With waning interest in full-size pickups, all the major players have hit the market with a resounding thud. While the dee-luxe apartment in the sky is safe and clear for GM and Ford’s power players, the squeeze play can take the pie away from lesser-known trucks: those that do less, but cost more than expected. That said, now’s not a good time to be the mid-size Dodge Dakota.
But there’s never a good time for ugly. While the previous Dakota wore a face so contrived and misaligned it passed muster in a Grand Theft Auto III landscape, the re-skinned 2008 model looks right at home in…Grand Theft Auto IV. The freshened face has the right amount of parallel lines and refined treatments, but its face is generic, inoffensive and forgettable.
And without serious styling up front, the rest of the Dakota’s form lacks presence. Yes, the “new” Dakota sports the same half-baked fender bulges that, much like plate tectonics gone awry, extend to the front doors’ midsection. The rear form fails for the same reason, sweeps so broad of beam only work on Monte Carlos of yore. No matter the trim level, there’s less “macho” in this rig than its full-size competition.
Then again, Dodge’s sales brochure promotes the mighty Dak to younger guys with Mountain Dew-esque hobbies. Oh dear. Sure, the base ST version isn’t for the latte-minded, iPod intensive, extreme sports fans in all of us, but adding those (precious few) options does nothing for higher-minded appeal. With typical Detroit irony, the market-inappropriate interior is awash in the type of brittle and crude plastics that bring about lust to a workingman’s heart. Maybe Dodge is courting those “lifestyle” buyers after falling off the rock wall and spending a week in the cold, unyielding walls of the local ICU.
No, really. There isn’t a shred of soft touch polymer to be found: even the cloth-covered seats are firmer than expected. From the lack of a standard tilt wheel, a tone-deaf CD/MP3 player and an airline worthy, chair-mounted armrest (in lieu of a real console), there’s no love for the base model. On the plus side, four active Dakoteers have adequate wiggle room in the crew cab. There’s even a pair of (optional) Stow-N-Go milk crates below the rear bench for carrying…something.
Be it people or cargo, the V6-propelled, 4500lb Dakota isn’t the choice of the aficionado. Or anyone else, for good reason: with a meager 235lb-ft of torque and a wheezing 210 horses underfoot, an unladen Dakota barely motivates itself. Slow is not the word; the Dodge simply can’t get out of its own way. Even with the 6-speed manual’s remarkably close ratios and accurate (but notchy) throws, the 3.7L Dodge is no match for its 4.0L competition from foreign shores, never mind the positively ancient Ford Ranger.
Add optional 4WD into the mix and the proof meets pudding: locking the Dak into 4-low proves that gearing alone cannot a truck make. Even with the mandatory autobox, the 4.7L V8 is the only logical choice.
Luckily, going slow isn’t so bad. The fully boxed and hydroformed frame stays planted in corners, with less body flex than the Toyota Tacoma. There’s enough grip to stay out of the ditch, though the numb and lifeless steering is not Man’s best friend. But the Dakota’s well-sorted rear leaf springs were a pleasant surprise, keeping stable and tracking confidently on most any road, paved or not.
If and when the Dakota reaches cruising velocity, its occupants are rewarded for their labor with a smooth and compliant ride. Even when unloaded, body motions are kept in check and the cabin is almost car-like in its quiet demeanor. And when flight turns to fright, the Dakota’s strong disc/drum brakes yank the mid-size truck to a halt with passion: especially when pushing the envelope unleashes the terrifying howl of rear-wheel only ABS intervention. Sure, Dodge offers an all-corner alternative as an option, but this oversight in the base model is a shot of guarana in an overpriced energy drink.
Speaking of, how does 26 grand for a zero-option truck grab ya? Not only do other quasi-large trucks offer more bang for less coin, the Dakota treads in dangerous water: the four portal, full size trucks offer more utility, power and style for a minor bump in monthly payments. And forget about bonus points for fuel economy: the overworked throttle sucks gas like the big dogs.
Even with discounts and mid-size benefits, there’s nothing to love about the once appealing nature of the Dodge Dakota. Smaller trucks do everything the Dakota’s customer demands, but with more power, style and value. And with the Dodge Ram on shaky ground, expect the cash-strapped Cerberus to flip the less appealing Dakota sooner than later.
[CarMax provided the vehicle reviewed, insurance and a tank of gas.]