Thursday, August 16, 2007

Check out the new Dodge Dakota

consumer issues

Scripps Howard News Service
Thursday, August 16, 2007

Here's a tip for you savvy consumers.

If you can come up with $22,780 for the new 2008 Dakota Crew Cab, the Dodge Boys will throw in a couple of milk crates.

Not impressed? Wait until you see the crates.

Positioned under the rear seats, the containers look like nothing more than a stack of black plastic panels after you flip up the seats. Lift the top panel and each stack becomes a fully formed container anchored securely to the truck's floorboard. Push down and the crates flatten to their previous positions.

The crates provided excellent security for my groceries, particularly the 2-liter bottles of soda that tend to roll around on car seats and floorboards, gaining such explosive force that by the time you get home, you have a cola bomb in your grocery sack. This time, mine were nestled snugly in their milk crate, emitting nothing more menacing than a pleasant "spffft" upon opening.

While I tend toward skepticism in most "ease-of-use" demos, this one proved really accurate. No levers or releases to search for, no Rubik's cube schematic to interpret. Simply flip, lift and utilize.

Truck purists may gnash their teeth over such milk-crate epiphanies, but this is the kind of thing at which Chrysler excels. Just when you think every device that could ever appear on a vehicle has, the elves of Auburn Hills come up with something utterly ingenious, like the "Chill Zone" beverage cooler and drop-down liftgate speakers in the Dodge Caliber.

The real value of devices such as the crates, from a marketing standpoint, is that they grab your attention long enough that you begin to notice other distinctive traits, like the longest standard cargo bed in the class, the dual-position tailgate that can stabilize oversized objects that extend beyond the bed and the 7,500-pound towing capacity that tops the mid-size market.

As in past years, Dakota is the largest pickup in its class. That class, previously known as "small" trucks, is really more of a mid-size category, whose sales leader is the Toyota Tacoma. Dakota has about 10 percent of the market and is aiming for 12 percent with the redesigned Dakota, officials said.

"It's a declining segment but still a very viable segment, with more than half a million units," said Mark Seguin, senior manager for Dodge Truck marketing. "At one time, we were over a million units."

Like other brawny vehicles, the Dakota has taken a hit at the fuel pump. But Dodge and its Chrysler parent are not wimping out at this year's tractor pull. The alpha male of engines is the 4.7-liter, 302-horsepower V8 that crushes anything in the category. The engine got a 31 percent boost in horsepower during the makeover and saw its torque rise 13 percent to 329 foot-pounds.

Despite the steroid rush, fuel economy is said to have improved by 5 percent. The engine also qualifies as a flexible fuel vehicle because it can run on E85 ethanol.

If you don't need that many ponies, you can opt for the 3.7-liter Magnum V6 rated at 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque.

Stylistically, the Dakota clearly shares a gene pool with the Ram but offers its own flair. The Ram-like grille is embraced by a nicely arched clamshell hood. The front and rear fenders are well tailored and slightly chamfered in the Caliber style.

The extended cab's optional "Full Swing" rear access doors open nearly 170 degrees to allow easy access. With rear seats folded, up the extended cab offers up to 30 cubic feet of storage space.

"We've designed it not as a mini-Ram, but as a lifestyle vehicle," Seguin said. "It's about having some fun and doing what you need to do."

In terms of ride quality, the Dakota is clearly trucklike, which is the way a body-on-frame vehicle is supposed to be. If you want a car-like truck, try the Honda Ridgeline.

Sold in rear-drive or 4-wheel-drive, the Dakota comes in extended cab or crew-cab layouts with six trim levels: ST, SXT, SLT, TRX/TRX4, Sport and Laramie. Prices range from $20,080 for rear-drive extended cab and $22,780 for crew cab models with V6 engines to $30,370 for 4x4 Laramie extended cabs and $31,745 for 4x4 Laramie crew cabs.

Despite the advantages of the Dakota in the mid-size market -- power, versatility, ingenuity -- Dodge has its work cut out for it in the ultra-competitive arena.

But you've got to figure that under its new boss -- former Home Depot chairman Bob Nardelli -- the newly independent Chrysler will remain serious about trucks.

WHAT'S NEW: Complete makeover, new design, more power, new features.

PLUSES: Power, ingenuity, capacity, price.

MINUSES: Fuel economy, truck-like ride.

BOTTOM LINE: In a league of its own.

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