It wasn't until the late 1980s that Dodge got serious about competing in the compact pickup market. Instead of building another bite-size truck to scrabble for sales against strong-selling imports, the company created the Dodge Dakota, the first-ever midsize pickup truck. Size has long been the Dakota's chief advantage over the competition, as it slots neatly between cramped compacts and hulking full-size trucks. When Dodge introduced the Dakota Quad Cab in 2000, it was the first relatively small crew cab to offer truly comfortable seating for four adults.
In addition to its in-between size, the Dodge Dakota has tended to ride smoothly and handle predictably on the road. The Dakota was also the first smaller pickup to receive a V8. However, with leading import brands getting comparable performance out of their more fuel-efficient V6s, the latest-generation Dakota was at a competitive disadvantage. Due to slow sales, Dodge discontinued the Dakota after the 2011 model year. A replacement is rumored to be in the works, however.
Most Recent Dodge Dakota
The third-generation Dodge Dakota was produced from 2005-'11. For that last year, however, it was officially renamed Ram Dakota. Trim level names varied throughout the truck's run, but the main ones were ST, STX, Sport, Laramie and TRX. There were also special models offered such as LoneStar and BigHorn.
Initially, the Dakota featured a 210-horsepower V6 or an optional 4.7-liter V8 good for 230 hp. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, while the V6 could be equipped with a four-speed automatic and the V8 with a five-speed auto. A 260-hp high-output version of the V8 joined the show for 2006. The 4.7-liter V8 got a considerable power bump to 302 hp in 2008.
Freshened styling also debuted that year, as did a redesigned instrument panel, additional storage compartments and an optional MyGIG multimedia system including a hard-drive-based navigation system. The manual transmission was discontinued for 2010, while the navigation system was killed off a year later, along with the TRX4 off-road model. On the plus side, antilock brakes and side curtain airbags were made standard on all Dakotas. With earlier models, these were included in the optional Safety Group.
As expected, the Dakota was available with two-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive; however, on high-line models you could get a full-time 4WD system -- an unusual feature in this class. There was no regular cab configuration, so buyers had their choice of an extended cab (known as the Club Cab) or crew cab (Quad Cab). The Quad Cab is the way to go if your truck will serve as a family vehicle, but unfortunately, it had a short 5-foot 4-inch bed, and Dodge offered neither a longer bed length nor a factory bed extender. Club Cabs had 6-foot 6-inch beds.
In road tests and reviews we found that the third-generation Dakota was one of the better candidates for daily commuter duty in the compact and midsize pickup segment. It boasted comfortable seating, abundant storage and simple controls. When equipped with the V8 engine, power was ample. Downsides to this midsize truck included low-quality interior materials, lackluster fuel economy and a harsh ride quality.
Past Dodge Dakota Models
The second-generation Dodge Dakota (1997-2004) features virtually all the strengths of the more recent truck. Spotty reliability is the one downside. Only standard and extended cabs were available from 1997-'99. In addition to the Quad Cab's arrival in 2000, a more potent 4.7-liter V8 joined the lineup that year, replacing the old-tech 5.2-liter V8. If you want a six-cylinder Dakota, 2004 is the best year, as the more powerful 3.7-liter V6 pre-empted the aged 3.9-liter V6.
Performance buffs will want to consider the Dakota R/T, a bona fide sport truck sold in regular cab and Club Cab versions from 1998-2003. Unlike the R/T from the third generation, which was little more than a cosmetic package, this Dodge truck had its own engine, a torquey but thirsty 5.9-liter V8 rated for 250 hp and 345 pound-feet of torque, and a sport-tuned suspension.
The original Dodge Dakota, on sale from 1987-'96, was also a solid truck for its time, but the ones you're likely to run across on the used market are likely to be well-worn. It's best to confine your search to the 1992-'96 model years; In '92, Dodge introduced a new family of V6 and V8 engines, bringing a much-needed increase in performance and refinement.