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Why Would Anyone Build A Dodge Dakota Or Durango?!

Posted in Features on November 19, 2008
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Why the heck wouldn't you build a Dakota or Durango?! They've got 1/2-ton powertrains packed into midsize packages with good off-road rear suspension right from the factory! They have a great power-to-weight ratio (with the right engine package) and a well thought out physical build as far as handling and maneuverability go. On top of that, they're just danged sexy vehicles.

For practical purposes, we're going to concentrate on the '97-'03 body style, but the pre-'97 Dakota body style also came available with the 1/2-ton V-8 packages.

What's the hottest package you could get? The 5.9L R/T AWD edition. All-wheel-drive with a 360ci V-8 and 9.25 rear axle, this midsize rocket was quick and strong enough to give any decent tuner car or luxury import a run for its money. And when modified with a supercharger or turbocharger, a Dakota would take a Ford Lightning's lunch money.

Unfortunately the off-road aftermarket never glommed onto them, though the street market certainly embraced these little screamers.

We see a lot of potential in these Dakotas and Durangos. In fact, we have one here in our Off-Road stables, and it might just be a matter of time before we crack into a really trick long-travel 4wd suspension for our Durango. Stay tuned.

- 360ci V-8 engine available
- 9.25 Chrysler rear axle
- Midsize package
- Had rack-and-pinion in 2000

- Had ball-joint recall that scared people away in 2000
- Rack-and-pinion limited the bolt-on lift kits
- Weak front differential ('97-'99)
- IFS does not yield much travel

Engine: 5.9L V-8, 5.2L V-8 ('97-'99), 4.7L V-8 ('00-'03), 3.9L V-6, 2.5L I-4
Automatic Transmission: 46 RE
Manual Transmission: NV3500
Transfer Case (if 4WD): NP231D or NP242D
Rear Axle: Chrysler 9.25 (V-8 engine) or Chrysler 8.25 (V-6 engine)
Front Centersection (if 4WD): AMC Model 35 ('97-'99), Chrysler 8.0 ('00-'03)

Dakotas and Durangos built between 1997 and 2003 were available with either a 2.5L I-4, 3.9L V-6, 4.7L V-8 ('00-'03), 5.2L V-8 ('97-'99), or 5.9L V-8 with what we've found to be an underrated 245 hp. With a completely stock 5.9L engine - save for an ignition coil, air intake, and headers - our Durango makes over 300 hp at the flywheel. And we know for a fact that we didn't gain 55 hp from an ignition coil, air intake, and headers!

In the original '97-'99 models, Dakotas and Durangos used an AMC Model 35 front centersection. It was relatively weak, and owners reported breaking them on the street before even hitting the dirt. In 2000, Dodge made a number of changes to the Dakota and Durango platform, and one of the upgrades was a new Chrysler 8.0 front differential. We could not find many stories of complaints with this centersection, and we will tell you that ours has survived mild off-roading so far.

Depending on the engine package you get, you'll see either a Chrysler 8.25 or Chrysler 9.25 rear axle. Our R/T Durango came with the 1/2-ton truck 9.25 rear axle with a Trac-Lok limited-slip differential. Since we have the R/T version, we automatically got the optional 3.92 gear ratio too. The standard gear ratio is 3.55:1.

Dakotas and Durangos can be had with either an automatic or manual transmission. All models we've ever seen used either a 46 RE automatic transmission for the V-8s or an NV3500 for the manual trannies. We have heard rumors that there were a few first-year 5.9L engine models that came with an NV4500, but our research leads us to believe that Dodge stopped using the NV4500 behind its V-8 engines in 1996 (before the '97-'03 body style was available).

The front suspension on 4WD Dakotas and Durangos is a torsion-bar-sprung A-arm setup that is nothing to get excited about. With our IFS lift kit, we get around 8 inches of travel and are grateful for even that much from the factory.

Though they're not as common to modify as a Chevy or Ford V-8, you can really get a lot of power and torque from the Magnum V-8 engines. Superchargers are available, and we've even found a turbocharger kit for these engines online, but we've built these engines before in the past and have made good power improvements with improved exhausts and an ECU tuner.

If you're looking for something a bit different, then you could always try a Dodge Dakota 60hp shot nitrous kit from NOS. We recently put juice on our Durango and really had some fun climbing sand dunes with it.

Unfortunately Dodge made it a bit tricky for the aftermarket when it changed things underneath a bit in 2000. A new rack-and-pinion steering and differential required lift-kit redesigns, and some companies that already had kits out for the '97-'99 chose not to address the '00-'03. Off the top of our heads, we'll tell you that Tuff Country has a kit for the '97-'99s, and Rancho has a kit for the '00-'03s. Unfortunately no one to our knowledge makes a long-travel kit for the 2wd/4wd Dakota/Durango platform, so anything you want beyond a standard IFS kit is going to be custom.

Like with any IFS truck, you can always swap in a solid axle. This particular pictured Dakota had a solid-axle swap built by WFO Concepts, but it was definitely more costly than just bolting on some IFS lift. With full coilovers, a four-link, and solid axle, this Dakota was more than ready for some hard-core trail use.

If you are going to use your Dakota or Durango mostly on the trail, then it might be a good idea to swap in a solid axle. You cannot beat a solid axle for rockcrawling or other slow-going off-roading, and this might be just the ticket you need to talk yourself into a Dakota or Durango.

If you are going to be spending most days in your Dakota/Durango on the freeways or in the desert, then you can probably benefit most from leaving your truck IFS. We've seen pretty insane 2wd long-travel suspension builds on some Dakotas, and now we think we're going to have to try our hand at building up a 4wd long-travel Durango suspension. Otherwise our Durango won't survive to see 2010.

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