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New car/Review

1997 Dodge Dakota Club Cab 4x4 Sport

by Nick Hromiak


SEE ALSO: Dodge Buyer's Guide


ENGINE:  5.2-liter Magnum V-8
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE:  230hp @4400 rpm/300 lb-ft @3200 rpm
TRANSMISSION:  Four-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY:  13 mpg city,  17 mpg highway,  12.8 mpg test
WHEELBASE:  131.0 in.
OVERALL LENGTH:  214.8 in.
OVERALL WIDTH:  71.5 in.
CURB WEIGHT:  4164 lbs 
FUEL CAPACITY:  22 gal. 
LUGGAGE CAPACITY:   1450 pounds payload
TIRES:   31 x 10.5 R150WL
INSTRUMENTS: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, water temperature,
             oil pressure, battery voltage, digital clock.
EQUIPMENT: Power windows, power door locks, power mirrors,
           cruise control, air conditioner, bed liner,
           AM-FM stereo radio with cassette, anti-lock braking,
           dual air bags.

Capitalizing on the popularity of its full-sized Ram pickup, Dodge's 1997 Dakota mid-size has an almost identical appearance. It's big, bold and stylish. And with its Magnum V-8 engine, Dakota stands alone as a mid-size that has the grunt of a full-size.

Compared to earlier model Dakotas, the `97 is completely different with improved ride, handling and added power. As such, this is the first major makeover for the Dakota since its introduction in 1987. In its last year, Dakota held market share records of nearly 13 percent. Judging from first driving impressions, those figures should get even better.

The new Dakota is slightly wider than the `96 models. The reason for this being that larger tires (two sizes larger) were fitted and incorporated into larger wheel openings, complete with integrated mud flaps. Because of the larger tires, Dakota's body is wider than its predecessor's by 3.5 inches or 71.5 inches overall.

The interior deserves a design award. The instrument panel mimics the shape of Dakota's distinctive grille and the eyebrow of the instrument panel repeats the shape of the cab and tailgate spoiler lip. It is specially designed to block reflection from the windshield during the daytime and prevent cluster reflection in the windshield at night.

As a mid-size, Dakota boasts the only V-8 in its market segment. The 5.2-liter Magnum engine now carries 10 more horsepower (230) and 10 lb-ft more of torque (300). and although it's available with a 3.9-liter 175hp V-6, the Magnum V-8 is the engine of choice for serious haulers.

Coupled to a four-speed automatic transmission, the V-8 has a GCWR of 10,500 pounds, the highest hauling capacity and towing capability among compact trucks. With its smaller size, these specs make the Dakota appear--on paper--to be the perfect towing vehicle for small to medium-size camping trailers and slide-ins.

Our test truck was the Dakota Sport in Club Cab configuration. Dodge figures that of the 150,000 Dakotas it expects to sell this year, 70 percent of them will be Club Cab models.

No before you ask, no, a third door is not available. But I'm sure one will be forthcoming in future models if the demand is there. Rumor has it that the full-size Ram will be available in four-door form probably in the 1998 model year.

That aside, Dakota's cabin is spacious. The tester had the optional--and very supportive--high- back bucket seats in lieu of the standard 40-20-40 bench seat. With the latter, you get an integrated center console similar to that in the full-size Ram.

Access into the extended cab portion was relatively easy with Dodge's tip-and-slide front seats. The rear bench seat bottoms split in 60/40 fashion and fold upwards, which exposes two compartments for stowing and concealing small items. Two children can fit comfortably in the rear while only one adult (two in a tight pinch) can find comfort if they're sitting side-saddle. The ride back there is tolerable, but only for short trips.

Dodge solved the cupholder dilemma by offering three; one each for small, medium and large cups. Dual air bags are standard as are rear anti-lock brakes. Four-wheel ABS remains an option, though.

With a neat and tidy instrument cluster and logically placed HVAC controls, there's one last item that caught my attention. When the fuel needle reaches the last white hash stripe before "E," a soft tone and simultaneous fuel pump light announces the low fuel warning.

As a first model year vehicle, Dakota does have some flaws, albeit minor ones. The 4WD floor- mounted shift lever (no electronic shift is available) is difficult to readily locate while driving at night. It's be nice if it was illuminated. As is, only a tiny light comes on when 4WD is engaged. I also found going from 4Low to 2High requires some muscle. The shift gate is notchy and tight.

There are tow optional outside mirrors, a set of 5x7 power mirrors, or for $20 more, huge 6x9- inch mirrors. While the latter offer an expansive rearward view, I found them somewhat obtrusive when making a turn. they don't allow a full quartering view.

As a completely redesigned model, Dakota is impressive. Developed in only 30 months and for $500 million, Chrysler appears to have a winner. It rides extremely well for a truck, is quiet and handles ever so gently. Off road it smooths jolts from rocks, bumps and obstacles. But what it doesn't do is pass very many gas stations. With a 13/17 mpg EPA rating, the mighty Magnum is far from economical.