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The 4-spoke steering wheel is easy to grip. At speed the steering sometimes felt over-assisted but it was certainly easy to move in tight parking situations. And you will be moving the wheel quite often as the Dakota 4x4 Quad Cab has a rather wide 44-foot turning diameter. That’s almost three feet wider than the previous Dakota.

Dakota is the only midsize truck that offers a V8. Standard in the base Dakota is a 3.7-liter V6 but the Laramie Quad Cab comes with a 4.7-liter V8 rated at 230 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of peak torque. A high-output V8 became available in the Dakota in late winter 2005. It’s rated at 260 horsepower with peak torque of 310 lb-ft. The Nissan 4.0-liter V6 remains the horsepower leader in the midsize market with 265 ponies and follows with 284 lb-ft of peak torque. For those playing the numbers game, Toyota’s 4.0-liter engine is rated at 245 horsepower with 282 lb-ft of peak torque. The HO engine finds the extra horsepower through new valve springs to accommodate a meaner camshaft, revised combustion chamber shape and higher compression ratio (9.7:1 vs. 9:1). It’s also beefed up with a forged steel crankshaft. The HO engine will also help set Dakota apart from the new Mitsubishi Raider, which shares all the rest of the Dakota mechanicals.

Our Dakota with the 230-horsepower engine was spirited on road and playful off road. Passing on 2-lane roads was easy with the 5-speed transmission that offers two Second-gear ratios. First gear is 3.00:1 and the upshift Second is 1.67:1 while the downshift is 1.50:1. The slightly taller gear reduces the gap between Third, which is 1:1, and downshift Second for less of a jolt to the senses when downshifting. It’s also more useful when towing.

Stopping for pictures near an abandoned rest stop on Route 66 that is now a canvas for graffiti artists, I could take a good look at the Dakota styling. In the previous Dakota platform, I was more a fan of the Durango than the Dakota. I felt the extra bulk of the cab section complemented the signature front end better than the pickup bed. But now I like the Dakota better than the Durango. The sharp edges of the front end are crisp and match up well with the defined angles of the fenders, especially the rear. I still it’s a busy design and I would rip off some chrome if I had my way, especially the door-guard spears on the side and the front bumper insert. The chrome grille would look much better not having to compete with the shiny bumper insert. But there’s enough composure to the overall look, and the jeweled headlights and afterburner taillights add a little excitement.

I got just over 16 mpg over the weekend, but my foot was in the throttle pretty hard, and I was stuck in Friday getaway traffic leaving Los Angeles for a couple hours. The truck is rated at 14 city, 19 highway. Overall performance of the Dakota will fit the needs of any midsize shopper. With the exception of the Ford Ranger, all the midsize 4-door pickups offer enough power and features that they now compete with fullsize trucks for customers. It’s difficult to pick a truck that is clearly superior to the others. Dakota still has the size. Its 6010 GVWR and 6800-pound towing capacity (for the Quad Cab 4x4) is higher than the competition. The 65-inch long bed is bigger than any other, except for the optional long-bed Tacoma model. Each truck has its advantages. That’s the beauty of competition in today’s midsize truck market.

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