FOURTH PLACE: Dakota Quad Cab
Actually, the Dakota is new from top to bottom. It features an all-new, fully boxed frame, front coilover suspension, rear leaf-spring suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, interior and sheetmetal. Our Quad Cab came equipped with the optional 4.7L Magnum V-8 engine and five-speed automatic transmission and the heavy-duty electronic shift-on-the-fly two-speed transfer case, which is standard. It didn't have any sort of four-wheeling package, but it did have the Skid Plate Group, which includes front tow hooks, fuel tank skidplate and transfer case/front suspension skidplate. It also had the optional Anti-Spin limited-slip rear differential and P265/65R17 all-terrain tires.
It's important to note that the new Dakota was designed to deliver the lowest noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels in its class, and this included integrating sound deadening techniques and cleaner aerodynamics. One of the sound-deadening techniques was to use thicker windshield glass.
The Dakota earned points for its great handling. The coilover-shock IFS and the leaf-spring rear suspension have been tuned to provide precise, carlike handling. Piloting the Dakota through the twisties is a confidence-inspiring experience that screams sports sedan more than midsize pickup.
We like the new interior. It's refreshingly simple, yet highly functional. The air-conditioning system does a great job-even in desert temperatures of more than 100 degrees, and the improvements in NVH combine to make the cabin vaultlike whether on the trail or paved road.
Other things we like: The cabin area exhibits no squeaks or rattles, even when blasting up rocky trails; the large outside rearview mirrors leave no question as to what's sneaking up behind you; the Anti-Spin limited-slip differential is unobtrusive and effective; the four-wheel-drive system is easy to operate; and the front suspension is compliant.
Many testers noted that the wide A-pillars and the steep rake of the windshield hindered forward visibility. One tester said he felt like he was looking through a gun slit. Drivers also complained of nonexistent visibility over their left shoulders.
The same suspension that helped create the fine pavement handling had a dark side that allowed for lots of axlehop during sand testing. During trail testing we also found that when the rear suspension was at maximum compression, the rear tires contacted the front of the rear-wheel openings. The suspension was also a bit too compliant off in the dirt, allowing the truck to bounce up and down at speed and bottom-out often.
Cooling issues also became evident during sand and trail testing. During sand testing, the truck quickly overheated, forcing us to park the vehicle so it could cool. It also climbed into the danger zone occasionally during trail driving.
Other gripes: Stiff brake-pedal feel; dismal 22.8-degree approach angle; poor ground clearance; and driver headroom issues due to the sloping roofline.
The new Dakota carries on the tradition that it has always been known for-it could quite well be the perfect vehicle for those wanting something larger than a compact truck, but not quite fullsize. It's well screwed together, has optional V-8 power, great payload and towing capacity and it looks cool. While the good hook points, limited-slip diff and comprehensive skidplating are a good start, if it had a serious four-wheeling package this truck could be a force to be reckoned with.
"The dash is nice and simple, yet classy."
"Feels like a bigger, heavier truck."