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Mid-Size Makeover

Dodge sets out to revitalize the mid-size pickup market with an updated version of the truck that started it all.

In 1997 Dodge introduced a new Dakota mid-size pickup with styling that mimicked its successful full-size Ram big brother that debuted in 1994, using the Rams drop-fender, raised hood and semi truck-style large front grille. The following year, Dodge released the Durango, a mid-size SUV that was developed off of the Dakota platform sharing many parts with the Dakota, including the front sheet metal.

The process was reversed for this latest generation with the Durango taking the lead, growing in size to compete with SUVs like the Ford Explorer. When it came time to do the next generation Dakota, the logical step would have been to use the Durango platform.

“We got the formula for the next generation Durango down and then went back and said, ‘Now, let’s do the same formula in reverse for the Dakota,’” says Program Manager, Steve Jakubiec. But Jakubiec says that the initial package drawings revealed a truck that was nearly the same size as the Ram. In a search for something that would fit the new platform, the team started to experiment with a Ford SportTrac type truck, based off of the SUV. “More of an SUT,” says Jakubiec.

At a very strategic point in the program, several members of the marketing team pointed out that Dodge has a very loyal customer base for a Dakota-sized pickup. They argued that Dodge couldn’t abandon those loyal customers — the division needed a mid-size truck. Jakubiec says that was the changing point in the program and the SUT concept was scratched. The new Dakota is based heavily on the old Dakota, not just sharing parts but most importantly sharing the build process with the current truck.

“We made zero carrier modifications within the assembly plant,” Jakubiec says, “so we were able to run pilots right inside the assembly plant, more like the Japanese do.”

All of the hard points were locked down before the first pilots were run, allowing for the pilot process to run very smoothly. All of the prototype bodies were built in the assembly plant, “Which is unheard of,” says Jakubiec, and all of the pilot bodies were painted in the assembly plant.

A carry-over floor pan sits on an all-new frame with rails based on Ram 1500 technology. The fully-boxed frame marries hydroformed and stamped steel sections to create a frame that has eight-times greater torsional rigidity and two-times bending rigidity than the previous truck. The extra rigidity helps in both NVH and ride and handling. The straight center sections and some of the rear sections are hydroformed.

“If we had gone to all hydroforming,” Jakubiec says, “we would have spent more money to strengthen areas that didn’t need it.” The frame shares the octagonal front rail tips from the new Durango, adding to frontal crash performance. In fact, Dakota passes all 2008 NHTSA occupant restraint crash standards and 2006 50 mph rear offset crash standards.

“The only reason we did an all-new frame was to meet all the impact requirements,” Jakubiec says, “or we would have gone off of the same platform.”

Tower will again supply the frame for the new Dakota. The frame was quoted to another supplier, but due to Tower’s proximity to the plant and the fact that the vehicle was basically the same, Tower was able to reutilize some of its current assets and come in with a lower bid. The new Dakota features a re-designed coilover front suspension that works for both twowheel and four-wheel drive allowing Dodge to go to only one frame for the entire Dakota line-up.

“It’s a little bit over-designed, heavier and more expensive for the 4×2 truck,” says Jakubiec, “but it’s still better from an overall synergy standpoint and less complexity in both our supplier and our assembly plant. If you think about it, the majority of our suspension variations are handled in the rear where all the payload variation is.

“What we’re really trying to drive to as a company in the future is reduce flex in our plant,” Jakubiec adds, “building more of the same so you can build it repeatedly, but give the customer something different.”

The rear suspension is carried over but retuned to improve ride and handling. An allnew rack and pinion system targeted for a lighter more precise feel in handling.

The Dakota borrows an interesting manufacturing process from its Ram big brother. The front structure of the cab is made up of hydroformed tubes that the fenders bolt on to. “The neat thing about it,” says Jakubiec, “is that if you want to redo fenders, it’s real easy because now it’s just a stamping that’s bolted on to the structure.”

The hydroformed front end replaces the old Dakota’s structural fenders, made up of an outer skin and a body-side aperture welded to the outer fender.

“We had a whole sub-assembly inside of our stamping plant that would take four to five pieces of sheet metal, weld them together dimensionally correct and hang them out there,” Jakubiec says, “and it became very expensive to change.”

As Chrysler moves to more of a top hat strategy, this process makes it easier to do several different vehicles off of the current structure using common processes. Another plus is that the hydroforming system was already set up in the Warren, Mich., plant, where both Ram and Dakota are built, so it made sense to build the Dakota this way.

Under the Hood

Dakota comes with a choice of three engines. The 3.7L two-valve, iron block, aluminum head V-6 that puts out 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb.ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm and mates to either a Getrag 6-speed manual (new for ’05) or 4- speed automatic transmission. The 16-valve, 4.7L V-8 is rated at 230 hp at 4,600 rpm and 295 lb.ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm and mates to the same Getrag manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. A high-output 4.7L V-8 that boosts horsepower to 250 and torque just over 300 lb.ft. will be available at the end of the year with the automatic transmission only. And yes, Jakubiec says that the Dakota was designed to accommodate the HEMI, though there was no discussion of a HEMI Dakota (can you say Dakota SRT-8?). All four-wheel-drive Dakotas come standard with a part-time 4WD system with low range. Dodge also offers a 2-speed fulltime 4WD transfer case that’s designed to allow the system to be used full-time on all pavements. A powder metal-center differential, supplied by New Venture Gear, lets the driveshafts spin at different speeds when necessary for steering on dry pavement without damaging the drive train.

