Executive wheels: truck outside, car inside

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I’ve never been much of a truck man. Only once in my life did I actually own a pickup truck – a 1959 GMC that I had from 1973 to 1975 – but over the years I have driven plenty of them, from the standards like the Ford F-150, Dodge Ram and Chevy Silverado, to the behemoths, like the Dodge Ram 3500 SLT Crew Cab Doolie. My objection to owning a truck has always been two-fold: 1) I don’t really need one for work (not much to haul around if you’re a writer); and, 2) they are just too big for everyday driving around town.

There have been smaller pickups on the market for years, of course, but it always seemed like an oxymoron: a pickup truck that can’t really haul much. I mean, c’mon, if you get a pickup truck the idea is to sometimes, at least, use it for the pickup purpose.

So I had relatively low expectations for the 2010 Dodge Dakota Laramie Crew Cab 4X2. I thought it would be a too-small, un-utilitarian, sparse ride. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

Turns out, many of the companies associated with pickups – Chevy, Ford and Dodge, with Toyota, Nissan and even Honda thrown in for good measure – understand the basic shortcomings of their pickup trucks for the non-work-related marketplace and they have responded. They have made the smaller pickups larger, although not too large, and therefore more utilitarian, and they have made the cabins more spacious and more car-like, and therefore more day-to-day friendly.

This Dodge Dakota is all that. It’s a little large and long, so parking it in some downtown parking spaces and especially parking garages can be taxing. But that is one of Dodge’s selling points. Its main competition has a smaller wheelbase: the Dakota is 131.3 inches, while the Ford Ranger (Supercab) is 125.5″, the Chevy Colorado (which a few years ago replaced the long-time S-10) is 126″, the Toyota Tacoma (AccessCab) is 127.4″, and the Nissan Frontier comes in at 125.9″. This all compares to the standard full-size pickups where the wheelbase (for cabs with back seats) is, respectively, 144.5″ for the Ford F-150 and 143.5″ for the Chevy Silverado.

But aside from the size issue, the Dakota is a very comfortable ride. Getting into the larger full-size pickups often requires pulling oneself up, but this Dakota is like a car or a family-friendly SUV. Indeed, the Dakota shares the platform of Dodge’s popular SUV the Durango. The whole thing really feels like a mid-size SUV, with a very comfortable cabin, and back seats, with access from full-size doors, just like the SUV backseat. This is truly a pickup truck that fells like an everyday vehicle.

In other words, it’s not truck-like but has the benefits of having a pickup truck bed for the times that comes in handy – which, with five children in their early 20s moving all the time from college apartments to post-college digs, is a plus.

So the size and the SUV-like comfort were among my favorite things about the Dakota. I also liked the way it handled – it drove like an SUV as well, with a quiet interior and quite nimble handling. On the down-side was the power.
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The engine in all models of the Dakota for 2010 is a 3.7-liter V6 rated at 210 hp, but it felt like less than that. You used to be able to get a V8 in this model, but no more, and like many American makes the horsepower rating actually felt less than rated. Around town the Dakota did fine; there is enough torque for speed off the line and it navigates the city streets just fine. However in the mountains, this engine gags just a little on the good up-hills, like Floyd Hill, and could use some extra power for passing. Perhaps Dodge uses this relatively under-powered powerplant because of gas mileage: rated at 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway, it is a fairly thirsty ride for supposedly a smaller pickup. By comparison, one trim level of the Chevy Colorado with a 3.7-liter I5 engine carries 242 hp and is mileage rated at 17/23. This Dodge needs that.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Dodge, of course, is part of Chrysler, now involved with Fiat management from Italy, and the company has well-documented financial problems. The word is that the Dodge Dakota, on the market since 1987 and now through 3 generations of design, is set for extinction during the 2011 production year. In fact, Chevy, Ford and all other pickup makers have released a line of 2011 models, but not Dodge. And it’s understandable: In its heyday – heck, the heyday for pickups and SUVs, the Dakota sold well, with 144,148 units sold in 1999 and 177,395 sold in 2000. Then the decline came, precipitously; for the 2008 model years Dodge recorded Dakota sales of 26,044, and it dropped for the 2009 model year to a paltry 10,690. That, obviously, isn’t good.

I think the sales drop, and the model cancellation, is directly tied to consumer confidence in Chrysler. That’s too bad, for in the category for smaller trucks this Dodge is a worthy competitor, but people apparently felt more comfortable with Ford and Chevy and their prospects for survival, and Chrysler responded by not responding, dropping trim levels and basically giving up. No V8, no regular cab trim.

Too bad, too, but it might be an opportunity.

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I found this vehicle very easy to drive, nicely outfitted, and the whole time I drove it I couldn’t help thinking that it would be a great vehicle for my 21-year-old son. In other words, I would buy one and I recommend that anyone looking for a vehicle of this sort give the Dodge a close look.

Since it’s going to be discontinued, I am assuming the deals are going to be amazing. The Dodge Dakota is available in 7 trims – 3 in 4X2 and 4 in full 4×4. I would recommend the 4X4 because I am a big proponent of AWD and I particularly dislike 2WD with rear-wheel drive in pickup trucks. For the 4X4 the four trims, all with the same 3.7-liter engine (rated at 14/18 in AWD), can be had for a base price of $28,255 to $33,180. The 2010 Chevy Colorado Crew Cab in 4WD, in two trims, runs $27,395 and $28,915.

My test-drive model was the 2X4 in the top-of-the-line Laramie trim. The base price is $30,180 with many standard features. On the one I drove they added in a few thousand dollars in options, including the heavy duty tow package with extra power outlets ($525), extra security with ABS brakes and side curtain front and rear air bags ($640), and a complete Media Center with satellite radio, 30-gig hard drive for music storage, navigation with a touch-screen ($1,445) along with off-road-capable tires ($11), 18″ aluminum wheels ($400), an engine block heater ($35), and a fixed rear window with defroster ($20). Add in $740 in destination charges, and the bottom line is $34,085.

Frankly, price to price and comparing many other features – power, mileage, etc. – I believe I would choose the Chevy or the Ford or even the Toyota before the Dodge Dakota. But I liked the Dakota, and if Chrysler, in its massive change-over to Fiat management, is going to deal, I believe it is worth a strong look.
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