By Roger Boylan
The Dodge Dakota is the almost-Ram. It’s the biggest truck in its “midsize” category, but it may also be the only one in that category: bigger than a Tacoma, smaller than a Ram, it’s an anomaly, but not a bad truck. In fact, after driving a 2010 Dakota TRX4 Crew Cab for a week, I came to like it quite a lot. The most annoying thing about it is the way the gearshift lever, when in Drive, completely blocks the view of the dashboard-mounted knob that controls the fan speed. Get it right, guys: do the design, then test it out in the real world, OK? But that’s all.
Oh, no, wait a minute. There’s also the dashboard itself, an incomprehensible backwards leap into rental-car cliches of Chrysler Corp.’s unlamented past: a vast expanse of cheap, hard plastic. But that’s it.
No, hang on a sec, there’s the rear seating, oddly uncomfortable despite reasonable leg room and what appears at first blush to be adequate padding; the seat bottoms are too low and the backs are vertical, so it’s nearly impossible to find your ideal posture. Not a wonderful place to spend several hours, to say the least, unless you’re a kid goggling at a DVD screen (not supplied).
But that’s it. Really. Overall, the Dakota’s a pretty fine truck, although it’s never been at the top of anyone’s wish list. It first appeared in 1987 as a “midsize” pickup, bigger than any of its compact competitors; it even offered a V8 engine. In 1997, it was redesigned along the lines of its big brother the mini-big rig Ram. The third-generation Dakota debuted in 2005, and in 2008 a more powerful V8 was added and the design was squared off. On the outside, the new buff look broadcasts its heritage with a raked, mini-Ram cross-hair grille and a muscular stance, enhanced by 18-in. alloy wheels and black fender flares. From the side, lacking that stretched-limo look so common among Crew Cab pickup trucks, it looks to the manor born.
The TRX4 four-wheel-drive model I was driving boasted a 5.5 ft. bed with utility rails, stickered around $33K (heavily negotiable), with cruise control, premium audio with Sirius satellite radio, macho off-road trim, automatic headlights, and stitched-leather seating. Not all the niceties we’ve come to expect, unfortunately: no ESC or side-curtain air bags. Why not? Dunno. Ask the masterminds at Chrysler who expertly guided the company to where it is today. Despite these lacunae, the Dakota scored respectably in NHTSA crash testing, with five stars for front and side impact protection. The IIHS took a more jaundiced view, however, calling its front-impact performance “acceptable” and not rating side-impact status at all. All I can say is that the truck felt solid enough to me.
That wilderness of hard plastic notwithstanding, the dashboard is laid out clearly and logically, with a most welcome emphasis on simplicity. Bright polished rings encircle the simple black-on-white gauges, which are backlit at night in a pleasant aquamarine glow. The up-and-down center stack accommodates the audio system, idiot-proof climate controls, and vents. The four spokes of the thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel contain stereo-adjustment and cruise-control buttons. The overall design is undeniably user-friendly and convenient, and if plastic is the leitmotif, well, that only shows that the Dakota is built with economy in mind. (But still.)
My Dakota rode well on the road, with no intrusive noise except when the wind was blowing hard. The quick-ratio rack-and-pinion steering is very efficient, and the truck handles well, even in curves. Things got a little more buoyant when, to test the beast’s off-road bona fides, I turned the 4X4 knob to “High”(all dash controls are big, easy-to-use knobs, as intuitive as they come) and roared up Pioneer Trail, a bumpy, potholed track a few miles from my home in the Texas Hill Country. Even when tackling uphill stretches, the truck was still comfortable enough. But what was most notable to me, after I came down from the mountain, was the realization that not even on the roughest patches did I detect a single creak or rattle, not even from the aforementioned all-plastic dashboard; the cabin was as quiet as the interior of a 1966 Mercedes Pullman. This was unexpected, and deserves high praise. It implies real quality control, not always Chrysler’s strong suit.
Inside this truck is actually a pleasant place to be, as long as you’re in the superbly comfortable front buckets (a bench is optional). When the boot goes down there’s certainly no dearth of oomph, not with the Magnum V8 in charge of hauling you and your cargo. Working through a smooth and well-calibrated five-speed automatic transmission, this engine puts out 302 hp and 329 lb-ft of torque (a 31% increase in horsepower and 13% increase in torque over the previous Dakota V8) and hustles the truck to 60 in about 7.5 seconds. It also enables you to tow an impressive 7,200 lbs, should you desire. Braking is no worry, with all-wheel ABS: five feigned-panic stops in a row disclosed no sign of fade. The truck’s fuel consumption is greedy but not dipsomaniacal, at a posted 14 city and 18 highway for the 4X4 (15/20 for the 4X2 version), although I got closer to 20 on the highway, with cruise control and relatively light foot most of the time. The fuel tank holds enough for a range of about 400 miles, which should take care of most average weekly commutes. The Dakota takes regular, and is also capable of operating on E85 ethanol, which means it scores as a Flexible-Fuel Vehicle.
But the most ingenious thing about this truck is the “Crate ‘n Go” storage system. With the 60/40 split-folding rear seat raised, two plastic storage bins that look like milk crates pop up from a recess in the floor. The bin on the passenger side is twice the size of the one on the driver’s side, to accommodate the larger items in your “active lifestyle”: basketballs, parachutes, you know the kind of thing. When not needed, the bins collapse and store under the rear seat, which fold down with one graceful movement. Brilliant. You can even carry the crates off and have a Dodge milk-crate party. Magic. This is the kind of gimmickry I like. Makes you wonder how they can be so incisive in some things (these crates) and so obtuse in others (placement of the gearshift lever), doesn’t it? And don’t tell me they’re only human. Since when has that been an excuse?
All in all, the Dakota, although something of an odd bird, is a pleasant truck to live with. Its adequate but not overwhelming size (the Crew Cab has 37.1 cubic feet of interior space) and clever rear seat storage system deliver both space and utility, and its the 302-horsepower V8 makes it downright fast, as well as giving it exceptional towing capacity. These factors, and the negotiability of sticker prices, trump the ho-hum interior and awkward rear seats and make the almost-Ram no mere also-ran, but a good truck worth a hard look at trade-in time.
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