Although it faced off in the marketplace against the Ford Ranger and the Chevrolet S-10, the original Dodge Dakota stretched the definition of "compact pickup" to new dimensions. What Dodge's just-right-sized Durango is to the sport/utility-vehicle segment, the Dakota is to pickups, neatly bridging the size, performance, and capability gaps between compact and full-size trucks. The latest iteration, new for 2005, carries on that tradition, offering V-8 power and near-full-size towing and hauling ability in a more affordable, more frugal, and more manageable package.
For 2006, Dodge adds four new iterations to the Dakota lineup. The TRX and TRX4 Off-Road packages are offered in ST, SLT, and Laramie trim in either Club Cab or Quad Cab configuration. The TRX gives the 2WD Dakota a pre-runner treatment, with 16-inch wheels, painted monotube shocks, tow hooks, aggressive off-road tires, and TRX stickers. The TRX4 is the real deal, building on these items by adding a 4WD transfer case, anti-slip differential, more aggressive axle ratio, skid plates, heavy-duty cooling system, and a 750-amp battery.
Available in either cab style, the new Night Runner edition is a black truck with a blacked-out grille, black-chrome 17-inch wheels, and abundant street attitude. Offered on SLT trim, the Night Runner features embroidered headrest logos and black dash center stack. The color and name remind of the unsuccessful Toyota Tacoma S-Runner from a few years ago, with the key difference being an available V-8. Big power is at the heart of the R/T, which fits a 260-horsepower V-8 to either cab style to create a potent street machine. The exterior is coated in bright red, yellow, or black paint and then distinguished with hood scoop, chrome exhaust tips, 17-inch chrome wheels, and decals. The interior is dressed with specific R/T gauge faces.
Again, Dodge drew inspiration for the Dakota from the bold full-size Ram pickup, adapting a vertical crosshair grille, contoured fender, and sharp body creases. Eschewing the traditional two-door standard cab, the Dakota arrives in two four-door body styles. The standard Club Cab model features an extended passenger compartment with rear-hinged rear-access doors and a six-foot, six-inch bed. The optional Quad Cab body features four full-size, front-hinged doors and a five-foot, four-inch bed. A tubular bed extender, available as a dealer-installed accessory, can help manage smaller items in the bed, or flip over, with the tailgate down, to increase bed length and cargo capacity.
The Dakota Club Cab features seating for up to five. A three-place front bench is standard; front bucket seats are optional. The Club Cab's smallish, bolt-upright rear compartment features two seats that can fold up when not in use to augment storage capacity. Though technically suited for adults, these rear seats are best occupied by smaller passengers. Those requiring a bona fide back seat should opt for the Quad Cab model, which features standard seating for five (with front bucket seats) or optional seating for six (with the 40/20/40-split front bench).
A three-place 60/40-split rear bench seat is standard. Both models boast excellent ergonomics, space for tall front-row riders, and a raft of available premium amenities, including heated leather seats, a sunroof, and a 508-watt SoundBox audio system, giving the utilitarian Dakota a dash of luxury. Aside from the electric treats, the interior feels sparse, with budget-limited plastics and plain appearance. A Timex-type "Indiglo" for the white-face gauges at night is a welcomed embellishment.
In addition to its stiff, crashworthy hydroformed frame, the Dakota protects its occupants with multi-stage front airbags that are precisely managed during a collision by an electronic Occupant Classification System. Side curtain airbags for front- and rear-seat occupants are available--unusual in a pickup--as is a four-wheel anti-lock brake system (rear-wheel ABS is standard). The innovative UConnect hands-free communication system, featuring wireless integration with Bluetooth-enabled cell phones, is optional as well. Unlike Nissan and Toyota pickups, the Dakota lacks the option of electronic stability control, which can help prevent fishtailing and rollovers.
Standard on all Dakotas, two- or four-wheel drive, is a 3.7-liter SOHC V-6 (shared with the Jeep Liberty) that produces 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque. It's matched to a six-speed manual transmission in base ST and mid-level SLT models, and to a new four-speed automatic in the top-trim Laramie. Not known for low-end grunt, the V-6 is quite capable for most light-duty chores, but a compelling option is the 4.7-liter SOHC V-8. No other truck in this class can boast V-8 power. The engine delivers 230 horsepower and 290 lb-ft of torque, paired with either the six-speed manual or with a sophisticated five-speed automatic that features an alternate "kick-down" second-gear ratio for passing, tough trailering situations, and steep grade ascents.
