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Second Generation Dakota 97 - 04

Second-Generation Dakota: 1997-2004

With the overwhelming success of the full-size 1994 Ram, there was little doubt that the next Dakota would inherit many of its styling elements. So when the 1997 Dakota appeared, it was no surprise that it looked like a 7/8th-scale Ram.

The look of the '97 Dakota was all new, but underneath there was much that was familiar. The new truck still rode on three different wheelbases depending on cab and bed configuration, and they were the same wheelbases as before. Regular cab Dakotas with the short bed rode on a 111.9-inch wheelbase, the regular cab Dakota with the long bed had 123.9 inches between the front and rear wheels and the Club Cab had an extravagant 130.9-inch wheelbase. Though thoroughly retuned, the suspension was essentially identical in specification. The drivetrains carried over pretty much intact as well with the base 2.5-liter four now rated at 120 hp, and the 3.9-liter V6 and 5.2-liter V8 returning with the V6's 175-hp rating intact and the V8 rising back to 230 hp.

Even Consumer Reports was impressed with the new Dakota Club Cab. "The new, much-improved Dakota is now our top-rated compact pickup," the magazine wrote. "What's more, it still has a 78-inch-long cargo bed, a good half-foot longer than those of other compacts. All in all the Dakota is one nice truck, though it's too new for us to predict its reliability." The rest of the road test continued on a mostly positive note: "The new Dakota feels nimble," the CR editors continued, "[and] it handled our emergency-avoidance maneuvers competently. But like most small pickups, it rides very uncomfortably…. The foldable rear seat is wide enough for three. But as in other compact pickups, room for knees and feet is inadequate. The controls and displays are well designed, and the climate control system works well."

After experiencing a Dakota Club Cab for ourselves, our staff took issue with Consumer Reports' assessment of its ride quality. "What surprised us was how nicely the four-wheel-drive Dakota performed on pavement," our editor wrote. "Obviously, the truck was reasonably quick, thanks to its 5.2-liter V8, but it didn't seem much speedier than rivals from Ford and GM. Where the Dakota shined was in ride quality, cab comfort and braking. Zooming along I-70 into Denver one day, we misjudged the exit speed on an unfamiliar off-ramp. Hitting the brakes hard resulted in an immediate drop in velocity and the ability to get around the loop without sliding into the grass. The brake pedal provided excellent feel and feedback, something GM dreams about and Ford is still fine-tuning.

"The steering was communicative, and the small wheel helped maneuverability. The cab was surprisingly quiet, a characteristic purposely designed into the vehicle by Dakota engineers. And while you won't mistake the ride for that in your mother's Lexus LS 400, our Dakota was easier to live with on broken pavement than some passenger cars we've driven recently."

While the sheet metal got most of the attention publicly, the biggest improvement came inside, where the cab was simply designed and equipped with dual front airbags. "The cab was roomy for two front passengers in large, comfortable bucket seats," we wrote. "For short trips, three can be accommodated on an available bench front seat. Visibility was quite good, and all controls except those for the stereo were within easy reach. Large rotary dials control climate functions and the Dakota employs an old-fashioned pullout knob for the headlights — bravo! Our truck had an optional sound system with a CD player that supposedly benefited from an Infinity speaker system. Uncharacteristically, the sound quality in our Dakota was terrible. Interior materials like fabric and plastic looked and felt average — better than GM pickups but not as nicely executed as those found in the Ford Ranger/Mazda B-Series twins."

Along with its mediocre interior materials, the Dakota received some criticism given that the Club Cab didn't feature a third rear door for easy access to the backseat. Sales were strong, though, and Dodge shipped 131,961 Dakotas during '97 — a scant 96 less than the '92 record.

There were few changes to the basic Dakota for 1998 as Dodge concentrated on launching the Durango SUV, which was based on the Dakota. However, there was one exciting addition to the line for '98: the Dakota R/T that was powered by the big 5.9-liter, OHV Magnum V8 from the Ram. With 250 hp aboard, Truck Trend magazine had a regular cab R/T (a Club Cab was also available) ripping to 60 mph in seven seconds flat and through the quarter-mile in just 15.4 seconds at 89 mph. That's despite the fact that all R/Ts carried a mandatory four-speed automatic transmission. The R/T was, by far, the quickest Dakota yet and, thanks to big P255/55R17 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires and scrupulous suspension tweaking (which did nothing to improve the ride), the best-handling, too.

