2003 Dodge Dakota Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The biggest little truck you can buy.
We've often seen the Dodge Dakota classified as a mid-size pickup, or even as the mid-size pickup: smaller than a Ford F-150, Chevy Silverado, or Dodge's own Ram, yet bigger than the Ford Ranger, Chevy S-10, GMC Sonoma, or Toyota Tacoma. Dodge strategically promotes the Dakota as the biggest, most powerful, most capable compact pickup on the market. Call it a compact and it's the only compact offering optional V8 power.
Whatever you call it, the Dakota offers more versatility than other compact pickups, without quite as much bulk as a full-size truck. Or as Shakespeare might have put it: A Dakota by any other name would be precisely the same size. And that size seems to fit some pickup buyers just right.
Dakota's biggest change for 2002 is the addition of the value-priced SXT, which offers sporty looks and features for under $17,000. And unlike some competitors' compact-trucks-with-attitude, SXT comes in two or four-wheel drive.
For more serious performance, Dakota continues to offer the big-engined R/T model, now with chromed wheels optional. Most Dakotas ride into 2002 with an increased GVW, and the rear-wheel anti-lock brake system (RWAL) now includes electronic brake apportioning (EBA) for more effective stopping and increased lining life.
Dodge Dakota is available in three cab configurations: Regular Cab, extended Club Cab, and four-door Quad Cab. While some competitive extended cabs feature short auxiliary doors behind the main doors, the Dakota Club Cab comes with two doors only.
Regular and Club Cabs are offered in three trim levels: base, Sport and SLT. Base Regular Cab 2WD retails for $14,810; Sport Regular Cab 2WD goes for $15,855; and SLT Regular Cab sells for $16,415. Sport adds better seats and interior trim and upgrades to the exterior. SLT comes with V6 power, gray fascias, and bright bumpers and grille. Quad Cabs start at the Sport level, powered by the V6.
The new SXT model, available only with a Regular or Club Cab, adds 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear stabilizer bar, cloth bucket seats, carpeting, and special Graphite Metallic exterior trim. Outline-white-letter tires are also part of the package: You get the all-season type with two-wheel drive, and all-terrain tires on four-wheelers.
Four engines are available. A 120-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline-4 is standard on Regular and Club Cabs in base or Sport trim. SLT's and all Quad Cabs come with a 175-horsepower 3.9-liter V6. Rounding out the option list are a 235-horsepower 4.7-liter V8, and a 5.9-liter V8 that produces 245 or 250 horsepower, depending on model. Manual transmissions are offered with all but the 5.9. All engines are available with an automatic option, including an unusual ``mutli-speed overdrive' unit exclusive to the 4.7.
Two types of four-wheel drive are available: One is a part-time system with shift-on-the-fly capability, probably the best choice for off-road use. The other is a full-time system that emphasizes all-weather traction.
The R/T Group adds $2,190 to the cost of a Regular or Club Cab, and features a high-performance version of the 5.9-liter V8. A less restrictive exhaust increases horsepower and torque and offers a more aggressive exhaust note. R/T's also pack aggressive (255/55R17) blackwall tires on 17-inch aluminum wheels, heavy-duty stabilizer bars, a lowered (by one inch) handling-oriented suspension, limited-slip rear differential, bucket seats, a floor console, fog lights, special trim and a long list of convenience items.
Dakota shares its Freightliner styling with the full-size Dodge Ram. Bold lines give it a big, burly look, like it's ready to take on anything that comes its way.
Regular and Club Cabs have a 6-foot 6-inch bed, a good size for a compact truck. The Quad Cab, on the other hand, has a 5-foot 3-inch bed. According to Dodge, people seldom need the full length of the longer bed. Our experience, however, is that when you need it, you need it. Those who need more cargo space can consider an optional bed extender, an aluminum cage that flips over the lowered tailgate to extend the bed by 18 inches. Sometimes the bed extender works great, but a lowered tailgate with a mesh opening won't hold dirt back like longer bed with a solid tailgate. Dodge also offers a special shell developed for the Dakota by Leer to protect the cargo area.
For 2002, the 2WD Quad Cab comes with bigger standard tires: P235/75R15.
Dakota's interior was completely revised for 2001. The instrument panel was made easier to reach and easier to use, and almost all of the switchgear was changed. A notable example is the rotary dial for the electrically controlled transfer case, replacing the lever used previously. Door trim and carpeting were updated, as were the center and overhead consoles. Leather became an option on Quad Cabs, where it costs an extra $580 in 2002. The idea was to ease the transition for first-time truck buyers, who were used to the convenience and creature comforts of a car.
For 2002, Dodge has made an AM/FM/Cassette stereo standard on all Dakota models. A three-channel home security transceiver joins the option list.
Visibility from inside the Dakota Quad Cab is outstanding. The driver sits high and there are no obvious blind spots. Optional 6x9-inch mirrors improve visibility rearward. The Quad Cab is roomy and comfortable. The front seat is a 40/20/40 split, although for $210 you can replace the 40/20/40 split bench with high-back buckets with a center console. The wide console works well as a storage area for miscellaneous junk, but it gets in the way when fastening seat belts. A pullout cup holder at the foot of the center section is a nice touch. The driver and front seat passenger had tons of legroom.
