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Quad Cab model of 2003 Dodge Dakota impresses both inside and out.

2003 Dodge Dakota Pickup Road Test
Compact drives easy but carries the load

By Bill Roebuck

I've driven plenty of full-size pickup trucks over the years, and every one has displayed impressive performance when it comes to cargo-hauling and passenger carrying capabilities. Yet the compact 2003 Dodge Dakota SLT Plus Quad Cab 4X4 also impresses me on both those counts.

Despite being a compact pickup, the Dakota combines an easy driving feel, powerful performance, a commanding view of the road, a comfortable and spacious interior for passengers (especially in the Quad Cab configuration), and a practical, 5-ft-long cargo box.

It's more comfortable to drive and offers better manoeuvrability than the monstrous full-size pickups such as the Dodge Ram and models from other manufacturers. Yet its payload, cargo capacity and power make it a hard worker for on-the-job tasks. The Dakota offers many of the qualities of a full-size pickup. And it's much less of a brute than the Dodge Ram Heavy Duty. Highlights
2003 Dodge Dakota SLT+ Quad Cab 4x4
Category: Compact Pickup
Seats: 5
Engines: 3.9-litre 175-hp V6; 4.7L 235-hp V8; 5.7L 250-hp V8
Fuel Econ. L/100 km (mpg), city/hwy: 15.4/10.9 (18/26)
Price (Cdn): $30,260 ($38,645 as tested). Freight $870
Pros: Spacious, comfortable, easy to drive, serious work capabilities, decent size cargo bed
Cons: None significant
For 2003, the Dakota gets new 16-in. wheels, an in-dash CD changer, standard four-wheel disc brakes on selected models, and a five-speed automatic transmission with models powered by the 4.7-litre V8 engine. A new Stampede package with monochromatic fascias and ground effects also is available for 2003. As well, a new colour, Timberland Green, has been added.

The Dakota is available in a number of trims: a choice of Regular Cab, Club Cab and Quad Cab -- with four front-hinged doors that open wide for easy of entry. Base is a Regular Cab rear-wheel drive, while the top-of-the-line is the SLT Quad Cab 4X4 we've tested here. On 4WD models, a part-time transfer case is standard. A full-time AWD transfer case was optional on our unit; it does not have a 2WD function. The part-time 4WD system must be disengaged on dry pavement, but the AWD can be engaged all the time. Both 4x4s include low-range gearing.

Safety features include dual airbags with a passenger airbag deactivation switch, standard rear-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS) with four-wheel ABS available as an option. Four-wheel disc brakes and 16" x 7" cast-aluminum wheels are standard.

The range of engines includes a 3.9-litre, 175-hp V6 and a 4.7-litre V8 that produces 235 hp. A powerful 5.9-litre, 245-horsepower Magnum V8 is available on Quad Cab models while the optional R/T Sport Package (regular and Club Cab, 2WD only) gets the 250 horsepower version of the same engine, with 345 lb-ft of torque. The 5-45RFE electronically controlled transmission is new for 2003 and uses a unique dual-ratio second gear to aid in towing, passing and grade-change situations, and provides a fifth gear for improved fuel efficiency and highway ride. A manual transmission also is available.

The Quad Cab is the only pickup in its class with available seating for six passengers (our tester seated five, though). The five-foot three-inch bed is the largest among four-door compact pickups and can handle up to 1,780 lb of payload. Total payload capacity is up to 2,160 lb. The Quad Cab model can tow up to 6,200 lb.

The Quad Cab's interior also is the largest among competing four-door compact pickups, and has the most front and rear shoulder and hip room as well. Designed to seat up to three rear passengers, 60/40 split rear seats can fold up together to accommodate large objects, or individually to accommodate a combination of people and cargo.

The Dakota's Regular Cab and Club Cab models also are the largest of their kind in the compact class. The Dakota Club Cab is the only Club Cab model in the compact segment to offer a full-size, forward-facing rear bench seat.

A pull-out cupholder is located under the rear seat, pulling forward when needed. Rear doors open 90 degrees and have windows that lower all the way down.

Rumour has it that the Dakota will be redesigned slightly for 2004. It's expected to be a bit smaller, but with a stronger frame, and have improvements to the interior's fit and finish.

© Copyright Bill Roebuck, 2002.

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