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Second-Hand: Dodge Dakota Quad Cab

With light trucks capturing one-half of the market by the late 1990s, a bloodless coup was unfolding in the driveways of North America.

  • Car queue in the bad traffic road. Selective focus.

With light trucks capturing one-half of the market by the late 1990s, a bloodless coup was unfolding in the driveways of North America.

Families that had previously adopted the minivan and sport-utility were contemplating the ultimate utility vehicle: a four-door pickup truck.

With seating for up to six and a versatile box out back, it could work all week and perform recreational duties all weekend like some kind of Swiss Family Robinson army knife.

As the inventor of the front-drive minivan, Chrysler tried to coax lightning to strike twice by introducing America’s first “mid-size” pickup in 1986. The Dakota didn’t exactly set the sales chart on fire until the Quad Cab arrived for 2000.

Like the Nissan Frontier Crew Cab released around the same time, it sported four front-hinged doors on its extended cab and a shortened bed behind.

The Quad Cab caught the imagination of the buying public, so much so that it prompted imitators, including the Toyota Tacoma Double Cab, Chevrolet S-10 Crew Cab and Ford Explorer Sport Trac.

But since the Dakota was the only mid-size pickup, it offered the right scale and proportions to pull off the four-door trick successfully.


CONFIGURATION

Redesigned for 1997 to resemble its big-brother Dodge Ram, the Dakota came in two sizes: 111-inch (281.9 cm) wheelbase with a 6.5-foot cargo bed or 123.9-inch (314.7 cm) with an 8-foot bed.

The Club Cab, which added half a metre of space and a three-place bench seat behind the driver, rode on a 131-inch (332.7 cm) wheelbase and came only with the short box.

All body styles were available with rear-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive (not to be driven on dry pavement).

Three engines moved the Dakota: a 2.5-litre four-cylinder with 120 hp; a 3.9-litre V6 that produced 175 hp; and a 230 hp, 5.2-litre V8. A five-speed manual transmission was standard; a four-speed automatic was optional with the V6 or V8.

The Dakota’s cushy ride was augmented by its spacious cabin and comfortable seating. The dashboard layout was modern truck with simple climate controls and adjustable cupholders.

The Quad’s back seat was big: one owner suggested it offered more room than a full-size Ram. Two neat features: the rear doors swung open nearly 90 degrees wide and the bench folded up with one quick movement for added cargo room.

The interior got a mild redesign for 2001. In addition, a refined 235 hp, 4.7-litre V8 engine, borrowed from the Jeep Grand Cherokee, replaced the ancient 5.2-litre.

Also in 2001, buyers for the first time could order full-time 4×4 that worked on dry pavement.

The four-cylinder engine was dropped for 2003, while the V8 could be ordered with a five-speed automatic transmission. The pushrod 3.9-litre V6 was replaced with a 210-hp, SOHC 3.7-litre V6 as the base engine in 2004.


ON THE ROAD

Early Dakotas featured rack-and-pinion steering — an industry first — although it may have contributed to an unwieldy turning circle. Wrote one owner: “Dakota is an apt name, as it correctly describes the turning radius.”

The control-arm front suspension and live-axle rear hardware were as conventional as white bread, but made for a car-like ride.

The next-generation 1997 Dakota improved exponentially. Tangible advances included an exceptionally smooth ride, quick and even throttle response, and quiet composure on the highway.

A ’97 Dakota Sport 4×4 with the 5.2-L V8 could reach highway velocity in just over 9 seconds — middling acceleration bogged down by the truck’s buffet-loving weight.

Taking 65 metres to stop from a speed of 112 km/h wasn’t exceptional braking, and at 0.73 g, roadholding was okay. Gas mileage was disappointing.

“I liked it because it was a mid-size truck; however, it drives and sucks gas like a full-size truck,” one owner posted on the web.


WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

As is the case with some North American vehicles, the Dakota has a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde reputation; that is, many owners say it’s a great truck while others vehemently disagree.

“Right size, fits in the garage, carries all the company I care to have,” summed up one owner.

Others reported significant mechanical problems. Topping the list are faulty front-suspension upper ball joints that are prone to corrosion and wear. Left unchecked, they could lead to front-end noise, tire wear and even separation of the front suspension.

CBS News documented some frightening separations at speed.

Chrysler reacted by recalling 600,000 year 2000 to 2003- 1/2 4×4 Dakotas and Durangos (the closely related SUV) to replace the offending ball joints. Not surprisingly, a lot of owners changed their ball joints long before the recall in 2004.

The Dakota is also known for its warped front brake rotors, which can happen early and often (again, it’s a heavy truck). Some owners suggested cross-drilled aftermarket rotors as a solution.

Drivers of 2000 and 2001 models reported transmission and differential failures, sometimes at low mileage. Even driveshafts have been replaced.

Add to this a litany of concerns about drivetrain fluid leaks, other front-end repairs including entire steering racks, bad heater cores and air conditioners, and they add up to a questionable used-truck purchase.

On the other hand, some owners have reported excellent reliability over 150,000 km with nothing more than a ball-joint repair.

There’s that dichotomy again. It may be a case of a brilliant design compromised by lumpy and inconsistent build quality. Shop with care.


We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Toyota Prius, Ford Taurus and Suzuki XL-7.

Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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