WITTMAN, Ariz. - Chrysler's Arizona proving ground spreads for miles across the desert west of Phoenix. Its enormous black lake of flat asphalt, like a dirty pancake flipped into the skillet of the Navajo Desert, is immense enough to allow vehicles to romp around at top speed without hurting so much as a Gila.
Put a muscle machine like the Viper RT/10 on that tarmac, arrange some orange traffic cones in a torturous, circuitous course, and you can push your wheels through tight turns to your heart's content.
It used to be, if you were a truck fan, you had to be towing a race car on back to make a trip to grounds like these worth anything. But Dodge doesn't think that sports coupes and hot supercars should have all the fun. By tuning up and tightening down the handling of the Dakota midsize truck, it has emerged with a pickup that's nearly as fun to navigate around a test track as one of its sports sedans.
The Heart Of A Racer
Dakota R/T is the new iteration for the hot Dodge truck. It's got a beefy V-8 under its sculpted Ram-like hood. And to signal its intentions, it's decked out with racing stripes that mimic the Viper supercar.
The R/T badge (for road and track, all deference to the print mag given) reflects Dodge's muscle car heritage, which traces back to the 1960s - when it was tagged on the most powerful and sporty Dodges, Chargers and Challengers alike.
In 1999, the R/T badge applies not only to the Viper but also to a performance-geared Neon with a twin-cam engine, stiff sport suspension, rear deck lid spoiler and racing stripes that reproduce the streaks of Dodge's pavement-ripping Viper GTS coupe.
A racy Viper or even the Neon, cast as a competition coupe, may be easy to comprehend. But what, you might wonder, can you do with what commonly amounts to a work truck - only now dressed out with racing stripes, all sorts of performance gear and heady V-8 power?
Rev its big engine as it musters those throaty cranked-up sounds from the low-restriction exhaust system, and you'll know.
A Show-Off Machine
The Dakota R/T is unquestionably a show-off machine, but it's also capable of producing some sport-pitched maneuvers on pavement. And in terms of raw acceleration, this truck can kick butt most definitively over any stock competition.
Look beyond those flashy racing stripes and you'll find that the meat of this machine comes down to its humongous V-8 engine, low-profile 17-inch tires, and a stiff-but-sporty suspension that drops the vehicle by an inch to make it look like a customized hot rod. Dakotas in more conventional dress tote a variety of engines, up to a 5.2-liter V-8 rated at 230 horsepower, but the Dakota R/T plumps the power numbers by installing Dodge's 5.9-liter Magnum V-8.
That plant, built with a cast-iron block and heads and equipped with overhead valves and sequential electronic multiport fuel injection, fattens the power curve to 250 hp.
The Magnum 5.9 also spits out massive torque - the engine's ultimate measure of muscle that translates into linear propulsion - to 345 foot-pounds. Tied to a free-flowing exhaust arrangement with performance tuning, you get some serious notes played on those pipes every time foot pumps throttle.
The only transmission for this R/T, Dodge's 46 RE electronic automatic, carries four forward gears with overdrive lock out and converter clutch. It's smooth in shifting and controllable with limited-slip differential.
Outside, the R/T wears those brassy racing stripes, plus body-colored fascia, grille and front and rear bumpers. To top off the glitz, Dodge ladles on the decals - here, spelling out "Dakota R/T" on the doors. Inside, the Dakota wears cloth and vinyl on its seats, beams out information via analog instruments, and threatens your eardrums with a four-speaker AM/FM cassette stereo. You can add air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, and a truly ear-blistering 100-watt stereo upgrade with Infinity speakers and a CD player, plus equalizer.
Although there's no four-wheel-drive edition, the Dakota R/T comes with either a regular-size cabin with twin high-back bucket seats or a Club Cab edition with an area added behind the front seats to put a split/folding bench for three.
Even the barest Dakota sports good-handling equipment such as rack-and-pinion steering, power brakes with front discs and rear drums with anti-lock control, as well as an independent front suspension and a rear live axle with four leaf springs, gas-charged shocks and a stabilizer bar. For R/T, the ride height is reduced, and the rear stabilizer bar increases in diameter to 21 mm, for less body roll during hard corners.
The R/T rolls on oversized 17-inch aluminum wheels with low-profile Goodyear Eagle LS black sidewall tires (P255/55R17), which plant an extravagant footprint on pavement and improve the truck's curve-hugging grip.
Drive it down the road and R/T feels tight and precise. It rides with firm suspension damping that works well on a winding route but may feel downright hard when managing more mundane pavement grooves and bumps.
The Dakota might be a lot of flash, but it's also got the hardware to back up its sport-truck challenge. The latest member of the R/T family proves the old racer adage once again - there's no substitute for cubic inches.