SANDY, Tex. -- When gully-washer rain falls on the Hill Country of Texas, so many ranch roads graded with dust and sand turn into tire-sucking troughs of mud.
So let's plow through that soppy sluice to test the off-road dexterity of Dodge's mid-size Dakota pickup.
We're outfitted well for trucking through mud because the particular Dakota we're steering stocks a full-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) system and a powerful new flex-fuel V8 engine which runs on gasoline or E85 ethanol.
Our test version of Dakota works well as a sturdy truck capable of serious off-road action with all tires scrambling for traction but it's also comfortable as a pavement cruiser.
Cast one step below the full-size Ram 1500 truck and sporting the stepped-hood prow of Ram for a family resemblance, Dakota earns a fresh exterior design and cabin upgrades for 2008 issues plus the new class-capping V8 with tow ratings hiked to 7050 pounds.
Introduced in 1987, Dakota always charted a different course in pickup design. Neither full-size, like classic American pickups, nor compact, like some itsy-bitsy trucks from Asia, Dakota measured somewhere between those extremes to provide benefits of both.
The 2008 editions, based on generational designs from 2005, ride on a stiff boxed-rail platform.
There are two formats for the cab:
Dakota Extended Cab contains two rows of seats for four and two rear-hinged access doors, while the Crew Cab stocks four full-size doors and seat space for up to six.
Extended Cab becomes the standard cabin for Dakota 2008.
The pair of individual rear seats fit a full-size adult, but seat cushions fold away when not needed for passengers and the area behind front seats converts into a storage compartment with 30 cubic feet of space.
Dakota Crew Cab carves out the largest cabin among mid-size trucks. A bench-style backseat holds up to three adults and the seatback tips rearward at a slight angle so riders may sit comfortably with ample room for heads and legs.
The truck bed behind the cabin varies in length, depending on cab style.
Extended Cab has a long-bed design stretching to 78 inches, while Crew Cab uses an abbreviated bed cut to 64 inches long.
Dodge builds the Dakota trucks of 2008 with a choice of V6 or V8 engine, manual or automatic transmission, 2WD or 4WD traction mode plus six trim designations so the truck projects a different personality with each level of equipment upgrade.
The suspension configuration -- upper and lower A arms in front with coil-over-shock and a link-type stabilizer bar -- improves handling, while a rack and pinion steering mechanism -- not a common component on a truck -- brings crisp steering traits.
Dakota also benefits from smaller overall body length (about 18 feet long) when compared against a full-size truck like Ram. That advantage of having several less feet of steel to move around in traffic makes a big difference in terms of maneuverability and practicality.
Brakes with front discs and rear drums provide power assistance plus standard anti-lock brake system (ABS) for the rear wheels, or the option of four-wheel ABS.
Frontal air bags for front-seat riders are also standard, and curtain-style side air bags concealed above windows for both rows of seats are on the option sheet.
More choices come for trim, powertrain and traction: Dakota's trim designations are the ST, STX, SLT, TRX/TRX4, Sport and Laramie. Powertrains range from a Magnum V6 to the new flex-fuel 4.7-liter Magnum V8 prompting best-in-class power points and tow capacity.
The six-pack displaces 3.7 liters and runs up to 210 hp at 5200 rpm with torque numbers climbing as high as 235 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
A sweet Getrag 238 manual six-speed transmission is standard for the V6, with a four-speed Dodge 42RLE automatic optional.
The new single-cam 4.7-liter V8 bumps way up to 302 hp at 4600 rpm and 329 lb-ft of torque at 3600 rpm, then links exclusively to an automatic five-speed (5-45RFE).
Pick a 4WD package for off-road forays or the 2WD mode for trailer-haul chores.
Actually, there are two choices for 4WD action -- either an on-demand 4WD system with 2WD plus 4WD high and 4WD low-gear settings or a full-time all-wheel-drive (AWD) system (also with 4WD high and low) for TRX/TRX4, Sport and Laramie.
Styled with a bold exterior form for that chin-forward face, the Dakota trucks look strong and assertive -- and impossible to miss, should the image of one suddenly appear in your rearview mirror.
A massive prow dominates the design with the stair-step hood of a big-rig Peterbilt and a flat-faced horse-collar grille thrust forward and marked in cross-hair chrome for all trims save Sport, which wears a body-colored rim.
Trimmings for the trucks show preferred standard equipment such as air conditioning and a four-speaker AM/FM/CD audio kit even in entry-grade Dakota ST.
Dakota SXT adds 16-inch aluminum wheels and cabin upgrades like power controls for windows and door locks and mirrors, a tilting steering wheel and cruise control.
Dakota SLT goes further with foglamps and a body-colored back bumper, a sliding rear window with defroster, power to motivate front seats, a security alarm and an overhead console with compass and trip computer.
Dakota TRX/TRX4 flashes black headlamp bezels, fender flares and bodyside moldings, front tow hooks and special 16-inch wheels with P265/70R17 OWL Rugged Trail tires.
Dakota Sport gets a body-color grille with chrome billets, 18-inch painted silver wheels capped by P265/70R18 BSW on/off-road tires, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and two-tone cloth bucket seats with firmer bolsters.
Dakota Laramie carries premium gear such as chrome bodyside moldings and automatic headlamps, leather seat upholstery and upgraded audio gear with a six-disc CD changer and MP3 capability.
The cool new option: MyGIG, a multimedia audio, navigation, entertainment and hands-free communication system with 20-gigabyte hard drive for music and video storage.
Expect MSRP for 2008 Dakota trucks to stretch from $19,435 to $31,100.