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AMR Review: 2005 Dodge Dakota - Well Engineered, Questionable Procurement

The Background
Before I get into this review, I need to send a special thanks to Miller Dodge of Lebanon, New Hampshire for being so kind as to supply me with a brand new (11 miles on the odometer) Dodge Dakota for this review. All I did was call, and they didn't hesitate for a minute. For those who know me from B5one, Miller is also where I take my Passat, and I've been very happy with them. So, be sure to consider the entire Miller Auto Group if you're around Lebanon, New Hampshire (, Phone: 603-448-6363 or Toll Free: 877-777-0003).

The car they supplied me with was a 2005 Dodge Dakota SLT 4x4 Club Cab (Dodge-speak for extended cab with trick suicide doors). It had part time 4WD and the Magnum 4.7L V8 that's seen duty in Dodge and Jeep vehicles since the mid-90s. This is the lesser of the 2 V8s, with a high-output version putting out 260 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque. The Dakota is the only truck in its class to sport a V8. I know, you are all wondering why I didn't get a Hemi, but, see, that's the thing. You can't get a Hemi in the Dakota. The engine bay just can't fit the extra liter of displacement. This V8 engine puts out 230 hp, and 290 lb-ft of torque, and is an option above the standard 3.7L V6 (also seen in other Jeep and Dodge vehicles). Base price for the car I drove was $23,979, and the as-tested price was $28,924. Of everything, that's probably my biggest issue with this vehicle. The days of being able to buy a cheap truck are gone. After spending some time driving the truck in various settings, it's clearly been tuned to haul and churn, not to be a speed demon. That's the overall theme you'll see herein. I think this is a great truck, but it is a truck. It is not the right choice, in my opinion, for those of you looking to seem tough but who really don't need a truck. Dodge engineers did a tremendous job with this rig, but it is not a car, nor is it trying to be. If you accept that, and realize you may not be right for truck ownership, then read on. If you're not a truck person, but want some utility and brute, perhaps I can interest you in a nice cross-over, or a Dodge Magnum.

The Good
So I want to start this on a positive note. I had some issues with the Dakota, but on the whole, I walked away very impressed. What you get from this truck is that it was engineered passionately and thoroughly. It handles well, has a tremendous amount of nice touches, and clearly is able to meet the demands of a tough pick-up truck life. Ergonomics are great in the Dakota, as are the mechanical workings of the truck. Fit is superb with even and tight gaps between panels. And what's more, there aren't many panels fitting together. Chrysler has done a good job of eliminating joints in each new version of each of their cars and trucks, and the Dakota is no exception.

Driving the Dakota was impressive considering its work-a-day target dynamics. On road, you will definitely feel every little crack and ripple in the pavement. However, it wasn't harsh. What's most interesting is the dirt-road performance of the truck. It seems more at home on unpaved roads than on pavement. I had the pleasure of taking the Dakota on some New Hampshire dirt roads to play with the suspension and the 4x4 system. One test I repeated was to come off the dirt, and turn onto the pavement with the hammer down. With four wheel drive disengaged, I had a fun time washing the rear end out all over the place. Same turn, same speed, same aggression but with four wheel drive turned on, this thing couldn't be moved. True was the only way to describe the tracking. What interested me most was that the car seemed to stop far sooner with the knob switched to 4x4 than not. In fact, When I lifted off the gas, it seemed to stop itself. I'm not sure if Chrysler is using a different transmission shift map when 4x4 is engaged, but it is highly possible, and made my off-road experience much more stable. I liked playing with this thing off-road, and only wish I could have done more of it.

I also noticed how useful aspects of the truck are. The oversized side view mirrors did a tremendous job of making up for poor rearward and lateral visibility, yet didn't generate any additional wind noise (more on this later). If you look closely at the mirrors, you'll see quite a bit of interesting indentations and channels built into the plastic. My assumption is that they're meant to limit wind noise, and seem to do a great job of it. This is a problem for many Dakota competitors, and Chrylser simply used smaller mirrors on the last Dakota to deal with the issue. I applaud them for using a real engineering solution rather than a stop-gap or cop out measure. Other nice touches include the now-Dodge-hallmark center bin. Flip it up for 3 across seating, or fold it down for a wide and comfortable arm rest, or, when opened, use it as a work center. Equally useful were all of the gauges and buttons, with clear legibility and easy reach. My only complaint was on the stereo where I couldn't seem to find the scan and seek functions. I could only advance one notch at a time. I'm sure they're there, and a thorough read of the manual would probably resolve this issue, but so would better labeling of the buttons. Overall, the interior is not a bad place to be from a usability standpoint.

What else did I like other than the 4x4 system and ergonomics? The 'truckness' of this thing was top notch. The engine is clearly capable of down-low muscle, and the bed, which came lined as part of the option package, was deep and well channeled for multi-tiered loading. Also, step-in height was great for a vehicle that makes you feel like you're sitting on top of the world. Lastly, the brakes were quite strong. Overall, dynamically, this is a great truck.

