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1996 Dodge Dakota Review

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SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyer's Guide

by Ted Laturnus

No one’s exactly sure how it happened, but pickup trucks seem to have evolved into the sports cars of the 1990s. Originally built as workhorses, they’re now lowered, raised, stripped down, given fancy paint jobs, and owned by people who are reluctant to drive them through a mud puddle, much less up a washed-out sidehill or across disused logging roads. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but what about using them as they were intended?

Well, have we got the truck for you. A combination of full-size practicality and compact sensibility. The Dodge Dakota was the first pickup to receive a mid-size designation when it was introduced in the mid-1980s, and has proven to be one of the strongest selling models in Chrysler’s entire line-up. Particularly the new version, which received a facelift in 1996.

The Dakota is available with a regular or extended cab, with two or four-wheel-drive, long and short wheelbases, and with two bed sizes: 6 feet and 8 feet. With the larger of the two, it has one of the most capacious storage areas in the compact truck class, and it will handle a 2600 pound (1179 kg.) payload. This puts its somewhere between a full-size truck like the Ford F-150, and a traditional compact like the Chev S-10. Towing capacity is 6800 pounds (3084 kg), which also puts it head and shoulders above most of its competitors. It is also the only compact truck that can be had with a V8 engine. The best other comparably sized trucks like the Ford Ranger, Mazda B4000, Isuzu Hombre, and Chev S-10 can manage is a large V6.

The Dakota comes with a 2.5 litre four cylinder as standard issue, an optional 3.9 litre V6 and a robust 5.2 litre V8. There are two transmission choices: five-speed manual and four-speed automatic, with the usual mix-and-match drivetrain combinations. If you’re serious about mounting a decent-sized camper, or doing any kind of bushwhacking, the V8 should be at the top of your list. It develops 230 horsepower at 4400 rpm, and more importantly, 300 foot-pounds of torque at 3200 rpm. On the 4x4 model, a floor-mounted shift lever allows the driver to go from 2WD to high-range 4WD while in motion, but the vehicle must be stopped to get into low-range for serious bog-wallowing or uphill scrambling. It also comes with full frame construction, which translates into minimal body flexing during the really tough going.

The Dakota is also one of the few trucks that has a rear bench seat instead of the usual jump seats in its extended cab version, or as Chrysler calls it, the Club Cab. This means six adults can actually ride in the thing, although they should be good friends. This seating arrangement is optional, incidentally. And here’s an interesting safety feature: in the event of an accident, all lights will remain on and the power door locks will unlock automatically. Other safety equipment includes anti-locking brakes and dual front airbags. Dodge’s options list for the Dakota is as long as Mark McGwire’s home-run streak, and it can be ordered with things like power windows, power seats, leather upholstery, air conditioning, tilt steering, cruise control, sliding rear window and on and on. Even the base version is one of the most comfortable pickups you’ll spend time in, with a pretty decent list of standard features.

Although it may not matter to some folks, the Dakota is very easy on the eyes. When Chrysler overhauled it a couple of years back, they basically built a scaled-down and more streamlined version of their full-size Ram truck. The result is an amazingly good looking pickup. Trucks aren’t supposed to look good, but this one does….the Club Cab works particularly well….a lot of trucks lose what little stylistic coordination they have as soon as the designers add a back seat. We can also expect Dodge to fit dual opening rear doors on the Dakota sometime soon, but not this year.

OK, so with all that, this is a pretty attractive rig, no? Well, yes, but the fly in the ointment is the pricing structure. Although your basic four-banger, short bed, regular entry level Dakota is priced at about $17,000 ($16,975 to be precise), you can easily drop $28,000 on a full zoot 4x4 model with all the bells and whistles. To put this into perspective, the full-size Dodge 4x4 Ram Club Cab is about the same price, give or take, and the Ford F-250 similarly equipped, is in the same ball park, even if it does lack the V8 engine. The Dakota is an extremely attractive compact truck, no argument, but it’s also on the pricey side. It can get them where they want to go, but prospective hunters and fishermen might think twice about exposing their top of the line Dakota to crankcase-shredding boulders and paint-ripping branches, or heaving a freshly cut side of moose into the back.

But it sure does look good.