The Dodge Dakota has always been the loner in the pickup scene: a little too big for a compact pickup, a little too small to be considered a full-size. Dodge has intentionally positioned the Dakota as an alternative to the Chevy S-10 and Ford Ranger, touting the larger cabin, payload, and the available V-8 power.
The first generation Dakota was a handsome pickup, but somehow it never made much of a dent in Ford and Chevy sales. The new Dakota threatens to take a much larger chunk out of the domestic competition's market share. Completely redesigned in 1996, the Dakota takes styling cues from its bigger brother, the Dodge Ram.
The Dakota, like most domestic pickups, is offered in a dizzying range of models. No less than eight different versions are available, split between the Regular and Club Cab extended chassis. The Regular Cab comes in Base, Sport, and SLT trim levels. The Club Cab adds the Sport+ and SLT+ models as well. These choices are further complicated by three different engines, 6.5' or 8' box, and 2WD vs. 4WD options.
Dodge offers a larger choice of powertrain options than most other compact pickups. The available Magnum engines include the 120 bhp 2.5L I-4, 175 bhp 3.9L V-6, and 230 bhp 5.2L V-8. All engines are available with a 5-speed manual transmission. However, only the V-6 and V-8 offer the optional 4-speed automatic.
Rear-wheel ABS is standard on all models; 4-wheel ABS is optional. Brakes are power-assisted front disc/rear drum. A limited slip axle is optional on all models. 4X4 models offer a 2-speed part-time transfer case, with shift-on-the-fly capability. No fewer than six different tire options are available, ranging from P215/75R15 all-season (4X2 models) to 31"X10.5"R15 all-terrain (4X4 models).
Body & Suspension
The Dakota is based on a steel ladder frame chassis, the standard for pickups and other heavy duty vehicles. The independent front suspension consists of upper and lower control arms with a stabilizer bar. The 4X2 models use coil springs up front; 4X4's employ torsion bars. The rear suspension has leaf springs to suspend the solid axle. 4X4 models offer a handling group which includes a rear stabilizer bar and wheel flares.
There are four different seating options for the Dakota. Seats can be ordered in cloth bench, split-bench, bucket, and vinyl bench. All models are equipped with dual airbags. An optional overhead console with trip computer and automatic dimming day/night mirror is available. Power windows, door locks, remote keyless entry, tilt steering, and electronic speed control are all part of various convenience groups.
The Dakota follows in the footsteps of the Ram without looking overly aggressive. There are ten different exterior colors available. Paint quality is excellent. Exterior body panels show good fit and finish. Good engine access is provided by a large hood that opens easily.
The interior has a generally high quality look. The interior trim fits well, with mostly low gloss plastics. The ignition key cylinder feels relatively crude, which is in contrast to the rest of the interior. The overall interior styling is quite attractive, and could easily be mistaken for a mid-size sedan. All controls are easily visible and most can be accessed without looking away from the road. The switch gear has a generally high quality feel.
The seats are comfortable, and the cloth upholstery is attractive. The Club Cab model tested has ample legroom which should allow most drivers to get comfortable. Dodge claims six passenger seating with the Club Cab, but unless the passengers are small children, the rear seats are better off used for groceries or storage.
Outward visibility is excellent due to the high seating position and large outside mirrors. The pedals and tilt steering wheel are well located and ensure that drivers will have no trouble getting acclimated.
The 4X2 SLT Club Cab tested was equipped with the 175 bhp 3.9L V-6 and 4-speed automatic. This combination offers decent low speed acceleration when unladen. At highway speeds, the Dakota's V-6 is less impressive, with sluggish response. The 5-speed manual would probably be more lively. It would be wise to avoid the 4-cylinder model at all costs. For anyone who does serious hauling, the 5.2L V-8 is highly recommended.
The Dakota rides and handles surprisingly well for a pickup, and compares to some mid-size sedans. Suspension tuning is biased towards a relatively soft ride that smothers bumps and other road irregularities. The body is free of squeaks and rattles and feels quite solid. Steering feel is reasonably good, but somewhat isolated. The power-assist supplies enough boost to make the Dakota easy to drive. Dodge is justifiably proud of the tight turning circle for this new pickup. This translates into a nimble feel that makes the Dakota feel more like a small compact truck.
Braking does not appear to be a particular strong suit of the Dakota. The brake pedal felt soft and required significant pressure to slow down quickly. This is one area where definite improvement would be appreciated. Larger front discs would certainly increase braking performance and provide an extra margin of safety when heavily loaded. Considering the heavy front weight bias inherent to pickups, the 4-wheel ABS option is highly recommended, especially for owners who live in the snowbelt.
1997 Dodge Dakota Club Cab SLT 4X2
Front engine/Rear-wheel drive
Price Range: $12,725-26,790
Price as tested: $19,788
12-valve, V-6, iron block, iron heads
Valvetrain: Pushrod, rocker arm, single cam in block
Fuel Delivery: Sequential multipoint fuel injection
Displacement: 3.917 L
Horsepower (SAE net): 175bhp @ 4800 rpm
Torque: 225 lb.-ft. @ 3,200 rpm
4-speed automatic w/lockup torque converter
Front: Independent, upper/lower control arms, coil springs, gas-charged shock absorbers, stabilizer bar
Rear: Solid axle, leaf springs, gas-charged shock absorbers
Steering ratio: 14.8:1
Turning Circle: 41.2 ft.
Front: Power assisted disc
Rear: Drum, Rear-wheel antilock
Wheels & Tires
Wheels: 15"X7" cast aluminum
Tires: 215/75R15 OWL, all-season
Measurements & Capacities
Payload: 1,450 lb.
Min. GVWR: 5,160 lb.
towing: 6,400 lb
Width: 71.5 in.
Height: 65.7 in.
Overall Length: 214.8 in.
Wheelbase: 131.0 in.
Box Length: 6.5 ft.
Box Width: 59.3 in.
Box Depth: 17.6 in.
Ground Clearance F/R: 7.1/8.4 in.
Fuel Capacity: 22 gal.
Head Room (F/R): 40.0/38.0 in.
Leg Room (F/R): 41.9/22.1 in.
Hip Room (F/R): 56.7/58.0 in.
Shoulder Room (F/R): 58.1/58.2 in.
Interior Volume (F/R): 56.4/28.3 cu. ft.
Highway: 21 mpg
City: 16 mpg
The Dodge Dakota is an unusual pickup that fills the void between the compact and full-size truck segments. It is well suited to customers who find compact pickups too small in carrying capacity, but do not want the bulk or expense of a larger pickup. The new Dakota allows Dodge to compete on a more even footing with the domestic and import competition.