The Bad
Now for the bad stuff. You knew it was coming. Shifts in the Dakota were OK, but not great. This actually surprised me after I found out I was getting a truck with a 5 speed automatic. The Americans have been slow to adopt the extra gear in their slush boxes, especially in their trucks, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that on the sticker. It's not that the shifts were rough, or that the transmission computer made bad choices, it just seemed to hesitate a bit before shifting. Call it hunting if you'd like. This wasn't that bad, so I'm starting easy.

So, I said there would be more on the wind noise, so here it is. Let's actually talk about noise in general. While the mirrors didn't appear to generate wind noise, the entire rest of the vehicle did. I can't complain too much since this is a truck, and, hence, cuts a large and odd shape out of the air. Maybe some better sound deadening materials would have helped. Materials are something I will address further later, though. While the wind noise was really picking up on the highway, so was the mechanical noise. I'm not going to address tire noise because the Dakota was riding on big knobby can guess how they sound, and I can't really fault the car for that. What confused me was the engine noise, if I can call it that. First, this a V8 with nearly 5 liters of displacement. The start-up note and the acceleration note were higher-pitched than I expected. Also, and here's the weird part, I swear the engine note was coming from the rear differential. I know, I know, engine noise should be coming from the engine, but I distinctly could place the source of the sound as behind me, and it wasn't an exhaust note (which I could also hear). The truck, while well-powered under 50 mph, was clearly not up to high-speed highway work. It could hold its own at 65 cruising on I-89, but as soon as I tried to pass anyone, the tranny kicked down, and a high-pitched, 4 cylinder-type growl. The engine is clearly working hard at this point. It also doesn't help that the gas pedal is as mushy as it is. This is something common in American cars, and especially trucks, though, so I'm not calling Chrysler out per se.

Otherwise, the only other issue I really had was with how things close. The rear gate and the doors all clearly closed, but just didn't feel right. The doors were solid, yet light and flimsy feeling at the same time. It's actually a bit hard to describe. I knew they were closed when I shut them, but I also didn't. Something just didn't feel right. Furthermore, opening the glove compartment, if you can call it that (either call it opening or call it a glove compartment) was insulting. Basically, this cheap plastic door drops down with no damping at all (it literally falls down), and slams back up with no grace to it whatsoever. While you don't necessarily need grace in a truck, I was worried that it would break because it was so flimsy, and I also had trouble with how this felt in a car costing nearly $30k.

The Ugly
So I said more on materials's later. I have to repeat, this truck is so well engineered and feels terrifically assembled. But this clear quality and hard work is nearly all for naught when you touch most surfaces in the car, look at the center stack, or try to compare the price with the quality of materials you bought. Let's start with the biggest offender. The center console is draped in some sort of glossy, light-brown substance. I won't call it wood, because it is the saddest excuse for wood (fake or real) I've ever seen. I won't call it plastic (though it is) because plastic looks nice than this. What a shame that Chrysler thought they were making the car look classier by using this terrible looking material as the focal point of the interior. Had they used a good black plastic, they would increase the quality feeling you get from the interior noticeably. The only thing I could think of that would be worse would be if they used the same trim GM put in the Rendezvous for its first two years of life. GM literally had a picture of brushed aluminum printed onto plastic strips. It looked bad enough as a picture, but they only took a picture long enough to cover about 5 inches of the trim, so the patter repeated itself after a sharp break. Inelegant is a really nice way to describe this, and faux-wood is an even nicer way to describe the Dakota's center console trim.

Otherwise, while most surfaces look OK, they feel otherwise. The steering wheel is fine (and you know I have a weird thing about steering wheels...they did well on this one), but the dash is a hard-touch plastic. The headliner looks middle of the road, and feels bargain basement. The only surface I really appreciated was the interestingly textured grab handles. They had a waffle pattern in their plastic (which is very hard-touch as well), making for improved grip. While cheap materials in and of themselves aren't a negative, they certainly are when you consider how much you are paying for this truck.

The Final Review
So where does this leave us? I pointed out a few negatives, but I have to say, if I was buying a truck right now, I don't see why the Dakota wouldn't be at the top of my list, at least for the domestic options. I'm not crazy about several aspects of the truck, and I'd be hard pressed not to opt for a Nissan Titan for about the same money. Would I take this over a Canyon or Colorado? Most likely. Would I take it over a Ford Ranger? Absolutely, without hesitation. Would I take it over a Tacoma, which is also all-new? I'm not so sure that I could pass up the Tacoma because of its quality and value as compared to the Dakota. Same goes for the Nissan Frontier, though I'd rather spend the same as the Dakota and get the bigger, beefier Titan. In the end, for me, I'd still go with a car, but that's not important right now. What Dodge has put together is a fabulously engineered truck that deserves to sell well. It really reminds me of Nissan of late. Greatly engineered products with a lot of good features and benefits, but materials quality that makes you question the value of the vehicle. The thing is, Nissans are actually pretty attractively priced. I'm not so sure I can say that about the Dakota.

Recommended for the $25-35k range.

Great engineering, solid performance

High price, low materials quality


Engine:4.7L V8
Transmission:5 Spd Auto
Horsepower:230 hp
Torque:290 lb-ft
EPA Rating:14 City
19 Highway
Price:$23,979 Base
$28,924 Test