a muggy day driving a variety of Dakotas over different conditions in
the hills of Tennessee. We went off-road and towed a travel trailer. We
tried Club Cabs and Quad Cabs. We worked a manual transmission and cruised
in a leather-clad Laramie. Overall reaction is positive to the changes.
Here are the high points:
CONFIGURATIONS: No more regular cab. The Dakota comes in a Club Cab with
rear access doors and the 4-door Quad Cab. Both are on a 131.3-inch wheelbase
with a wheel track of just under 63 inches. The Club Cab has a 6.5-foot
long bed while the Club Cab’s cargo bed comes in at 5-feet-4. Three
trim levels are available: ST, SLT and Laramie.
SAFETY: Dakota grew 3.7 inches longer, mostly to provide added crush
space for improved crash-test performance. Dakota has the same octagonal
front frame rail as the Durango that absorbs frontal impacts. Side curtain
air bags and middle 3-point seat belt in the rear seat of the Quad Cab
are welcomed additions.
DESIGN: The Dakota does not share the same sheetmetal as the new Durango.
The edges are sharper and the grille is in-your-face chrome and bold.
Muscle also comes in the form of defined angles, not just bulk. There
are no bulging fender flares to signify off-road prowess; rather, the
fenders are shaped with a lean but robust flow. Unfortunately, the truck
has a busy look, especially on the sides. There’s a strong character
line that links the front and rear fenders, and it’s overwhelmed
with a chrome door guard. The integrated front mud-flaps send one’s
eyes in another direction. The chrome bumper insert doesn’t complement
the signature grille; it just seems to bother it. Love the jeweled headlights
and afterburner taillights, though.
4.7-liter V8 engines are optional over the base 3.7-liter V6, which is
rated at 210 horsepower at 5200 rpm. Peak torque is 235 lb-ft at 3600
rpm. The V6 comes with a new 6-speed manual transmission that has a snappy
feel to the shift but somewhat difficult to get into reverse. It likes
the clutch all the way to the floor but this Getrag tranny comes with
a healthy 4.23:1 first gear. The manual mates to a choice of 3.21:1 or
3.55:1 rear axles. You can also get the manual with the base 4.7-liter
V8, which is rated at 230 horsepower at 4600 rpm. Peak torque is 295 lb-ft
at 3600 rpm. This single overhead cam engine has a cast-iron block and
aluminum heads. The V8 is also available in a High Output version that
is rated at over 250 horsepower with peak torque of 300-plus lb-ft (final
figures were not available at press time). The High Output gets its extra
power with a higher compression ratio and recalibrated engine-management
computer. It comes only with a 5-speed automatic transmission that is
optional on the base V8. You can also get a 3.92:1 rear axle with the
automatic. For 4-wheel-drive fans, there are two New Venture transfer
cases, each with a 2.72:1 low range and both electronically controlled.
The main difference is that one is fulltime 4WD with a planetary center
differential that offers a 48/52 front-rear torque split.
SUSPENSION: A new coil-over front suspension replaces the old torsion
bar setup on 4WD models. Sharp-eyed observers will note there is no difference
in the ride height between 2- and 4-wheel drive versions. Both models
now use the same suspension components to reduce build complexity. The
rear Hotchkiss setup is the same as previous Dakotas but Dodge changed
spring rates and tuned the shocks to handle the increased tow ratings.
Dodge engineers also worked hard on improving the steering feel, adding
a rack-and-pinion gear. But for some reason the turning diameter jumped
to a wicked 44 feet, almost three feet more than the previous model. The
new brake system features front disc-rear drum. That’s a change
from the 4-wheel-disc of previous Dakota but the hardware weighs 15 pounds
less. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distributions
are an option.