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.