Road Test: 2002 Dodge Dakota R/T Club Cab

Sports fun. $105/hp; $6.40/lb

G.R. Whale
Nov 19, 2002
Only four names came up for fun stuff: Dakota R/T, Ford Lightning, Toyota S-Runner, and the not-yet-built Viper-powered Ram. Nothing else fires our synapses like these, and a brief debate said none works better for the money than a Dakota R/T. The fact that we could spend just a little more cash to get more recline space, a back seat, longer wheelbase for a nicer ride, and more predictable handling, meant the Club Cab was it.
Everything about the R/T speaks fun. The monochrome paint begs attention, especially finished off as ours was in Dodge Corporate Bright Red. A chrome-exhaust stack (it hardly looks like a tailpipe), big fat Goodyears we'd smoke to bald Eagles in no time, and fender flares all indulge the eyes. Aural senses are satisfied by the gear whine from the rearend, a perhaps best-in-any-pickup Infinity sound system, and the best exhaust rumble this side of Italy, while the nose occasionally benefits from a whiff of tire or brake smoke.
The R/T starts life as a Dakota Sport pickup and ends up with myriad options. More packages than a UPS depot, a 5.9L V-8 (actually an 5.8L), automatic, ABS (which should be standard with that huge iron engine over the front wheels), power seats, ad nauseum, add more than half the total price of the Ranger, making this R/T $26,360. It wins on horsepower-per-dollar, loses on gas mileage and payload, and only matches the Wrangler's 2000-lb towing capacity. That 2000 lb will probably never go faster.
The R/T's cabin is an inviting place, day or night. Key on and the door switches are illuminated, headlamps on or off. Big sound is controlled variously by your right foot, and the stereo is manned by some of the best-placed wheel-mounted audio controls. These are well worth the $75, as you'll want to keep both hands on, or very near, the steering wheel. The seats are covered in grippy velour, and storage areas and cupholders abound. The back seat can be used equally well for smaller families or to bracket racing trophies.
An R/T may not be as fast as it sounds, especially if the road isn't sticky enough, but it'll reel off 85-90-mph quarter miles until it runs out of gas, always give a firm shove in the back when you hit the pedal, and is all done at 4500 rpm, just like the iron pushrod engines of old. The R/T also has enough compression braking that it'll chirp the rear tires when you use the engine to slow down. Half the time, you needn't even contest things--Lightnings are the only trucks not sent cowering just by an R/T's threatening look. With ABS, the brakes are acceptable, and the flat handling, fast steering box, tight limited-slip, and wide tires make twisty roads the only way to go.
Whether it's the sound, the crisp handling, the look, or the Viper parts in the front end, the Dakota R/T offers the most emotionally satisfying, fun-to-drive sport truck for the money, especially when someone else is buying gas. If the new Ram is the Mayor of Truckville, this is the Chief of Police.

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