmission, 15/19 for 4WD), and 15/20 for the V-8 (14/18 with the automatic, 14/17 manual with 4WD, 13/17 automatic with 4WD).
Small businesses and buyers looking for light utility may be attracted by base prices ranging from $11,075-$13,170 for the four-cylinder model, available only with regular cab with two-wheel drive. Most are based on the 112-inch wheelbase, but a Work Special model is available in the 124-inch wheelbase.
The V-6 model strikes a balance between four-cylinder economy and V-8 muscle, with 175 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. It's a good compromise for buyers who need to haul heavier loads on a regular basis or those looking for a lower-priced 4X4 Sport model.
The V-8 produces 220 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, good for hauling heavy loads. A properly equipped Dakota offers a payload capacity of 2600 pounds and a towing capacity of 7100 pounds, and both are impressive numbers. We recommend ordering the automatic transmission with the V-8 engine, to help tame the beast.
The standard cab comes with a short box or a long box. The short box has a 111.9-inch wheelbase, while the long box has a 123.9-inch wheelbase. The Club Cab stretches to a 130.9-inch wheelbase. A longer wheelbase provides more stability and ride comfort, while a shorter wheelbase provides more maneuverability in tight places and better ground clearance over rough terrain.
The Inside Story
The first thing we noticed about the Dakota interior is that it looks like a 10-year-old design, a far cry from the beautifully designed Ram interior. The Dakota dash looks blocky and dated.
Once we got past the nostalgia, though, we realized the inside of a Dakota was not such a bad place to be. It's a comfortable, roomy truck and all controls are straightforward. The cup holder cannot be missed. Mounted in the center of the dash in front of the passenger, it pulls out to hold two cans of soda. While conveniently located, it's an unattractive piece that shouts plastic. And it looks fragile.
Our Dakota was a regular cab Sport model. The seatbacks do not flip forward to allow easy access to the small storage space behind the seats. This setup was inconvenient when two of us went to the mall and picked up some large items that would have blown out had we put them in the bed. The Club Cub version helps out considerably in this regard.
Ride & Drive
Our 4X4 Sport model rode and handled well and the 5.2-liter Magnum V-8 engine produced lots of power. The engine itself isn't the smoothest V-8 we've seen, but it sounds powerful and sure of itself. Our truck also had the five-speed manual transmission, and the V-8 delivered so much torque that it was a challenge to keep from spinning the rear tires, especially on wet pavement.
Throw in some tight, bumpy corners and the driver has to pay attention to keep the rear end from trying to pass the front, particularly a driver in a hurry. That's why we recommend matching the V-8 with the automatic transmission. A V-8-powered Dakota with an automatic provides the same payload as one with a manual transmission, so power loss is negligible and driveability is improved.
Those who opt for the four-cylinder engine, however, will find the automatic transmission soaks up more power than the five-speed gearbox, which shifts smoothly and precisely. The V-6 buyer could argue the merits of either transmission.
The on-demand 4WD system features shift-on-the-fly, eliminating the need to stop for snowstorms or muddy roads that may suddenly appear.
Overall, the Dodge Dakota is a good, competent truck. But it has the misfortune to belong to the same family as the Dodge Ram, which is a great truck. And with prices overlapping, we'd prefer a low-end Ram over a high-end Dakota. Or perhaps a competing compact.
On the other hand, Dakota transaction prices may be quite different from suggested retail prices. With a new Dakota due this fall, dealers are likely to be willing to bargain. The last time we checked, Dodge was offering cash rebates on these models.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.