Power mongers will enjoy the Dakota's top engine offering, a burly high-output version of the 4.7-liter engine, good for 260 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque available only with the five-speed automatic. Rear-wheel drive is standard on all Dakotas, but buyers can opt for one of two 4WD systems. The first is a part-time setup with a shift-on-the-fly selectable low-range gear; SLT and Laramie models offer a full-time system, also with a selectable low range, but also featuring a planetary locking differential with a 48/52-percent front-rear torque split.
Following Dodge truck convention, the Dakota is slightly bigger than competitors, giving it a more commanding on-road presence, roomier cabin, and stronger powertrains. Ingress and egress are exceptionally easy, thanks to a low step-in height, and outward visibility is excellent all around. The Dakota's road manners are admirable, thanks to fine rack-and-pinion steering and very rigid hydroformed chassis rails, which impart a degree of solidity and quietness not generally associated with pickups. The V-6 engine likely will prove sufficient for most commute-focused buyers. The SOHC V-6 is lively and reasonably frugal, particularly with the six-speed manual and two-wheel-drive, and it will tow as much as 5,750 pounds.
There's little question, however, that the Dakota shines with one of its two V-8s. The standard 4.7-liter engine is a delight, particularly with the six-speed manual, and even though the high-output version is available only with an automatic transmission, its muscle-car rumble alone makes it worth the price of admission. However, while the V-6 and standard-output V-8 go about their business on regular gasoline, the high-output V-8 demands premium unleaded--no small consideration, given EPA fuel-economy ratings of 14/18city/highway mpg. It's not surprising that the V-8-powered Dakota is the trailering champ of its class. Properly equipped, it will tow a whopping 7,150 pounds, ample for most mid-size boats and camping trailers.
The Dakota has come a long way since its debut for the 1987 model year, but it still holds true to its mission as a just-right alternative to traditional compact and full-size pickups. As it has done with the Caravan and Grand Caravan, Dodge has burned the midnight oil to give the Dakota an edge in the marketplace. Options like V-8 power and full-time four-wheel drive make it an ideal choice for the buyer with greater towing and hauling needs, but for whom the brute force of a Ram 1500 would be overkill.
The Dakota has additional appeal for large drivers who don't want a full-size vehicle. Adding further appeal is a seven-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranty, among the industry's best on a pickup. As with all pickup truck families, there's some variance in the ownership cost value based on body and powertrain combinations, so be sure to research the trends identified by IntelliChoice to assist in your final purchase decision. Shoppers should test drive a Toyota Tacoma, as well, also redesigned for 2005. Slightly smaller, the Tacoma offers similar variations, a bit more refinement throughout the line, and a higher IntelliChoice Ownership Cost Value Rating.
With big-truck power and utility combined with a small-truck sticker price, the Dakota stands tall amid other recently revitalized compact trucks that have grown close in scale and ability.
New model variants More frugal, nimble than a full-size truck Two V-8s and full-time 4WD; 7,150-lb towing
4.7L performance trails others' V-6 High-output V-8 requires premium fuel Material, assembly quality could be better
Four new performance models expand the Dakota range for 2006, both on road and off: TRX, TRX4 Off-Road, R/T, and Night Runner. The big noise for the interior comes from new sound systems with an auxiliary input and an available sunroof.
Depending on trim level and cab style, Dakota buyers can opt for such creature comforts as 16-inch aluminum wheels, heated leather seating surfaces, and the subscription-based Sirius satellite radio. On the safety front, two-row side-curtain airbags are available, as is an anti-slip rear differential and four-wheel anti-lock brakes. Option packages include a skid-plate group for those with serious off-road intentions and a Class IV towing package, which includes hitch, wiring harness, heavy-duty engine cooling, auxiliary transmission cooler, and a power steering cooler, as well as dual 6x9-inch folding heated mirrors.