1997 Dodge Dakota

I have long been an admirer of the Dodge Dakota "mid-sized" pickup concept. For many users a full-sized pickup is much more truck than they need.

Check it out on any highway. A typical pickup's load consists of one guy behind the wheel and a small pile of whatever in the bed. While knowing that the capability is there is important to most owners, only rarely do we observe a pickup used to its full potential.

The neat thing about this new-generation Dakota is that it will match or almost match the capacity of a full-size pickup without taking up all that space in the universe. The 1997 Dakota pickups have payload ratings ranging up to 1,180 kg (2,600 pounds) and can be equipped to tow 3,040 kg (6,700 pounds).

Although the new truck is marginally larger than the previous Dakota in most external dimensions, primarily to accommodate the curvy styling and to cover larger tires and wheels, the internal size of the bed remains unchanged.

Available in 6.5-foot and 8-foot (2 and 2.4 metre) lengths, the box won't accept a 4×8 between the wheel housings. The wide area above, however, measures over 59 inches (150 cm) and pockets in the side walls will take cross supports for two-tier loading. As on the Big Bro' Ram, tie-downs are now recessed into the floor, protected by snap-out covers. The dumb thing about the mid-sized Dakota is the length of time it has taken Chrysler to do anything with this splendid idea.

After introducing the truck in 1987, the manufacturer has effectively ignored it. Except for the addition of a V8 to the engine lineup and an aberrant attempt to make a convertible out of it, the Dakota has received virtually no promotion and little development.

I once called it an "orphan;" someone else said the Dakota was the Rodney Dangerfield of pickups.

Only time will tell whether the Dodge folks will give the latest version its due, but even if they continue to slack off, this is a truck that should sell itself.

For starters, the truck is, uh, noticeable. The styling, an unashamed rewrite of the big Ram's hey-look-at-me outlines, is even more bold in a compacted format. Turned out in a screaming red monochrone paint scheme, our 4×4 Sport tester was loud.

For starters, the styling is an unashamed rewrite of the big Ram's hey-look-at-me outlines and is even more bold in a compact format.

Visual volume notwithstanding, the '97 Dakota is a much more subtle truck than its big Ram brother. The Ram suffers from an over abundance of what Chrysler describes as "I-don't-care-if-you-like-me", or what also has become known as "true truck values." True truck values appeal to those among us who react to the idea of refinement in pickups with a string of colorful expletives.

In real world terms the Ram's true truck attributes derive primarily from unnecessarily stiff springs on all of the models, plus a 4×4 suspension that won't fit without an in-the-sky (and in-your-face) ride height.

In contrast, our Dakota, while sprung with enough resilience to impart a traditional sense of tough-truck sturdiness (trucky enough to satisfy the flannel shirt set), served up a comfortable ride under most conditions, both off and on the road. Only when the rear springs had to cope with a sharp bump did the Dakota remind me of its big brother's harshness.

The swingarm and torsion bar front suspension allows this 4×4 to sit at a reasonable distance from the pavement while maintaining plenty of ground clearance enhanced on our tester by imposing Wrangler 31×10.5R15 LT tires.

I was expecting the '97 Dakota to outhandle the earlier version, which was characterized by numb steering and equally numb responses. However, although I initially scoffed at the "Sport" decals on our tester, I soon discovered that the new machine may well be the next pickup handling champ. Weather conditions during the test period precluded any final conclusions, but I flung it around enough to be impressed.

Dodge engineers have increased the torsional rigidity of the new truck's frame an average of 50 percent over the old Dakota and as much as 150 percent in the area of the front suspension.

Given a stiff frame, the designers have much more control over the effects of tires, springs and shock absorbers, and, ultimately, the handling. The 4×4 gave ample evidence that they've done their homework. I'm looking forward to driving a 2WD model through my handling loop without the fluffy white precip.

A peek behind those fat tires and some time spent lying on my back in the snow provided further evidence of the effort that has gone into this truck.

Most of the stampings are elegantly designed, portraying none of the crude afterthought appearance that was a hallmark of the old Rams and still shows up on the current fullsize. For ease of service, proper nut-and-bolt assembly is employed throughout. The fasteners are of top quality and many are galvanized to resist corrosion.

Dakota offers three engine choices, all equipped with sequential multi-point fuel injection. There's a 120 h.p., 2.5-litre four; the 175 h.p., 3.9-litre V6; and the remarkable 5.2-litre Magnum V8. I say remarkable because this engine just keeps getting better. With new-for-'97 induction and exhaust plumbing, the doughty old 318 now puts out 230 h.p. and 300 poundfeet of torque.

Wheels' test truck employed a four-speed automatic transmission, which is my usual choice over a manual for pickup duty. This is one area, however, where Dodge needs to factor in a bit more of that refinement we spoke of earlier.

The transmission's upshifts were smooth but often ill-timed. Downshifts were unpredictable at best, the worst case being a sharp grab for first gear that was an unwelcome surprise on slippery surfaces.

Dakota's 4WD system is a simple but robust part-time system; the truck must be at rest for 4WD to be engaged.

Transport Canada reports that this engine/tranny combo will require 18 litres of fuel to travel 100 kilometres in the city and 12.9 to do the same on the highway. My results were somewhat better than that, averaging about 14 L/100 km.

The Dakota's fourwheel drive is a simple but robust part-time system. As such, the truck must be at rest for 4WD to be engaged. Good thing, because the system is activated by a stout handle that is situated far enough under the dash to necessitate a deep bend away from the steering wheel and a long reach.

This break with Chrysler's current successes with ergonomics is matched by the position of the 4WD indicator lamp not in the gauge cluster but down on the right side of the floor console. Most times the indicator is beyond a quick glance, but with a coffee in one of the console's cupholders it is totally obscured.

The interior is marred by a couple of other minor lapses for which I have no explanation. On a $29,915 truck (base $23,885) equipped with power locks and windows, remote keyless entry, an overhead console with a compass and outside temp and so on, there was no power outlet point (just a blankedover hole) and no right-side vanity mirror. Macho is one thing, but that's taking this "true truck" concept far too seriously.

The rest of the Club Cab's interior features were more in line with what we've come to expect from the new generation Dodge. The instruments and switch gear are uncomplicated, easy to see, easy to use. Panel design, panel fit and the quality of plastic and fabric is as good or better than anything else on the road, car or truck.

Panel design, panel fit and the quality of plastic and fabric is as good or better than anything else on the road

In the narrower Dakota the Ram's 40/20/40 split bench isn't quite as effective, reducing the size of the folddown armrest/console. But the seat is properly shaped and easily surpasses the comfort level of the old Dakota bench.

And, they've done a nice job of the extended cab. With less than 50 additional centimetres to play with, there isn't too much passenger space and adults sitting on the forward-facing seat will find it a knees-in-your-nose experience. Nonetheless, the cushioning is good and short trips are okay.

Faithful to Dodge's thinkin'-all-the-time approach to truck interior design, the Club Cab's real mission has been served by a 60/40 split seat base that flips up to expose a rugged plastic load floor incorporating a covered jack well on one side and a storage compartment on the other.

To make it perfect, we can hope that a Ford/GM-style third door is in the Dakota's near future.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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