TRUCK TALK- DODGE DAKOTA

With the attention the “New Chrysler’s” Ram Brand has gotten with its more-refined 1500 and Heavy Duty trucks, the smaller Dodge Dakota has been out of the spotlight. Dodge’s 2011 Dakota Crew Cab merits a close look, too.

“Smaller” is relative in this case, because the 2011 Dakota Crew Cab, with a $26,680 starting price, is a hefty midsizer with bulk and power to handle demanding work situations. It’s a solid truck, built on a strong ladder-type frame with fully boxed hydroformed main rails.

The Crew Cab’s interior offers a generous 37.1 cubic feet of interior space for toting cargo and comfortably seating up to five passengers. For hauling and towing grunt work, the Dakota’s beefy frame teams with the choice of V-6 or V-8 powerplants.

Standard muscle is provided by a 3.7-liter Magnum V-6, delivering 210 horsepower and 235 lb.-ft. of torque. Its transmission mate is a five-speed automatic. Towing capacity for V-6-powered Crew Cabs is 4,800 pounds and the payload max in its 5-foot-4-inch-long cargo box is 1,660 pounds (4×2 with 3.92 axle ratio). Estimated fuel economy is 15 miles per gallon city and 20 mpg highway.

The test Dakota Crew Cab packs big-truck power with an optional 4.7-liter V-8 engine (part of a $1,060 package), which cranks out 302 horsepower and 329 lb.-ft. of torque.

Technology used to boost its output includes two spark plugs per cylinder, which helps increase compression ratio, and boost cylinder-head port flow and combustion. Electronic throttle control also contributes to its efficiency.

Paired with a five-speed automatic transmission, the 4×2 Dakota Crew Cab can tow up to 7,050 pounds and haul a 1,510-pound maximum payload (3.92 axle ratio, packaged with anti-spin differential). Estimated fuel economy, at 14 mpg city and 19 mpg highway, is only 1 mpg city/highway less than the V-6’s.

The Crew Cab version of the base ST (extended-cab availability only) and TRX4-Off Road model have been deleted from the lineup, but both are still available as 2010 models.
Ride quality is excellent, in both 4×2 and 4×4 versions, thanks to the stiff frame, which helps in finer tuning of the suspension that was upgraded for the 2010 model year.
Dakotas have a muscular body, punctuated with a signature cross-hair grille with angular frame. The Laramie’s grille is chrome with a billet pattern.

The lip of the chiseled-edge, wide-dome hood rests flush atop the grille. Headlamps flanking the grille are rectangular, and formidable-looking, “dropped” fenders square off with the headlamps. Dodge reports the front-end design helps improve the pickup’s coefficient of drag.
A dual-position tailgate also contributes to better aerodynamics, incorporating a spoiler that designers report helps smooth airflow over the truck’s rear. An available full-swing rear door gives easier access to the rear compartment. The three-place rear seat is dual split-folding, with each cushion portion easily lifted to create floor storage.

Up front are bucket seats and a standard floor console. Laramie seats are heated and leather-trimmed. A power six-way driver seat is standard on the Laramie and is available with a 40/20/40-split front bench.

The instrument panel’s white-faced gauges — including a notably large, round, center-positioned speedometer — grab the eye. A tilting steering wheel is standard and the Laramie steering wheel is leather-wrapped.

Filling the big cabin with tunes is a standard AM/FM/CD/MP3 radio, and the Laramie adds a six-disc CD player. A premium Alpine audio system, available as a packaged item, pumps sound through six speakers via a 276-watt amplifier.

Compared to its full-size Ram siblings, the Dakota is more affordable, more garageable and easier to park. While not quite as large or powerful, its muscle, cabin size and workhorse credentials are respectable. It’s also sized right for weekend-warrior playtime. A Dodge spokesman said the Dakota isn’t positioned as a “miniRam,” but as a “lifestyle vehicle.” — Tim Spell, Motor Matters

(Tim Spell is the editor of the Houston Chronicle InMotion section.)

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