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We spent 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.

POWER: Two 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.

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