If you're looking for a new truck and have the customizing jones going on, think about Dodge's new '08 Dakota. You might be surprised at what you find in this heavily improved truck. From the angle of driving something different, with the Dakota, you're already out in front. With the littler Ram, you're a lot less likely to see yourself coming and going-Dodge sells six times as many fullsize Rams as Dakotas. And compared to the numbers Chevy and Ford sell, the Dakota comes out seeming like a limited-production vehicle, which is not a bad starting point for somebody wanting to have a ride that stands out in a crowd.

The Basics
The Dodge folks unveiled the '08 Dakota back in February, 2007, at the Chicago Auto Show, but they didn't let us behind the wheel until late this summer. here's what you'll find if you stop by a Dodge dealership. First off, here's the model lineup: There are two body styles, Extended Cab and Crew Cab, and six trim levels, ST, SXT, SLT, TRX/TRX4, Sport, and Laramie.

Outside, inside, and under the hood, every model shows significant changes, but it's not an all-new truck. The first thing you'll notice is the more angular styling that begins a newly styled grille, front fascia, rectangular headlamps, a bulged hood, and dropped fenders. The front-end design improves aerodynamics and features better fit and gap management. The new fenders dramatically change the truck's profile, which now includes a rear spoiler, another true aero aid. It's a bolder look that makes a great starting point for something custom.

Bed lengths are 6.6 feet for the Extended Cab, and a shorter 5.3 feet for the four-door Crew Cab because both ride on the same 131.3-inch wheelbase. helping the cargo boxes become even more useful, built-in utility rails make managing cargo or installing box options easier.

Inside, there are more major changes, including a new instrument panel, center console and accent finishes, plus a new interior storage option. Getting in is easier because the Extended Cab's available Full Swing rear access doors open nearly 170 degrees-almost flat against the bed. Seating for five is standard, and with the rear seats folded, there's as much as 30 cubic feet of storage space.

The larger Crew Cab offers even more room, another 7-1/2 cubic feet. Besides delivering extra legroom, thanks to the stretched cab length, Dodge designed a new under-therear- seat storage system. This system includes a unique, collapsible and removable cargo management system that enables gear to be organized and contained in the truck, so it doesn't roll around, and then taken anywhere in those containers. They look and function like well-designed milk crates- really practical.

An all-new center console incorporates cupholders with modular inserts and a pull-out bin specifically designed to hold electronics, such as an MP3 player, which may be plugged into any of the '07 Dodge Dakota's audio systems, a cell phone, or a PDA. An additional 12-volt outlet is also provided.

The instrument panel is also new, and the materials look good. Gauges are easy to read, and as you'll be seeing from most manufacturers, a tire inflation pressure monitor is standard. (You can thank everybody who doesn't know how to use a standard tire gauge for this equipment. The federal government wants you to have properly inflated tires so your truck doesn't roll over when your under-inflated tire flops off the rim as you swerve to miss Bambi.)

On top of the expected audio systems you'd expect from a manufacturer, Chrysler is rolling out its hardened, industrial-strength music hard-drive system called Mygig.

The MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment System stores your dozens of CD's worth of music and pictures in its 20GB memory for easy playback, anytime. A USB interface is also included. For 2008, the MyGIG also includes a full navigation system with turn-by-turn directions. The screen measures 6-1/2 inches and can be used to view photos stored on the hard drive. The system also responds to voice commands. Additional optional electronics include the convenience of Bluetooth connectivity for your cell phone-try it, you'll like it-and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Overall, the interior looks better and uses better-designed, higher-quality materials than the previous-generation truck. Also, because of the full integration of the electronics, you may not want to mess with a good thing when it comes to the audio system. The only weak area is the speaker system, and that's easy enough to improve.

Under The Hood
Power is one of the reasons that fullsize trucks outsell everything that's not fullsize. There's not another midsize out there that offers true V-8 power, except the Dakota. And the V-8 has been a Dakota exclusive since the '90 model year. Back then, it was the Chrysler 318ci 5.2L engine, an updated version of the "LA" block that was introduced in 1964 as a 273-cid.