Dakota has a towing capacity of 7,150 pounds. (3,150 pounds more than the Chevrolet Colorado) and an 1,800 pound payload.

What’s Inside

Interior (above) is more refined and carries over exterior design themes. The rear seats on the Club Cab fold forward to expose underseat storage bins.  
Rick Aneiros, VP for Dodge/Jeep truck design, says that Chrysler uses an unusual design process in that the same group of men and women design the exterior and interior, often times sharing the same cubicles. This, Anerios stresses, creates a harmony and synergy with the interior and exterior of the vehicle.

For instance, the pinnacle and top of the brow over the center stack mimic the shape of the fenders on the truck. The Lear-supplied interior also features a brushed metal face on the center stack, A/C shutters that close completely and an IP with Dodge-specific white-face gauges.
Aneiros says that Dodge has focused more attention on its seating using tauter seat-trim and firmer foam that wears well over time. The Dakota is available with heated cloth seats, a first for Dodge and an option that will soon find its way to Durango and possibly other models as well. Jakubiec championed the idea — a request from his sister, who loves heated seats but is no fan of leather.

“I used to do interiors prior to this job,” Jakubiec says, “and I knew it could be done. I think that’s going to be a big hit and I think we’re going to start moving that way on everything.”

Both extended cab and quad cab have larger volumes (55.3 cu.ft. for the Club Cab and 55.8 cu.ft. for the Quad Cab). The Club Cab’s rearhinged doors open to forward-facing rear seats that will accommodate two adults.

The Quad Cab will seat three in the back and the 60-40 split rear seats flip forward to reveal a well molded into the floor to keep small things from rolling around in the interior.

Aneiros says that as the vehicle was under development, the initial plan was to share the Durango’s sheet metal from the B-pillar forward. “When we did those models it had a very sweet, elegant look,” Aneiros says, “clearly not a pickup truck.” Aneiros says that further research backed up that initial reaction. A new design direction took the previous generation truck and visually pressed a seam into all of the soft edges while still retaining the bold front end and grille.

Aneiros hints that sharp edges of the Dakota may be a hint of what future Dodge trucks will look like.

Dakota carries over the previous leafspring rear suspension (above ) but uses a new coil-over front design four-wheel drive versions.
The headlamps feature a dual bulb system that integrates the parking lamp and turn indicators, creating the illusion of a quad-bulb system without the added cost. All 2005 models come with a chrome grille on all models.

The new truck has the higher beltline that’s a prevalent styling cue for all new Chrysler products, but Aneiros says consideration was taken not to make the beltline too high, as the glass line carries through to the top of the pickup box and a high box is hard to see over and even harder to load and unload.

In typical Dodge fashion, the wheels are pushed out to the corners as far as possible. “We decided not to use add-on flares,” Aneiros says. “Add-on flares are expensive and heavy. We accomplished a very good tire-to-body relationship without the need for those flares.”

The rear view is all business. The bumper was raised to balance out the side view and reduce awkwardness and the dual barrel “afterburner” taillamps were inspired by the Power Wagon and Durango. Sport models get a body-colored rear bumper with chrome bumpers the others.

The team put a great deal of energy into NVH. The front door glass is 20 percent thicker, reducing by-pass noise; the carpet insulation and dash panel padding were doubled in thickness and Polymer Constrained Layer (PCL) ‘quiet’ steel was used extensively throughout the vehicle on the lower dash panel, tunnel and Club Cab back panel.

Engineers spent a significant amount of time in the in-house wind tunnel in Auburn Hills, Mich., tuning the shape of the A-pillar. “We had a cubic A-pillar strategy that we knew flowed air over the A-pillar the best,” Jakubiec says, “with most of the wind noise generated by the large side mirrors. The mirrors, windshield shape and all door seals were developed in the wind tunnel.”

The wind tunnel is also set up so the vehicle can be yawed into the airflow at different angles. Jakubiec points out that this recreates quarter-wind angles or some of the worst wind conditions experienced in everyday driving.

The Dakota has advanced dual-stage front air bags, a weight-bearing occupant-sensing system for the passenger side and seatbelt pretensioners and retractors. The rear seat features outboard head restraints mounted to the roof and cab back and a center shoulder belt for the rear seat of the Quad Cab. Optional side-curtain airbags cover both front rows on all models.
The model line-up has been changed for 2005 to emulate the Ram. Dakota now comes in Club Cab and Quad Cab in ST, SLT and Laramie all with an available Sport package.

While Dodge hasn’t released final pricing, they are proud to say that 2005 prices have been lowered by $1,000 across the board. Estimates are that the Club Cab V-8 will start at under $20,000, with the high-end Laramie Quad Cab with Magnum coming in at just over $33,000.

Dodge won’t release production numbers for the new truck, but they currently own 15 percent of the market selling about 110,000 units annually.

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