The Dodge Dakota is clearly in trouble. A revised truck debuted at the 2007 Chicago Auto Show, but sales have slowed down significantly in recent months. For the first five months of 2008, Dodge sold 14,936 Dakotas, compared with 24,343 during the same period in 2007. The Dakota is even being outsold by the Honda Ridgeline - a unibody sport utility pickup criticized by traditional truck buyers as not being a "real truck."
Rumors of a future unibody Dakota swirled just as the curtain dropped at the current truck's 2007 Chicago auto show reveal. Those rumors have escalated to a virtual confirmation of the fact that the next Dakota won't be built as a body-on-frame pickup. Jim Press, vice chairman and president of Chrysler LLC, has gone on the record stating he thinks the demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient trucks will continue to rise as fuel costs soar.
Just a year before the new Dakota was introduced, Dodge showed off the Rampage concept, clearly aimed at the Ridgeline, but packing the ubiquitous Hemi V-8 engine. Designers, engineers, and product planners are all talking about Rampage now. Kunselman wouldn't say much about the Dakota - but he did tell us that the "Dakota is one [model] we're in the process of re-evaluating."
If the Ram 1500 moved to coil springs at all four corners, a unibody structure isn't that blasphemous for a smaller truck. Once the Ram proves the new suspension is just as capable as the outgoing 1500, Dodge buyers will likely be more accepting of new and different solutions to the modern pickup.
Crossover vehicles with unibody construction are starting to replace many body-on-frame SUVs, so it makes sense for the smaller trucks to adopt this same strategy.
One of the main challenges with a unibody Dakota is making sure it would handle the stress that pickup owners regularly dish out. Potential buyers are interested in increased fuel economy, but switching to unibody construction will not dramatically change fuel economy by itself. If the research shows most owners aren't using Dakota to the 95th percentile of its abilities, the duty cycle of the truck isn't as much of a concern and other measures can be taken to reduce weight and improve fuel economy as well.
A New Firecracker?
Dodge is also considering a truck that would slot in below Dakota's replacement. The M80 name came up just as often as Rampage did during our conversations with Dodge officials this week. M80 is a concept truck that debuted at the 2002 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The truck was conceived to slide in under the Dakota in terms of size and price, but looked like a miniature revival of the legendary Power Wagon.
Those looks would have to change if the M80, or some variation on its theme, makes it to production. Gilles thinks the unibody trucks would need to look different from the body-on-frame Rams. Gilles says buyers know the trucks have vastly different uses, and it would be insulting to the buyers to lump all trucks together with a common look. With a different look, and an emphasis on efficiency, for the new Dakota and small truck, there is suddenly an opening for a third new truck in the Chrysler family.
Jeep's Wrangler-based JT concept could be the next body-on-frame product to come to a Jeep dealer. Some people will continue to need the capability of a body-on-frame truck, and Jeep is the perfect brand for such a vehicle. Many Jeep owners wish for a small truck with excellent off-road capability, and have been drooling over the JT since it appeared at the 2007 Easter Jeep Safari in Moab, Utah. Such a vehicle could also bring back credibility to the brand, something many purists find lacking after the introduction of the car-based Compass and Patriot.
Back to the 1500
While the development teams at Chrysler have their hands full, there are still plans to improve the new Ram 1500 in the immediate future. The first upgrade we'll see is the integrated trailer brake controller that Dodge is sorely lacking. Both Ford and GM have factory installed units available, and each works flawlessly. Expect to see Dodge's version offered within a few months of the truck's launch this fall.
Improving fuel economy is a major focus for the Ram team. Dodge has already announced plans for a two-mode hybrid truck and a light-duty diesel. Expect to see the hybrid as a 2010 model, with the Cummins-powered 1500 appearing shortly thereafter as a 2010 or 2011 model.
It makes most sense for the Cummins to be tuned for fuel economy, not outright power. We weren't able to get much in the way of fuel economy figures, but when we suggested a minimum of 22 mpg, Kunselman told us, "I think we'll blow away 22 mpg."
Hopefully such a truck could return 25 mpg, or better, on the highway and cost substantially less than a diesel heavy-duty truck.