When Dodge released the Dakota back in the '80s, its primary competitors were the smaller Ford Ranger and Chevy S-10. Back then, Dodge touted it as the only midsize truck, nicely splitting the difference between the Ford Ranger and the Chevy C/K. While its philosophy may have been ahead of its time back then, it is perfectly in step with the size requirements consumers are now demanding.

The '05 model year brings major change to the Dakota in the form of a completely new platform, which relies on a stronger, fully boxed frame, and new front and rear suspension to keep the Dakota at the top of its game. The new Dakota is 3.7 inches longer than its predecessor. It also remains the only midsize entry that offers a V-8 option. The tow rating is 7,150 pounds.

Standard on the '05 Dakota is Dodge's 3.7L SOHC V-6, but our Dakota arrived with the optional 4.7L SOHC V-8 pushing out 230 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. Compared to the import V-6 competition, the V-8 is down on power and doesn't offer the same fuel economy. Staffers also complained about the way the Dakota's engine and five-speed automatic transmission communicated. We were often left wishing we were driving the other optional V-8, a 4.7L SOHC High Output variant that tops 250 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. One thing we did like about the V-8 was the great exhaust note, which had us pretending we were driving the Hemi. Both 4.7L engines are rated at 3 to 4 percent better fuel efficient than the outgoing V-8s.

Another area of contention for our testers was the Dakota's love-it-or-hate-it styling. Staffers were split on whether the Dakota was cutting-edge with its clean and chiseled flanks, or in need of a facial because of its slanted-back grille and robotic face. Either way, the Dakota drew looks from bystanders and other drivers alike. Our guess is that the design will age well and will become a familiar sight out on the highway.

One thing everyone did agree on was how much we liked the Dakota's interior. It received high marks for its spacious accommodations, tons of storage nooks, and sweet-sounding stereo with Sirius satellite radio. The interior of our Dakota Quad Cab was comfortable enough for four fullsize adults and would probably be sufficient for five smaller adults on short trips. If a complaint has to be leveled at the Dakota's interior, it would be that we wish there were some colors to contrast with the expanse of gray.

Thanks to the new coil-on-shock front suspension and improved suspension tuning, the Dakota had the best ride on the highway. Benefiting from the new rack-and-pinion steering, on-road handling was remarkable for a 4x4. Off-road, the Dakota's lack of ground clearance and soft suspension tuning made it less capable than the other trucks with their comprehensive off-road packages.

If you are looking for fullsize capability in a smaller truck, the Dakota should fit the bill nicely. Just as it was when it was first introduced, the Dakota's size is the perfect compromise between compact maneuverability and fullsize capability. It's definitely our choice for a road trip. However, if your plans include using the Dakota like a fullsize, be sure to get the HO 4.7L and you won't be disappointed.

From The Logbook:
The Dakota has the best ride and handling in its class, but the powerplant is disappointing.
* Managing Editor Carl Calvert

The back seat is comfortable with ample legroom.

* Senior Tech Editor Bob Ryder

The Dakota has decent performance, but the tranny is clunky and soaks up a lot of power.

* Feature Editor Travis Noack

Styling is improved, but the front end is too much Durango and not enough Ram.

-Associate Editor Dan Ward