By on December 23, 2013

gearbox. Shutterstock user luchunyu

TTAC commentator Ian Anderson writes:

Hi Sajeev, I have something here for you and my fellow B&B to ponder over,

Back in May I bought a rust-free 1999 Dodge Dakota Sport (Extended cab, 3.9L Magnum V6, 5speed AX-15 manual, 2WD, 3.21 8.25″ open axle) for $2000 from a guy in South Philly. I bought it so I could take my rusty 1992 Dakota off of the road so my dad and I could fix all of the rust on it. Well now the ’92 is on the road (and growing more rust) and the ’99 is sitting on the street with a supposed ticking time bomb in the trans tunnel. When I bought the truck I was told by the previous owner’s mechanic that the throwout bearing was going out and would need replaced soon. Lo and behold, the next day while beating around in it I had to call AAA when I could no longer shift it (and when the clutch suddenly didn’t do anything, made stopping interesting). $600 later I had a whole new clutch kit and was on my way.

Now fast forward four months, myself and the Miss (not Mrs.) are coming back from dinner in the middle of August when it suddenly stalls while shifting gears to make a turn- shifting into third from fourth specifically. I chalk it up as my error and keep going until it does it three more times five miles down the road, then being accompanied by a soft BANG and me wrestling it to the side of the road. We made it home by driving in second gear with the flashers on. Now it will behave itself most of the time, but every so often going uphill it will become hard to shift, stall or get stuck in third, which makes it interesting trying to get the little 3.9 to motivate 4000 pounds with a line of traffic behind you. My mechanic ripped it back apart to check the clutch out, everything was fine. He’s stumped and telling me to drive it local until it blows, my dad says the transmission is shot, and the forums are all over the place with it saying it’s the trans, the clutch or that I can’t drive stick (the 30K I put on my ’92, including learning manual, beg to differ).

Now the question- What do I do with the truck? I love driving it since it handles great, has good brakes and will leave most “Ricer/tuner” cars in the dust even with the aforementioned 175HP 3.9 hauling 4000 pounds. But on that subject, I do have a stronger, newer, 500mile NV-3500 transmission in the shed from the same era Dakota that I snatched up for a bargain, and I’ve been thinking the truck could use a few more ponies under the hood. Do I:

  • Get a junkyard (with a warranty) trans or a rebuilt unit and just have it throw in
  • Use the later, heavier-duty trans I have with either the stock V6…OR…
  • With a V8 swap. Low mileage 5.2L Magnum V8s are plentiful in my area. Thankfully Chrysler made it a bolt-in job since it was a factory option.
  • Slap myself for the last two options
  • Throw it on Craigslist to get what I can for it and move on

I’m sure you and some of the B&B have been in the “Okay it’s broke, do I fix it to stock or upgrade” boat before and have some insight into this, especially you with half of your stable being occupied by older Detroit iron.

Thanks again Sajeev and the B&B!

Sajeev answers:

If you are considering slapping yourself for options 2 and 3, maybe you don’t like this truck as much as you should.  Or could, as significant power train upgrades on a depreciated truck like this won’t net you much $$$ value.  You’re a fool with plenty of spare time and excess cash to even consider a V8/Tranny swap.

But obviously, the power train swap is the correct answer. Like, obviously!

You have a spare truck (’92 Dakota) to use.  You have the “good” transmission for a truck where it will supposedly drop right in. And yes, Magnum V8s are dirt cheap, unlike those fantastic LSX-FTW beasties that would be nice, but far more complicated.  This is a no brainer, son!  Get a used motor (as much as possible, like accessory brackets, emissions stuff, etc), get a heater for your garage, clean/re-gasket it and start swappin’!

It’s either that, or dump it on Craigslist with the upgraded transmission in the bed to sweeten the deal. But then you’ll be bored out of your mind, doing the swap is totally worth it. And nobody wants that!

[Image: Shutterstock user luchunyu]

Send your queries to [email protected] Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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35 Comments on “Piston Slap: Fanning the Dakota’s Flames?...”

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Why not drop a VM V6 diesel in the Dakota?

    $600 for a thrust race? Wow!

    My view is when buying a clunker and wanting to modify it you should have a plan. Research would show you how much effort and resources are required to improve a vehicle.

    Maybe another brand of vehicle would have be better. A Taco or Nissan?