The rear doors open wide - about 37 inches. Getting in and out of the rear seat is aided by the fact that there is no cutout for the rear wheels (like there is in many sport-utilities). But a lack of clearance for heads and feet make getting out a bit more difficult than it should be.
The rear seating area in the Dakota Quad Cab is roomier than that of any other compact truck. But that only makes it the best of a bad lot, and legroom, particularly, is limited. There's good knee room, and plenty of headroom, but not a lot of foot space, so don't plan on stretching out. As in most of the smaller ``crew cab' pickups, the rear seat back is bolt upright and not very comfortable. Children and smaller adults should be happy enough back there, but taller folk will find the space confining. At least the rear windows roll all the way down, a feature sadly missing from some SUVs.
You can make better use of the rear half of the Quad Cab by folding its 60/40 split bench seat and creating a convenient and secure storage area. The seat folds entirely out of the way; not all compact trucks allow you to do that. Or, you can set up half of the rear seat for a passenger and still have room to tote stuff.
Controls are nicely placed and easy to operate. The $575 AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo offers superb sound through eight Infinity speakers spread around the cab. Our test truck came with the overhead electronic console with an eight-point compass and ambient temperature gauge that are useful when traveling. It also featured a trip computer and odometer that reports fuel economy and fuel tank range. The console is part of the Overhead Convenience Group ($275) and includes compartments for sunglasses and garage door openers, auto-dimming rearview mirror and map lights.
Our Dodge Dakota Sport 4X4 Quad Cab was smooth and comfortable, although wind noise was a companion at higher speeds.
The rotary dial for the transfer case is easy to reach and operate, and its shift-on-the-fly capability a real convenience. We hit one particularly sandy section and switched easily into 4WD without dropping speed. Later, on a steep hill, we switched into 4WD-low and easily walked up a good 15 degree grade.
Only on washboard stretches of hard-packed dirt roads did the back end tend to lose its grip at speed - and even then only in two-wheel-drive mode. That's a fault common to most unloaded pickups. We were impressed with the Quad Cab's turning radius. For a truck its length, it makes relatively tight turns.
The brakes deliver straight and true stopping power. Our Quad Cab had the optional four-wheel anti-lock brakes ($495).
Dodge claims its 4.7-liter V8 ($590), designed from a clean sheet of paper, is the most refined V8 ever offered on a Dodge truck. It's a powerful little devil, rated at 235 horsepower and 295 foot-pounds of torque--all the power and torque you'd expect from a V8.
The 4.7 can be paired with a five-speed manual gearbox, or with Dodge's new multi-speed automatic transmission. The latter is a fully electronic four-speed automatic with a dual-ratio second gear. This transmission was designed in tandem with the 4.7-liter engine and they are precisely calibrated to each other, with an onboard computer continuously adjusting the shift pattern to match the way the truck is driven. A 3.0:1 Low ratio provides plenty of leverage to get rolling, followed by a shift up into a torquy 1.67:1 Second. But a kickdown from direct-drive Third engages a higher-speed Second ratio of 1.50:1, which Dodge says is better for passing. Fourth is a generous 0.75:1 overdrive, while Reverse has the same ratio as Low, beneficial when backing up with a heavy trailer.
Dodge Dakota is a solid, well-built truck that can be fun to drive. The 4.7-liter V8 in our Quad Cab offers great performance and works seamlessly with the specially designed automatic transmission.
The added interior room of the Quad Cab makes it extremely convenient on a day-to-day basis. Along with the hauling capability of the bed, it's almost like having two vehicles in one.
If you don't want a full-size truck, but compact pickups seem too small, then the Dodge Dakota may be just the thing.
4X2 Regular Cab ($14,810); 4X2 Club Cab ($18,135); 4X2 Quad Cab ($20,425); 4X4 Regular Cab ($18,405); 4X4 Club Cab ($21,460); 4X4 Quad Cab ($23,190).
Options As Tested
Quick-Order Package 24C ($2,560) includes: AM/FM/CD stereo; Floor mats; Tire & Handling Group (16-inch aluminum wheels, 265/70R16 tires, wheel flares, rear stabilizer bar); Power Overhead Convenience Group (overhead console, universal garage-door opener, automatic dimming rear-view mirror); Deluxe Convenience Group (cruise control, tilt steering column); Power Convenience Group (power windows, power locks, keyless entry); Other options: Heavy-duty Service Group ($180) includes 136-amp alternator, 750-amp battery, heavy-duty engine cooling, auxiliary transmission oil cooler; Trailer Tow Group ($275) includes Class IV receiver hitch, 7-circuit wiring connector; Four-wheel ABS ($495); 3.92 rear axle ratio ($40); limited-slip rear differential ($285); 4.7-liter V8 ($590); four-speed automatic transmission ($975); rear sliding window ($115); power fold-away heated 6X9-in. mirrors ($20); AM/FM/cassette/CD with Infinity speakers and equalizer ($575); leather-wrapped steering wheel ($50).
Dakota Quad Cab 4X4 Sport ($23,190).
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