Baby Bear says this one's just right. by Don Fuller
Base Price $13,285
As Tested $22,405
The full-size Dodge Ram brought big-rig styling and a host of innovative features and design details to the pickup truck market; its popularity is now a matter of record. Last year, Dodge applied the Ram look and feel to its mid-size pickup, the Dakota, and it was another instant success.
For many buyers, the Dakota is a uniquely nifty size, bigger than the compact pickups, such as the Ford Ranger and Chevy Sonoma, smaller than the full-size models, such as the Ram and Ford F-150. Really, there's nothing else quite like it, and that puts the Dakota in a favorable spot.
The Dodge Dakota offers more room inside than the smaller compact trucks, increasing comfort for passengers, but it isn't so big on the outside that it's cumbersome or awkward to drive around town or fit into parking slots. For many buyers, that adds up to the ideal size.
Dodge completely redesigned the Dakota last year, so there isn't much new for 1998. New colors have been added to this year's palette. The optional keyless remote entry system now features a panic alarm, forged alloy wheels are available for the SLT trim level, and the four-cylinder engine is available in a wider range of models.
The Dakota comes with a choice of four powerplants. At the entry level is a 2.5-liter in-line four-cylinder that makes 120 horsepower and 145 lb-ft of torque. It's most appropriate for a delivery truck for the local auto parts store.
Next up is an optional 3.9-liter V-6 that generates a very useful 175 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. This is the logical engine of choice for most buyers, particularly those whose lifestyles don't include trailer hitches.
Then there's a powerful 5.2-liter V-8, with 220 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. It's stronger than any other engine available in any truck that's anywhere near the Dakota's size. Depending upon specific configuration and drivetrain, the 5.2-liter gives the Dakota a towing capability of 6700 pounds, a level the imports and compacts just can't match.
Finally, Dodge is introducing the Dakota R/T this spring with a 5.9-liter V-8 that makes 250 hp and a crushing 345 lb-ft of torque. It just won't take no for an answer.
From the outside, the Dakota looks and feels like a slightly smaller near-clone of the Ram. Based on reactions from people on the street, its big-rig look has turned out to be very popular.
The Dakota offers buyers a lot of choices. In addition to the four engines, there are two transmissions available, a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. The body comes in a regular cab or extended Club Cab with cargo box lengths of either 6.5 or 8.0 feet. Two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive is available along with more than 40 options. Trim levels include the relatively plain base; Sport, which sports body-colored trim; SLT, which is fancier with more chrome; SLT Plus, which is fancier still; and the hot-rod R/T.
Our Dakota was a nicely outfitted Club Cab 2WD SLT with the 5.2-liter V-8 and automatic transmission. The base price was $19,665; some carefully selected options raised that figure to $22,405, which we thought seemed reasonable.
As we expected, the performance and pulling power of the V8 was several steps above that of most of the V-6-powered compact pickups. The Dakota isn't particularly fast because, even empty, it weighs about two tons. But it is capable of dealing with serious loads, whether those loads are in the cargo bed, hooked onto the trailer hitch, or both.
We were pleased to see a high level of quality on our truck. Everything was screwed together tight, the doors and tailgate closed with an authoritative slam and nothing creaked or rattled. Even wind noise was noticeably low.
The Inside Story
Stepping inside our Dakota Club Cab was all it took to convince us why people like the New Dodge approach to truck building. It's roomy, comfortable and full of features, big and small, that make getting down the road a pleasure.
The standard interior comes with a comfortable bench seat, split into three parts on a 40/20/40 percent basis. The center portion has a folding back that also serves as a center armrest and includes a large, multi-function storage console. Optional bucket seats come with a huge center console that includes specific spots for tissue paper, maps and cassettes or CDs. Both bench and bucket seats have their strengths, so choosing between them is a personal decision.
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, increasing versatility when carrying people and cargo. The rear cushions fold up, revealing a flat floor so your suitcase or toolbox will stay upright; that's a good feature because not all extended cab pickups have a flat floor surface. Under those rear seat cushions are two storage compartments; one houses the jack and tools and provides some storage space, the other is a 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 to toss odds and ends.
Those whose lifestyle revolves around a trailer hitch should seriously consider the well-designed fold-away power mirrors. They measure a huge six inches by nine inches and are the biggest we've ever seen outside a truck stop. They are terrific, providing a big boost in rearward vision, yet cost only $160.
You can't reasonably expect an extended cab pickup to offer lots of stretch-out room for rear-seat passengers. But the Dakota Club Cab is wide enough for three adults back there; and as long as those in front move their seats up a bit, the three in back should find the trip to the football stadium parking lot livable.
Ride and Drive
Trucks keep getting better in terms of ride quality, but they're still trucks. Empty, the Dakota won't confuse you into thinking you're in a luxury sedan, but the ride gets better as weight is added. It's best if you make your own decision regarding ride comfort when you take one for a test drive.
The Dakota's handling feel is a pleasant surprise, especially to those familiar with bigger pickups. It has that relentless straight-ahead stability that makes easy work of long highways, yet it works commendably well when the pavement takes a few turns. And the Dakota is relatively nimble, able to deal with tight spaces and crowded conditions where its tidier size (compared to the big pickups), 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.
Some truck buyers have been stuck in a quandary: don't need that big honkin' full-size pickup, but the compacts and imports don't meet the power requirement to tow the boat to the lake. The Dakota fills that niche like no other truck on the planet.
If you need to tow something bigger than the Dakota will handle, then you need a full-size pickup. If you don't deal with much of a load at all, maybe one of the compacts will do just fine.
But if you're like a huge number of truck buyers and have needs that fall somewhere in that great middle ground, then there's nothing else available that will do the job like the Dodge Dakota. For many of us, it's just right.
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