Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Redesigned Dodge Dakota Polishes Mid-Size Truck Leader Credentials

Dodge invented the mid-size pickup segment of the market back in the 1980s and until very recently was the lone manufacturer offering a truck slotted between the big boys like Dodge Ram 1500 and Ford F-150 and the smaller compacts like Toyota’s Tacoma.

But such monopolies rarely last long in the car business, so it was inevitable that things would heat up for Dodge once Chevrolet, GMC and Toyota took the wraps off their re-sized Colorado, Canyon and Tacoma mid-sizers. A larger Nissan Frontier is coming soon, and one wonders how much longer Ford will keep its Ranger in its present configuration.

So it is no surprise to find in the redesigned 2005 edition of the Dakota a comprehensive illustration of how to make a mid-size pickup a solid workhorse and a genuinely enjoyable vehicle to drive. It’s still the best, though the competition, especially the Tacoma, is catching up.

What makes the new Dakota so appealing? There is the exterior look, which combines themes from the Durango SUV and Ram 1500, creating a muscular but crisp and angular appearance. It looks even better in person than in photos.

Then there is the presence of a couple of 4.7 liter V-8s under the hood, one being a standard workday 230 horsepower version and the other a hotter 250 horsepower edition of the same power plant. Both can be had with either a five-speed automatic or a new six-speed stick shift.

The standard V-8’s 290 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm should make it an excellent tool for towing motorcycles, ATVs, watercraft and fishing boats. A 210 horsepower 3.7 liter V-6 is the base model’s engine, as it has been for more than a decade.

Inside the Dakota’s passenger cabin, occupants find excellent room for five adults in the four-door Quad Cab Laramie model like my silver/gray 4X4 tester. The instrument panel features familiar Dodge faces and markings, and the center console has a new look that includes large, round dials for the major functions.

Ride comfort is outstanding, with a quiet cabin, a trim feeling coming through the steering and other controls and more than sufficient power on tap to handle clogged city streets, suburban chores and long interstate cruises.

Considering the expansive interior space and the Dakota’s overall pleasant driving personality, I wouldn’t hesitate to point it towards the horizon for a long, long drive just to see what’s over there.