    • 0 avatar

      “Why not drop a VM V6 diesel in the Dakota?”

      Because its a ’99 Dakota.

      “Maybe another brand of vehicle would have be better. A Taco or Nissan?”

      He could buy between 3-5 Dakotas for the price of a similar year Tacoma.

      I say V8 swap. I perfer the 360, but is the 318 easier to bolt in? I almost would suggest buying a V8 Dakota instead, but I’m not up for doing an engine swap myself.

    • 0 avatar

      {Maybe another brand of vehicle would have be better. A Taco or Nissan?}

      I’ve driven both and own a Tacoma. Dakota is by far better built hands down. Older models of the Nissan/Toyo may be better (not sure).

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        I haven’t driven a Dakota, but I’ve driven a Durango. If their isn’t much difference, then the Dakota drives poorly.

        The comments from the owner of the pickup stated it can out handled and out ‘raced’ rice pumpers CARS! I don’t think the owner of this pickup ever drove a car to it’s limits if he thinks a Dakota can out handle a car.

        Yup, my BT50 pickup out handles a Camry;)

        Sorry, not all of the dots line up here.

        • 0 avatar

          “Sorry, not all of the dots line up here.”

          Principally the ones in your brain would be my estimation.

        • 0 avatar

          “Sorry, not all of the dots line up here.”

          Principally the ones in your brain would be my estimation.

          You advise putting in an engine that is just coming onto the market into a 14 year old truck that is gas powered. Great idea if you have 40 grand to spare re-engineering the vehicle.

          You’ve never driven a Dakota, but the Durango is awful. Which Durango, what model year? No, they’re not even close to being the same vehicle, but I thought the supreme expert would know that. Apparently not.

          Yup, even when you haven’t a clue what you’re nattering on about, you feel it your duty to proffer advice.

          Stupid advice.

          • 0 avatar

            Is he serious about the VM diesel? That hurts my brain. I thought I was pushing the envelope by suggesting a 360 V8.

          • 0 avatar
            Big Al from Oz

            @wmba and bball40dtw
            Here’s a little read.
            The Dodge Durango is a sport utility vehicle (SUV) produced by the Dodge division of Chrysler. The first two generations were very similar in that both were based on the Dodge Dakota, both featured a body-on-frame construction and both were produced at the Newark Assembly plant in Newark, Delaware.

            So, now before you guys want to put someone down know your $hit.

            Also, in my younger days I was involved in drag racing and prior to my career change I actually did a similar feat. I built and modified a 620 Datsun pickup to race, rallying.

            So, like I stated you’d better know your shit.

            Using a diesel will create a unique vehicle for the guy, particularly in the US.

            If I modify a car I modify, not just make a small change.

            Actually, a Frontier would offer some real advantage, especially a D20. Do you know the parts including drivetrains/engines/brakes/etc that can be fitted from other Nissan cars into a D20?

          • 0 avatar

            I won’t be as harsh as wmba but I’ll say it again, the 04 Dakota I had was absolutely, positively very solid and handled great. It easily bested the Japanese competition in all categories. I loved the torsion bar suspension in the front. Gives the best of both worlds IMO. I drove many Frontiers and Tacomas in search of a replacement. The Frontier was as cheap as cheap could be with chattering plastics in the interior and a bed that shook like Jello when you went over bumps. I experienced that on multiple years of that model. The Tacoma was more refined but still too plasticky for me. I settled on the Tacoma as there were no late model (or new) Dakotas for me to choose from and used Rangers were prohibitively expensive for some reason.

            Sorry Big Al, we can agree to disagree here.

          • 0 avatar


            Its not that I don’t like diesel trucks. Its the fact that you are suggesting someone drop an engine that is a $4500 option on a Jeep GC into a 15 year old Dakota. I don’t know much it costs as a crate motor, but I’m sure its every bit of $10000-12000. Good luck finding one out of a Liberty around these parts. He could buy many 1999 Dodge Dakotas for that same sum. I’m also guessing that its not a simple bolt on installation like a 318/360.

            Your suggestion is worse than putting a GM V8 in a VW Polo in Europe. At least you have LSX-FTW in that senario. You want small diesel trucks in America so badly you block out common sense whenever something like this comes up. I’m no expert on engine swaps, but it doesn’t take one to see droping a rare diesel in a $2000 truck is not what this person is looking for.