The addition of the R/T model and a generally strong truck market made '98 the best year yet for the Dakota, as sales reached 152,629 — a 15.3-percent leap up from the already strong '97 year.

With no reason to mess with success, changes to the 1999 Dakota range were minimal. There was a new paint color (a blinding "Solar Yellow"), and a new headliner-mounted console and redundant audio controls for the steering wheel were new options, but everything else was much as it had been before. The result was another 144,148 Dakotas on America's highways.

Of all the good ideas incorporated into the Dakota, none was bigger or better than the four-door Quad Cab body that appeared for the 2000 model year. "Our Dodge Dakota won a whole truckload of fans during its weeklong tenure here at the office," we reported after our first encounter with the Dakota Quad Cab, "inexorably due to the remarkable resemblance between the ride quality of this big truck and a comfortable car. That's the whole point of the Dakota, to blur the lines between the utility of a truck and the convenience of a car; as the ad campaign says, 'Cowboys have friends, too.'"

The Quad Cab rode on the same 130.9-inch wheelbase of the Club Cab, grabbing its additional 14.8 inches of cab length from the bed itself. While compact crew cab pickups had been popular in South America for decades, the Dakota Quad Cab was only the second one to make it up north following the smaller (and less accommodating) Nissan Frontier by a few months. With its big doors and roomy rear seat, the Quad Cab was a revelation: a compact truck that, in addition to being an OK truck, was actually a viable alternative to a midsize sedan. The one drawback to the Quad Cab was that its shortened bed length (just 63.1 inches) limited its usefulness when it came time to haul stuff.

Along with the new Quad Cab body, Dodge also replaced the ancient 5.2-liter OHV V8 with the smoother, more fuel-efficient 4.7-liter, SOHC, 16-valve V8. Rated at 235 hp, the 4.7 was an all-new design first used in the '99 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and its far more modern architecture made for a much better everyday companion than the 5.2. The 4.7 was available with either a five-speed manual transmission or the four-speed automatic.

With the Quad Cab now in the lineup, Dakota sales soared during '00 (up about 25 percent), so Dodge barely touched the vehicle for 2001. Still, the Dakota was strong enough to dominate our comparison test of compact 4x4 crew cabs that were suddenly flooding the market.

"Of all of the vehicles in this test," wrote then-Senior Editor Brent Romans, "only the Dodge Quad Cab was able to connect to my inner id. The Toyota, Sport Trac, S-10 and Frontier? Mere conveyances designed to be as practical and compromised as possible. But the Dakota? The Dakota had personality. I wanted to drive it. I wanted to mash the throttle to hear the rumbling V8. Make these silly cars in front of me on the freeway get out of the way. Full speed ahead. Grr! Fuel mileage? I don't care about stinkin' fuel mileage!

"Well, let me qualify that. I don't care about it when I don't have to pay for it, which is the case when we conduct these tests. If I were considering a compact crew cab purchase, fuel consumption would play a bigger factor. Regardless, the Dakota would still be very high on my list.

"This was the biggest truck in the test, but it didn't feel that way. The suspension amazed me in the way it could provide a nice ride quality on city streets, hustle the truck through corners and yet be flexible enough to hop over rocks and dirt. I also liked the Dakota's tough and aggressive exterior styling, big wheels and tires and the leather-trimmed interior."

How quick was the unladen Dakota Quad Cab? Our 4x4 with the 4.7 and automatic cruised to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds (best in the test). With 800 pounds of payload in the bed, it did the same trick in 10.4 seconds (again best in the test — by almost a full second).

With Dakota sales steady and the redesign of the Ram looming, Dodge barely touched the Dakota during 2002 or 2003 with the most notable change being the merciful excision of the four-cylinder engine from the line for '03. And in 2004, Chrysler finally ran out of the ancient 3.9-liter OHV V6s and began installing the Jeep Liberty's 210-hp, 3.7-liter SOHC 12-valve V6 (derived from the 4.7-liter V8) in the Dakota. But the company ran out the 5.9-liter V8s, too, and that meant the powerful but thirsty R/T went away. Pity. Oh well, it's time for a new Dakota anyhow.
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