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Even with high gasoline prices, automakers sold some 2.2 million full-size pickups in the United States last year compared to only 625,000 mid-size models. And with the highly competitive nature of the full-size market, those considering mid-size pickups don’t have to make much of a financial stretch to move up to full-size.

So maybe it is time to reconsider the mid-size pickup, especially in an automotive era in which car-based crossovers have supplanted truck-based sport utilities as The Next Big Thing. Maybe a crossover construction with a pickup bed could be the vehicle for more than revitalizing sales, it might even create yet another new niche. Maybe a mid-sized XUV with a bed in back brings home more than remodeling materials from Lowe’s or boxes of ready-for-assembly furniture from IKEA.

In the meantime, Dodge hopes to get lots of mileage out of the freshened Dakota that goes into production for the 2008 model year. Unveiled to the public for the first time here at the Chicago Auto Show, the 2008 Dakota features new exterior and interior styling, new pickup bed utility rails for cargo control, heated bench seats, an under-seat storage system and a new 4.7-liter V8 engine with 290 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque.

The engine is the only Chrysler motor other than the 5.7-liter Hemi that gets two spark plugs per cylinder. With increased compression, better cylinder-head port flow and double-spark combustion, power increases by 25 percent and torque by 10 percent over the former 4.7-liter engine. With lightweight pistons and connecting rods, a new valve-lash adjuster system, electronic throttle control and even reduced accessory drive noise, the new engine also is more efficient. Plus, Dodge publicity materials note, the new engine not only is the only V8 available in a mid-size pickup, but it can operate on gasoline or E85 ethanol fuel.

The Dakota’s standard engine remains a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter Magnum V6. New on both the old V6 and new V8 is a standard remote starting system, so you can get the heater or a/c running while you remain toasty in the kitchen or cool in the office. The V6 can be linked to a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic while the V8 comes with a five-speed automatic.

The 2008 Dakota also comes in rear-wheel or either part- or full-time four-wheel drive.

Extended and Crew cabs will be available, with ST, SXT, SLT, TRX4, Sport and Laramie trim packages.

While there will be updates coming in the ensuing years of this Dakota’s production run, this facelift figures to be the last major restyling for the current version, and that brings us back to “what’s the next generation?”

Maybe, of course, Frank Klegon is just fishing for feedback. But if next year on the auto show circuit we see a very stylish Dodge concept vehicle with a car-like undercarriage and a pickup-style bed in back, we could be seeing something that will have more than Klegon’s eye: We could be seeing a new niche, if not what’s next for the entire mid-size pickup truck segment.

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