Today, the V-8 you'll get is the fully modern overhead-cam 4.7L mill. Keep in mind that while the 4.7L has been around since the late-'90s, referred to as the 4.7L Magnum, the motor you'll find in the '08 Dakota is significantly improved. Insiders call it the Corsair. Refinements include major revisions to the induction system, dual-plug combustion chambers, a higher static compression ratio, reduced reciprocating mass via a lightweight piston/ rod assembly, and reduced accessory drive speed-yup, the factory put on an under-drive pulley. A new valve lash adjuster system smooths the engine at idle, while electronic throttle control adds economy. The result is 302 hp, a 31 percent increase, and 329 lb-ft of torque, a 13 percent increase. This means that this truck engine is pumping out more than 1 horsepower per cubic inch. Impressive. For you non-math types, the 4.7 liters equals 287 cubes.

A five-speed automatic is the only trans to back this engine. Fuel economy for the complete powertrain is up about 5 percent compared to 2007, coming in at 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway for two-wheel-drive models.

While the V-8 is optional for Dakota, the standard motor is related to the original 4.7L Magnum. The 3.7L V-6 -a 4.7L with two fewer cylinders- pumps out 210 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. You can get the V-6 with a very nice shifting six-speed manual gearbox made by Getrag, or you can opt for a mundane four-speed automatic. Both provide adequate acceleration, but the only reason to go with them is because you don't want to spend the money for stronger engine.

After looking at the V-6's economy figures, it seems strange that the V-6 doesn't give you any better economy than the V-8. Dodge better address this if they want to add another reason for buyers to consider Dakota.

As for what's offered by the direct competition, there's nothing on par from Ford with the Ranger, and Chevy's Colorado still won't have the longrumored V-8 that's fitted to the Hummer h3 Alpha (built on the Colorado's same platform). The Colorado/GMC Canyon twins make do with a 3.7L double overhead cam five- cylinder with variable valve timing that is rated at 242 hp (180 kW) and 242 lb-ft of torque. With such a huge power advantage, the Dodge will be winning every stoplight drag if it's running the V-8.

Like you'd expect from a truck like the Dakota, the powertrain can be rear- or four-wheel-drive. There are two 4x4 systems, one part-time and the other full-time. Both give you a two-speed transfer case with locked high and Low ranges. But remember, if you're going for a slammed look, stick with a rear-wheel-drive truck because it's easier to lower.

On The Road
We spent most of our time in a Dakota Sport Crew Cab 4x2 V-8 with the short 3.92:1 rear axle ratio. In theory, it would be the fastest in the Dakota range. The truck did know how to move out, especially when we loaded the torque converter and sidestepped the brake pedal. Since Dodge figures your right foot is the world's best traction control, it's totally up to you to control wheelspin. Tires...stoke 'em and smoke 'em. The new 4.7L certainly delivers a lot more power than before.

The tires on our Sport were P265/65R18s combo on/off-road tires mounted on 18-inch aluminum rims. While the setup is good for a stock truck, this will be one of the first changes you'll want to make, so your truck doesn't get mistaken for just another work truck.

While the engine benefits from fully modern technology, the brakes are pure old- school: discs in front, drums in the rear, with rear-wheel-only ABS. Four-wheel ABS is optional. Ours didn't have the four-wheel system, and when a monsoon-like storm blew in during our testdrive, we tested the binders. As you'd expect, the rear wheel kept spinning and the truck went straight, but we couldn't turn away even if God himself were on the road ahead of us. If you can spend the extra dough, go for the full ABS-it's worth it.

As for handling, the Dakota certainly felt more responsive than a fullsize crew cab truck. The rackand- pinion steering is a quick-ratio and needs only 3.18 turns to go from lock to lock. This means that when you turn the wheel, things happen at the asphalt. While we didn't try autocrossing the midsize Dodge, it didn't mind being bent into a quick corner, but you'll never mistake this for a Miata or a Corvette. After all, a Dakota like our tester tips the scales at a fullsize truck weight of 4,500 pounds.

The best part of the new Dakota, after the extra V-8 power, is its interior. The new two-tone look works, as do the instruments that resemble the white-face gauges you'd find in a Viper. The voice-activated nAV operated flawlessly, and the Bluetooth phone feature linked on the first try.

Wrapping It Up
If you're looking for new wheels but want something different and don't see yourself needing to tow more than 7,000 pounds or regularly carry tons of materials in the bed, the '08 Dakota is worth a look. Its new looks stand out, and with pricing starting at just a little more than $20k for an ST Extended Cab to just a little more than $30k for a Sport like the one we drove, the truck offers a good value in a unique package.

If you're looking to modify the truck, pick your options carefully so that you don't buy things you don't need. Especially if your truck is going to be primarily for show, our recommendation is to go with a V-6 Extended Cab with the six-speed manual as your starting place, because it's cheap, reliable, and ready to become your slammed and stylized masterpiece.

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