Debuting back in 1987, the Dakota filled the sizable gap between compact and full-size pickups. Although referred to as a compact, the Dakota can be thought of more as a midsize truck. But it wasn't until 1997, when the Dakota was redesigned and adopted the handsome look of its bigger brother, the Dodge Ram, that people took notice. The following years saw the introduction of the potent R/T muscle truck (packing a 250-horsepower V8 along with a monochrome paint scheme and big wheels) and the Quad cab, a true crew-cab style truck with full-size doors and plenty of room for those in back.
This year, Dodge dropped the 2.5-liter four cylinder engine and added a number of upgrades, including the options of a five-speed automatic transmission and a six-disc CD changer. As before, three cab configurations and a multitude of trim levels are available including everything from a basic, standard cab workhorse to a leather-lined 4WD Quad Cab that can serve as a family vehicle. Our chief complaint with the 2003 Dodge Dakota is that the V8 models tend to be very thirsty; it's a struggle to average more than 13 or 14 mpg with those trucks.
The Dakota offers more room, more power and more capability than the other trucks it ostensibly competes against, such as the Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger. Everything from its towing capacity and stance to its available V8 power and roomy interior are a cut above the smaller rigs. If you're in the market for a sensibly sized yet accommodating compact pickup, a test drive of the 2003 Dodge Dakota is certainly in order.
The 2003 Dodge Dakota is available in three body styles: regular cab, extended ("Club") cab and crew ("Quad") cab. Both two- and four-wheel-drive versions are available. No less than seven trim levels are offered; base, value-oriented SXT, flashy Sport and Sport Plus, luxury SLT and SLT Plus and the stormin' R/T. We think eliminating the base and Plus models (by incorporating the "Plus" upgrades -- power windows and locks, alloy wheels, keyless entry, wheel flares and handling package -- into the SLT and Sport) would simplify things for potential buyers as well as Dodge's assembly lines. Notable options include leather seating, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, four-wheel ABS (rear-wheel ABS is standard on all models), and full-time four-wheel drive.
A 40/20/40-split front bench seat is standard on all but the SXT and R/T models, which come with high-back buckets. The buckets are optional on the other trims. In Quad Cabs, there is a 60/40-split folding rear bench seat. Large gauges and simple controls highlight the cabin, and build quality is surprisingly good, with high-quality materials and a lack of rough edges or uneven seams.
Standard on all Dakotas is a 3.9-liter V6 (175 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque). Next up the power ladder is the optional (on Sport and SLT models) 4.7-liter V8 (235-horsepower and 295 lb-ft of twist). Then there's the 5.9-liter V8 that comes on the R/T (where it's rated 250 horsepower and 345 lb-ft) and is optional on Quad Cab models (245 horses and 335 lb-ft). A five-speed manual transmission comes with the 3.9 V6 and 4.7 V8 engines. A four-speed automatic is optional on the V6, standard on the 5.9 V8. New this year is the option of a five-speed automatic for the 4.7 V8. Even the heaviest Dakota, a 4WD Quad Cab, performs well with the smaller V8. We've recorded a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.8 seconds and a quarter-mile run of 16.8 ticks. Class-leading work ability is here as well; maximum payload is rated at 2,160 pounds while max towing capacity is 6,600 pounds.
Willing power plants, automatic transmissions that are rarely caught off guard and well-sorted suspensions make these trucks easy to live with, no matter what they're asked to do. On-road, the supple suspension swallows up bumps, yet doesn't have the truck wallowing through the turns. And off-road, the 2003 Dodge Dakota easily handles everything, even severely rutted and rock-strewn trails. Only the Dakota's broad girth (compared to that of the truly "compact" pickups it competes with) makes for some anxious moments when negotiating narrower trails. In virtually any other environment, the Dakota performs with a "no sweat" attitude.
The Dakota fares well in most crash tests. Frontal impact testing garnered four out of five stars. Side-impact tests rated a full five stars; especially impressive considering the lack a side airbag option. Frontal offset crash testing, however, was another story; the 2003 Dodge Dakota was rated as "Poor," the lowest of the four ratings in that test.
Finally realizing that a 120-horsepower engine has no business being in a 3,500-pound (or more) pickup, Dodge drops the 2.5-liter inline four from the Dakota's powertrain roster. An optional five-speed automatic transmission for the 4.7-liter V8 debuts, as does a Stampede package that provides the show but not the go of the R/T model. Speaking of the R/T, that model receives four-wheel disc brakes this year.