Dakota's new edginess is punctuated up front. The signature chrome, cross-hair grille has chiseled edges. The sides of Dakota's raised hood are square with its top and blend with flattened grille sides.
Front fender design is most notable among the changes. Styling is familiar, but greatly accentuated. The fenders bulge, but in place of old-school rounded, their sides are flat and greet the tops at right angles to form sharp creases.
These creases, as well as the fenders' sides, taper to an abrupt stop at the doors. A designer said creating clean stampings with flared elevations at the doors was a challenging process. Rectangular headlamps are crisp and technical looking, and mate flush with fender sides and tops.
Also enhancing Dakota's power look, the front bumper fascia is larger and more imposing. An upper chrome strip teams with the grille and headlamps to serve up a brightwork sampler platter.
At the rear, fenders bulge in a chiseled manner similar to those up front. Capping off the fenders are large, twin-lens taillamps Wilkins describes as "afterburners." The inboard sides of the taillamps meet with the flat center portion of a tailgate featuring artful elevations top and bottom that blend it with the fenders.
Along with the power conveyed at the body sides with the fenders, a large body-to-glass ratio and bulging lower-door sculpting pump up macho. This macho comes via more than just looks. Dodge offers a selection of muscular powerplants to propel Dakota's bolder body.
The base 3.7-liter delivers a respectable 210 horsepower and 235 lbs.-ft. of torque. Its transmission mates are a new six-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic.
Dakota's 4.7-liter V-8 comes in two forms, standard and High Output. The standard V-8 produces 230 horsepower and 290 lbs.-ft. of torque, and the High Output version cranks out 250-plus hp and 300-plus lbs.-ft. of torque. Both versions are paired with a standard six-speed manual or optional five-speed automatic transmission.
Maximum towing capacity with the V-8s is 7,150 pounds and the top payload rating is 1,800 pounds. Loads are hauled in cargo boxes of two different lengths - a 6-foot-6-inch box on the Club Cab and 5-foot-4-inch box on the Quad Cab. Passenger and cargo loading are made easier for 2005 with new back-hinged rear-access doors on Club Cab models.
Exceptional for a pickup in the Dakota's class is the offering of two types of 4WD systems. Dakota buyers have a choice of a conventional part-time transfer case or a full-time all-wheel-drive system.
Dakotas roll on a new-design fully boxed chassis that Dodge reports is eight times stiffer in torsional (twisting) stiffness and two times stiffer in bending.
Ride quality is notably smooth and the Dakota holds its own when maneuvering through the twisties. Passenger isolation from both road irregularities and outside noise is excellent for a midsize pickup. Assisting in keeping the noise level down are 20 percent thicker front door glass and double-thickness carpet insulation.
Interior styling also gets a boost with a clean and uncluttered cab design Dodge said creates a "business-like environment." Knobs and switches for the audio and heat/AC system are large and simply laid out. The center stack in which they are located is trimmed in a metallic-like finish.
Seat upholstery is available in cloth and leather. Front-seat heating is offered for both coverings, which makes the availability of heated cloth seats a segment first. Seat feel is on the firm side for added support.
This theme of tautness and precision runs bumper to bumper in the new Dakota, which features a stiff chassis, taut and angular body lines, and affordable V-8 power for those on a tight budget.
(Tim Spell is the automotive writer for the Houston Chronicle Cars & Trucks section.)
Copyright Motor Matters, 2004