            It really depends on what year Durango you drove. Some years are very similar to the Dakota, some are not. Remember that a Dakota will weigh about 700-800 lbs less than a Durango in similar trims.

          • 0 avatar
            Big Al from Oz

            My initial comment wasn’t and isn’t out there as much as some would suggest. These engines are older than you guys think.

            Also, if the guy doesn’t want to spend money and wants handling a V8 is heavy.

            A Pentastar might even be a better option.

            If the guy has got two cents to his name, why not just put the same back in?

            Spend a couple of weekends rebuilding it. He already has a new clutch plate, pressure plate and possibly flywheel for that $600.

            He will develop more skills for future car builds at the same time.

            Sort of like an educational money saving project.

          • 0 avatar

            Big Al, the first gen Durango was based off of the Dakota, the second was based off the Ram and the third off the Grand Cherokee.

            The first gen Durango, of which I have and may be biased, are very capable on a twisty road. I don’t think you could outrun a sporty car but they run hard, aren’t badly balanced in the turns and with ceramic composite brakes they don’t fade. Something like a Crown Vic probably would not keep up.

    • 0 avatar

      A Cummins 4BT would be easier and pull it around nicely albeit loudly and the Cummins badges are available at your friendly Dodge dealer. This would be a project for someone with more time and money than sense. Given the resale on Dakotas I would think the best option would!d be to buy the Dakota you want. I’ve gone down the swap road before. You had better be skilled, dedicated, and prepared to lose money.

  • avatar

    Here’s an idea, throw the NV3500 in and be done with it. More than likely the tranny has had it from the previous owner driving it with a tanked thrust bearing. Engine swaps and all of this BS for a tranny swap?

    It’s like swapping out the whole suspension due to a flat tire.
    Just swap out the broken part and drive! One weekend’s worth of work and you are done.

  • avatar

    Considering you correctly identify the NV3500 as the “heavier-duty” trans your AX-15 is downright pitiful. I drive an NV3500-equipped truck and that trans is no heavy hauler. It will drop into your Dakota as that is the 5spd that backed the V8 trucks with manuals (yes, they existed, I once knew a guy who had 2 of the Dakotas, but they were both 4.7s as is my Ram).

    I’m a fan of the 318 over the 360 and once was an outside observer of Magnum-engine issues as I considered a LA/Magnum swap in my older truck on which I never had the funds or time to pull the trigger. The 360 Magnums have preignition issues that the 318s didn’t seem to have. Also the 318s run balanced rotating assemblies and the 360s are externally balanced usually by the torque converter, but they must have had something for the 5spds they used in the 2500/3500 trucks (unbalanced flywheel maybe?). If you do a Magnum V8 swap, avoid the dual-piece intake plenums as the gaskets failed and caused oil ingestion exacerbating the preignition problems. You might have to get a Mopar aftermarket intake, but they’re performance enhancers to go along with improving the reliability of the intake gasketing.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve never had an issue with either. My 1990 Ram 2500 (with 318) and 1998 Ram 1500 (with 360) are still running, and both have been very reliable. I will say that I am partial to the 360, even though the 318 will be hitting 450,000 miles soon.

      • 0 avatar

        I didn’t buy a Ram in 2000 as the three 360 powered ones I test drove (These were like “Oh, just bring it back with a full tank by closing time” drives) all pinged like hell, even when I put most of a tank of 94 octane in the one. Besides, the GM trucks just plain drove better. I owned 3 360 powered vehicles in the past, and all had some preignition issues, but they were minor compared to the later ones, they seemed to ping very badly. I would never even bother with a 318 if I did this swap though.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    If memory serves the 360 is an incredibly thirsty engine. To me the 318 is the updated version of the slant six, they just keep going and going….

    • 0 avatar

      On that year Dakota, the 360 gets one MPG worse in the city and overall. The 318 is very robust, but its not exactly a fuel sipper either. In my experience, I haven’t noticed much of a difference in fuel economy from the 318 to the 360.

  • avatar

    I had a ’99 Dakota R/T, it was an absolute lemon, and the repair history before me was even worse. I think it was on transmission number 3 in 6 years. But when everything worked, it was a nice little truck.

    Unless you’re doing all the work yourself, I would think you’re money ahead parting it out and just buying another truck with the options you want. There’s no way the truck is cost effective to pay someone to swap the motor and transmission.

