America's Best Small Pickup

The appeal of the newly redesigned, more powerful 2008 Dodge Dakota pickup is how it handles like a little guy but does the job of a giant

Editor's Rating:

The Good: V8 power, smooth ride, towing capacity

The Bad: Mediocre interior, no regular cab version

The Bottom Line: A nice compromise for buyers who want to trade down to a smaller pickup, but not too far down.

Up Front

These days, when Americans go out to buy a small pickup truck, likely as not they head down to their local Toyota dealership. In the first 10 months of this year, Toyota (TM) sold 147,964 of its Tacoma compact pickups, far more than the sales of the two next biggest sellers, the F (F) Ranger and General Motors' (GM) Chevy Colorado, combined. So, why even consider an also-ran like Chrysler's Dodge Dakota?

The answer is that the Dakota was redesigned for '08, and it's not only better than the previous model but offers features and capabilities that rivals can't match. For buyers who want the maneuverability of a small pickup combined with big-truck towing capacity, seating for up to six people, and a powerful V8 engine, the new Dakota may be the best small pickup on the market.

But that’s not saying much. Ford hasn’t given its Ranger a proper redesign in years, and the Colorado is underpowered and funny-looking. Effectively, Detroit ceded the category to the Japanese, for years preferring to concentrate on building more profitable, full-size pickups until the bottom fell out of that market. But now Dodge, which is getting pummeled at the dealerships, has to fight for every scrap of market share it can get and thought it could grab some by improving the Dakota.

A big plus for the '08 Dakota is its new 4.7 liter, 302-horsepower V8, the only V8 available in this class of pickup. The engine has 31% more horsepower and 13% more torque than the Dakota's previous V8—while also being more fuel-efficient. A V8-powered 2008 Dakota Laramie four-by-four with a big crew cab is rated to get 14 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the highway. In 274 miles of mixed driving, I got a respectable 16.5 mpg.

That isn't stellar fuel economy, obviously. But the V8 Dakota nearly matches an entry-level Dakota with a less powerful 3.7 liter, 210 horsepower V6, which is rated to get 15 mpg in the city and 20 on the highway.

Dodge only offers the new Dakota with extended and crew cabs (there's no regular cab). There are six trim levels, ranging from the basic ST up to the fancy Laramie, which features standard leather bucket seats, a premium sound system, and V8 power. The starting price for a basic extended cab, two-wheel-drive model with a V6 under the hood is $20,080. A top-of-the line four-by-four crew cab Laramie starts at $31,745.

Among its many attributes are the Dakota’s unique looks. While the Tacoma can only charitably be called bland, the Dodge has a highly distinctive front end, with an in-your-face grille featuring a big ram emblem in the middle. There's also a spoiler on the rear lift gate and a choice of wild colors, including Sunburst Orange, Flame and Inferno Red, and Electric Blue.

I have a few caveats about the Dakota. The 78-inch bed available with the extended cab may be best in class, as Dodge claims, but the only available bed with the roomy crew cab Dakota is a mere 65 inches, 8.5 inches shorter than the longest bed in the crew cab Tacoma. The Tacoma's bed also is made of durable composite material that seems less likely to rust than the conventional metal bed.

Dodge makes a big deal of the fact that the new V8 Dakota can run on E-85 fuel (85% gasoline, 15% Ethanol), but that's not much of a selling point in my view. According to the Dakota owner's manual, you're not supposed to alternate between E-85 and conventional gasoline because "hard starting" and/or "significant deterioration in drivability during warm-up" might ensue. The manual also warns that E-85 contains less energy than gasoline, so "you can expect your miles per gallon to decrease by about 30% compared to gasoline operation." Gee, sounds great.

Neither Chrysler trucks in general nor the Dakota have been doing well this year. Through October, the company's car sales were up 4%, to 443,937 units, but truck sales fell 6%, to 1.3 million units. Dakota sales were down by one-third to 44,572 during the period, much more than for its main rivals. Sales were flat at 147,964 for the Tacoma, off 20.9%, to 62,209, for the Ford Ranger, and off 18.4%, to 64,878, for the Chevy Colorado.

The arrival of the new model this fall doesn't seem to be helping much: Dakota sales fell 35% in October after dropping 9% in September. That said, Chrysler is in a major transition, what with its ownership change and new labor agreement, and the new Dakota may sell better once things settle down.

Behind the Wheel

Dodge rejiggered the Dakota's suspension system as part of the redesign, and the '08 Dakota really does drive like a car. It doesn't handle especially well—throw it hard into a curve and it rolls and feels as if it might tip over—but boy is the ride smooth, both on the highway and in town. John Ford, a neighbor who owns a Tacoma, tested the Dakota for me and felt its ride may surpass that of his Toyota.

The V8 engine makes the Dakota quick, especially considering a Laramie four-by-four with a crew cab weighs more than 4,800 lb. In accelerating from zero to 60, I timed my test Laramie in about 7.9 seconds—faster than a comparable Tacoma, which rates at about 9.6.

The Dakota's 7,050 lb. maximum towing capacity is also tops in its class. The Tacoma is No. 2 at a maximum of 6,500 lb., followed by the Ranger at 6,000 lb. and Chevy Colorado at 4,000 lb.

Dodge claims the Dakota's crew cab is the roomiest in its class, too, but its front seats don't feel any roomier than a Tacoma's, Ranger's, or Colorado's. The Dodge's advantage is in its rear seats, where leg space is rated at 36.4 inches, nearly four inches more than in the Toyota.

The big disappointment about the Dakota is its interior design, which even on the upscale Laramie features acres of unattractive hard plastic. The glovebox is tiny, and the open storage bins above it don't compensate for its lack of size. The speedometer and other instruments are plain looking. The center console has some nice features—including three big cup-holders and an iPod dock—but the plastic it's made of looks cheesy.

On a more positive note, Chrysler has developed an ingenious "Crate N Go" rear-seat storage system that other companies may want to imitate. When you fold up the rear seats against the back of the cab, there are collapsible milk-crate-style boxes underneath in which you can stow groceries and other stuff that might roll around during driving. The crates can be easily removed, too, so you can use them to carry stuff into the house.

But It or Bag It

It's a good time to buy a Dakota if you want one. Through Dec. 3, Chrysler is offering $1,500 cash rebates on the '08, even though it's a new model. The rebates have brought the Dakota's recent average selling price down to $22,478, according to the Power Information Network (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP). That's more than the Ranger ($17,775) and the Colorado ($20,542), but less than the Tacoma ($24,041). In fact, according to a recent story, including the huge rebates on the '07 model, the Dakota was one of the most heavily discounted vehicles in the U.S., with an average discount of 24%, or $6,674 off its average $27,788 MSRP.

However, the Dakota's main advantages are its roomy crew cab and powerful V8, and you'll have to pay more than average to get them. If you'd be happy with a smaller engine, a Tacoma with a 4-liter, 236-horsepower V6 is quicker and gets better mileage than a comparable Dakota. And if all you want is a cheap, basic pickup, an '08 Ford Ranger with a regular cab, stick shift, and a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine starts at about $13,000 (after a $1,500 cash rebate) and is rated to get 21 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.

The Dakota is for buyers who want a little more size, power, and roominess. It's ideal if you want to trade down from a full-size pickup but are reluctant to go with a genuine compact.

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