On The Road:
Dodge was way ahead of its time in 1987 when they decided to make the Dakota larger than any compact and just a smidge smaller than any fullsize pickups. Unfortunately, what we've seen nowadays is a compact pickup truck segment on steroids, turning just about all the compacts into midsize trucks. Still, the Dakota is the only non-fullsize pickup truck to offer a optional V-8 engine, now with the 4.7L V-8 with 31-percent more horsepower than the '07. Certainly, 329 lb-ft of torque and 7000 pounds of towing capacity is nothing to sneeze at, and a solid option for those who need their truck to work, but can't justify the fullsize dimensions.
The Dakota had a facelift last year, giving it a more muscular and blocked-off front face and more angular fender and bed cuts. With all due respect to the designers, it doesn't seem to be helping to give the "little" Dodge truck any kind of connection to the bigger Ram - in fact, a little too much Jeep Commander and Dodge Nitro in the Dakota frontend for our tastes. Inside, they've cleaned up the center console and done a great job of utilizing every available slot and nook to create numerous cubbies and storage bins for all sorts of large and small personal electronic gear. Even the center console has a sleeve for your iPod and PDA.
This two-wheel drive version saves more than 100 pounds in weight because there is no transfer case between the transmission and rear driveshaft, there's no front driveshaft, there's a lighter "steering-only" front axle, and it even saves a little weight in having less computer wiring. With that said, the EPA numbers are right on top of the 4x4 model at 14 city, and 19 highway. We suppose these numbers would be a little better if they went to a true six-speed transmission. For now, they're still using the same 5-45RFE five-speed where the computer decides which second gear (it has two to choose from) is most appropriate (basically, it uses the higher (numerically) gear on upshifts and the lower (numerically) for downshifting). It sounds cool but the transmission gets in trouble every so often, clunking hard on certain lower shifts, especially at slower speeds. Additionally, we're not happy with transmissions that don't let you have access to all of the gears. There is an overdrive-off button but the column shifter makes it very challenging to control your 1-2 or 2-D manual shifting, a feature especially important to people who tow. The only other gripes we'd have about the truck are that it seems overdue for some kind of chassis mod or update because the ride is still rougher than any of the competition. Vehicles like the Tacoma and Ridgeline are looking to come out with their second-gen suspension changes for improved ride, when the Dakota really hasn't had anything significantly changed in six years.
Although not setup on this truck, we like the look of the TRX-4 off-road package, and the fact they offer two different transfer cases; one allowing a permanent all-wheel drive setting with a low range, the other a more traditional part-time setup. Likewise, the Extended Cab model (here we've got a Crew Cab) does offer the longest bed in its class with 6.5 feet of length.
In everyday driving, the Dakota will remind you that it's a traditional pickup (in every sense of the word) in just about every situation. Can you say rough ride? And don't expect stellar fuel economy. The 3.7L V-6 with the 6-speed manual is rated at 16/21 mpg, and the 300-plus horsepower 4.7L V-8 is said to get 14/19 mpg. In the real world with the V-8, we got 14 mpg when driving around town empty. We expect Dodge to do something dramatic eventually (especially given the fact the new Ram looks pretty good) but we've heard nothing about an all-new Dakota coming anytime soon.