    Also, I’d find a different mechanic, if you’re paying him to repair your transmission and he’s “stumped” after tearing it down, I think it’s time to go elsewhere.

  • avatar

    I’m going to go out on a limb, and say that those “ricers” you beat, probably didn’t even know you were racing. I’ve been in V6 5spd Dakotas, and they’re slow. Very slow.

    As far as your actual problem goes: I’d start by cleaning the IAC valve on the throttle body. Engines just don’t stall for no reason.

    Being hard to shift going up hills doesn’t really make sense, as the transmission should be under no load with the clutch pushed in. I’d suspect maybe an engine/transmission mount problem allowing too much flex or perhaps not enough oil in the transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      Ian Anderson

      Heh, the “ricers” I refer to are usually bone-stock Civics with a Folgers can welded in place of the muffler, whose drivers typically think they’re the best and fastest things going. Good to put them in their place occasionally. ;)

      IAC and the top of the engine is fine, I went through it when we did the exhaust manifolds. Trans oil is good per the service manual (the previous owner had it overfilled). The motor and trans mounts appear to be okay, but I do have a bad U-joint or two now and I’m wondering if that could possibly have anything to do with it.

      Thanks for the reply.

  • avatar

    I would have thought that after selling 60 million or so albums worldwide, the lead singer of Jethro Tull wouldn’t be driving a 15 and 20 year old Dodge Dakota.

  • avatar

    So far as size you Dakota is in a sweet spot. Build it for your intended purpose. If you are going to race get the heaviest drive train that fits. If you want mileage I think the four was adequate and I have driven a lot of four cylinders that just kept running forever.

    I’m not sure what your intentions for future use will have for a focus. I thought the 4.3 that I just had in an S10 satisfied all my needs. Expect the dodge equivalent must be pretty good also. Did hear it’s a thirsty engine. I think if you ask 20 people you get 20 answers.

    Choose your primary use and tailor the truck for it. Doubt it’s racing.

  • avatar

    MMM, is there such a thing as a “good Dodge Tranasmission”

  • avatar

    Aside from money, your time, and whatnot here would be my chief question: what is the difference in fuel economy between the 3.9 and the 5.2 or 5.9? If the 3.9 is already sub 15mpg in city driving and the transmission needs replaced anyway, might as well do the upgrade . If the 3.9 does well in mileage and you know the 5.2 and larger bring you down to the 10-12 mpg range then I might consider keeping the 3.9 in place for reasons of economy.

    • 0 avatar

      On that vintage Dakota:

      3.9: 14/19/16
      5.2: 13/17/14
      5.9: 12/17/13

      Thats with the 4 speed auto. The V6 will get you 14/20/17 with the manual.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks bball. Looks like the upgrade should be a go and might as well go 360.

        • 0 avatar

          I can validate the V6 fuel economy is terrible. Had a V6 and got 16 highway if I was lucky. I have a 318 now and it is about the same.
          The only reason to pick a 3.9 V6 Dakota over a V8 is if the V8 is 4.7 Powertech. The 4.7 is big money to replace if it blows.

          The 3.9 is more or less a 318 with 2 cylinders cut off. 318 or 360 is close to a bolt-in for it. Same bellhousing but even if your tranny wasn’t gone, it wouldn’t last too long with the V8. If I recall, the wiring is almost the same with 2 additional wire sets to the additional 2 cylinders, which can be added.

          Its an easy swap and with all the cheap 360s from rusted out Rams, it won’t cost much to do.

  • avatar

    Intermittent shifting problems can mean a broken motor mount. Engine shifts a little to one side and you can no longer shift gears.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Thanks everyone for your replies and Sajeev for posting this! In the time since I’ve sent this in the clutch/trans/etc have been playing nice which I’m taking with a grain of salt but enjoying for now.

    As of “now” the V8 swap isn’t going to happen as I have that planned for the ’92 as a project, and the truck also now needs U-joints and a carrier bearing. With the trans behaving it’s between replacing the J-joints/bearing and throwing four snow tires on it, or selling/trading it in as-is. The ’92 is currently serving as daily driver while the ’99 is keeping a spot in the driveway dry.

    • 0 avatar

      I like the V8 swap in the ’92 now that you mention it. That’s a more classic bodystyle now. I remember my Dad having a ’93 two tone black and grey Dakota. I definetly like the look of those.

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