The Dodge Dakota was a pioneer, just like those intrepid folks who first struck out into the real Dakotas. It was the first midsize pickup, one that cut the sizable gap between compact and full-size trucks. There's a definite market for such a Goldilocks choice, so much so that most of the Dakota's former compact competitors have bulked up in response. Although those competitors have made the 2009 Dodge Dakota seem rather unrefined and industrial by comparison, it continues to distinguish itself with its optional V8 engine while maintaining its in-class towing crown.
For 2009, four Dakota trim levels are eliminated, but their equipment is mostly redistributed among the ST, Big Horn and Laramie trim levels. In Texas, the Big Horn trim is aptly known as Lone Star (sadly, it's not "Show Me" in Missouri or "Bee Hive" in Utah). This follows the big changes made last year that included a revised V8, new entertainment options and tweaked styling inside and out.
This year's introduction of a V8 engine option to the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon twins means the Dodge Dakota is no longer the only vehicle in the compact/midsize pickup class to offer a V8. However, the Dakota maintains its best-in-class maximum towing capacity of 7,100 pounds. Of course, that beefy powertrain comes along with pretty beefy fuel consumption as well -- you'll be hard-pressed to get 15 mpg in mixed driving.
Although the 2009 Dodge Dakota remains a capable workhorse pickup, competing midsize trucks are better choices for those who spend as much time commuting and road tripping as they do hauling and towing. Especially when comparing the more expensive, more heavily equipped models, the Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma all offer more civilized on-road driving manners and exponentially nicer cabins. Their MSRPs are also significantly less. So unless you need the maximum amount of towing capacity and power one can get without stepping up to a full-size truck, this pioneering Dakota isn't the best choice.
The 2009 Dodge Dakota is a midsize pickup truck available in extended and crew cab body styles, each with only one bed size. Both come in ST, Big Horn (known as Lone Star in Texas), TRX4 and Laramie trim levels.
Standard on the ST are 16-inch steel wheels, a dual-position tailgate, air-conditioning, front bucket seats, cloth upholstery, a tilt steering wheel and a CD player stereo. The Big Horn adds 17-inch alloy wheels, body-colored bumpers and front fascia, full power accessories, a front center console, cruise control, two rear folding seats (extended cab only) and a rear under-seat storage system (crew cab only). Big Horn options include full-swing rear doors, a sliding rear window, utility bed rails, power front seats, satellite radio, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. These items are standard on the TRX4, along with 16-inch alloy wheels, off-road tires, an anti-slip differential, a trip computer and special front seats with bigger side bolsters. The Laramie also adds the Big Horn's optional items plus 18-inch alloy wheels, chrome exterior accents, automatic headlights and a bedliner (optional on the Big Horn and TRX4). The Laramie is the only trim level available with leather upholstery.
The Big Horn and Laramie extended cabs can be equipped with a front bench seat in place of the standard buckets. Other options, depending on the trim level, include dual power-folding and heated mirrors, heated front seats, a rear window defroster and a premium audio system with a six-CD changer. Optional on the Laramie and TRX4 are Bluetooth and a navigation system that includes digital music storage and a touchscreen stereo interface.
Even when loaded up with such niceties as leather and heated seats, the 2009 Dakota has a cheap, industrial feel to its cabin, with surfaces and switchgear made out of low-budget plastic. We don't expect pickups to be luxury sedans, but its competitors (and Dodge's redesigned '09 Ram) prove that it is possible for a truck to have a higher-quality cabin.
On the upside, the Dakota's interior design is for the most part straightforward. Switchgear is where you'd expect it to be, while the climate controls and the standard stereo are easy to use. The Laramie's optional audio and navigation touchscreen is a different story, as its smallish screen and frustrating menus make simple tasks difficult.
The standard bench seats are very comfortable, while the available power seats offer a wealth of adjustability. The crew cab's comfy backseat bottom features a 60/40 split, and when raised provides a flat loading surface. In all but the ST, that surface features a pair of milk-cratelike boxes that pop up to hold various loose items -- a thoughtful and useful touch.
A 3.7-liter V6 is standard on every 2009 Dodge Dakota, producing 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is standard on the ST, with a four-speed automatic available as an option. The rest of the trim levels get the automatic as standard. Rear-wheel drive is standard on all Dakotas, with optional four-wheel drive (standard on the TRX4). Fuel economy estimates with the automatic and rear-wheel drive are 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined. The manual and four-wheel drive minutely affect this mileage. When properly equipped, maximum towing capacity with the V6 is 5,000 pounds.
Optional on all but the base ST is a 4.7-liter V8 that produces 302 hp and 329 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard. In performance testing, a 4WD Dakota Laramie crew cab with the V8 went from zero to 60 mph in 7.6 seconds. Estimated fuel economy with the V8 and 2WD is 14/19/15 mpg. Opting for 4WD drops consumption by 1 mpg. When properly equipped, max towing capacity is 7,100 pounds.
The V6 offers adequate power, but the V8 is the engine you want if you have frequent towing or hauling in mind -- or even if you simply want to best the powerful V6s from Nissan and Toyota. The Dakota maintains its composure on harsher terrain thanks to its well-calibrated suspension and a stiff hydroformed frame. On-road handling is decent for a truck, but the steering is pretty inert, offering little feedback and a numb on-center feel. Also, if a lot of highway travel is on the horizon, we'd think twice about the 2009 Dodge Dakota. Harsh rides are par for the pickup-truck course, but even on relatively glass-smooth highways, every pavement imperfection greets your backside with a solid bump, then a good jiggle. It gets old quickly.
Rear-wheel antilock brakes are standard on the 2009 Dodge Dakota, while an optional Safety Group provides four-wheel ABS and full-length side curtain airbags. In government frontal crash tests, both the extended- and crew-cab Dakotas earned a perfect five stars for driver and front passenger protection. In side-impact tests, the Dakota crew cab without side curtain airbags earned five stars for the protection of both front and rear passengers. The Dakota scored a second-best "Acceptable" rating in frontal-offset crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In the IIHS's side-impact test, a crew cab without side airbags received the second-worst rating of "Marginal."
Changes for the 2009 Dodge Dakota are restricted to a reorganization of trim levels and some new standard equipment.