A mid-size pickup seemed silly twenty years ago, when Dodge wedged the original Dakota between the compact and full-size haulers. Since then, the truck world has changed. Rams, Titans, and F-150s are locked in fierce bigger-badder battle, and compacts seem headed for extinction. So Chevy, Ford, GMC, Nissan, and Toyota all have conceded that Dodge was right: mid-size is a great size for entry-level pickup buyers.
To show those pesky interlopers how this game is played, Dodge has a new 2005 Dakota with an eight-times-stiffer frame, a comprehensively overhauled chassis, and a fresh face. The folds and facets trailing the requisite chromed hog nose herald Dodge's latest design direction. Due to lack of interest, the regular-cab model is gone, so all Dakotas now roll on a 131.3-inch wheelbase. Front crush space is 3.7 inches longer, and everybody rides tall whether or not they're packing a transfer case. Take your pick between a Club Cab with a 6.5-foot-long bed or a Quad Cab with a 5.3-foot bed and an adult-sized back seat.
Dodge's mid-size-segment exclusive is V-8 power. While a clunky 210-horsepower V-6 is standard, it's an easy $785 step up to a sweet 4.7-liter SOHC V-8 offered in regular (230 horsepower) or high-output (more than 250 horsepower) tune. Our only beef concerning the new Getrag six-speed manual transmission is that it can't be had with the hotter, burbling-exhaust V-8.
That's a pity, because the Dakota's new chassis is tuned to bop the back-road boogie. Firm dampers keep body motion in check, and the antiroll bars are stout enough to thwart teeter in the turns. The steering is quick, precise, and capable of carrying on a conversation with the road. This is the first mid-size pickup we've encountered that's worthy of the Bob Bondurant School's golden seal of approval.