COAL: 2003 Dodge Dakota – Perfection?


I remember the first time I saw this truck.  It was Thanksgiving Day 2008, and I was in my grandmother-in-law’s driveway putting new brake pads on my wife’s van, replacing pads that, with much drama, had disintegrated in a panic stop on the Interstate in the middle of Missouri .  Sitting there with my father-in-law, trying to wrestle a caliper free, I heard something rumbling out of the garage and saw this truck back out.  “Tom, Granny has a cooler truck than both of us”…which pretty much summarized it.  I had no idea in two years it would be mine.

I also recall shortly after it becoming mine the first time I gave it the beans.  Going through Council Bluffs, Iowa, and about 15 minutes into owning it, I went to pass someone on a city street and needed to get over– so I looked, and then put my foot to the floor doing about 20 mph.  In my head, the result was something like this:


It made a fantastic noise as the rear tire let loose and catapulted me forward while shoving me back into my seat, and I stayed in it and let the motor sing.  Said motor was the good V8 for that year from all I can tell: Chrysler’s 4.7 overhead cam V8 mated to the five-speed auto and a 3.55 rear gear.  What resulted was a truck that definitely liked to go like none I’ve ever had.  Dare I say, it’s probably one of the fastest vehicles I’ve ever owned due to a favorable power/weight ratio, lots of ratios, and the 3.55 rear.  It just liked to go.


Grandma had moved back to Iowa from Arkansas to be closer to family, and quickly realized she didn’t need or want the truck anymore.  I’d made some hints that if she ever wanted to get rid of it to let me know and I’ll buy it, as is ticked off so many boxes for me.  It could fit the whole family in a pinch, it was a truck, it was four-wheel drive, it was newer, it was genuinely pampered, it was from a non-rust belt area, and I’ve always liked the look of that generation Dakota/Durango.  Come Memorial Day weekend 2010, Granny had picked up a little Kia to get her around town and decided she didn’t need the Dakota, so the call was made to come get it.  Sweet!


I immediately found it was a stellar choice, as it not only ticked off all the boxes, but it did so really well, and just plain looked and sounded cool in the process.  When the kids were younger we did do a couple small trips to Iowa in it with the whole family, and being a newer vehicle it was quite nice to take on the highway.  It wasn’t the rolling couch of comfort that was my last F-150, but it did pretty well. With low miles on the clock, it was also rock solid, quiet, and rode really well – no worn out 200,000-mile suspension here!  It also ranks as the first vehicle I’d had with a warranty, having only 68,000 miles on the clock when I got it.

As a bicycle commuter who also lived within three miles of work, its in- town mileage didn’t really bother me.  On the highway, it would get 18-22 mpg depending on the wind, but in the city I never consistently got over 11 mpg – it was mostly around 11.2 without A/C, and 10.6 in the winter or with A/C. While it sure liked gas, its counterpoint was it was an excellent in-town vehicle.  Its smaller footprint made it the easiest-to-park pickup I’ve ever owned while also being able to move through traffic easily, and it handled surprisingly well.  Dodge’s little V8 may have been thirsty, but it was easily able to spring through traffic, as it always seemed to be in its power band.  It was a fantastic power train in that respect – I never once was left wishing it had more power.


Lacking a vehicle to tow the family boat and take the kids, our boat hadn’t gotten much use until the Dakota came around.  We had a lot of fun over the summers taking the boat out, or just getting lost on country roads.  While the Dakota wasn’t a Raptor or Pre-Runner, it handled the rural roads of Nebraska with aplomb and gave us many an adventure.

Speaking of adventure, it got a ton.  In the four years I owned it I put 32,000 miles on it, which ranks as the most miles per year I’d put on a vehicle–particularly impressive considering most of the time it lived in the garage while I biked to work.  More often that not, I’d take the kids out on some country roads to drive the “roller coasters” (we call the rolling gravel hills ‘rollers’, the kids just expand the name), or in the winter to check out the wonderland.


In the fall of 2012 my grandmother passed away and the Dakota took my sister, brother and me on a ten-hour road trip to Wisconsin.  It was exceedingly capable at passing the hours on the Interstate, and even quite a bit of fun on rural Wisconsin back roads, stabbing the throttle around corners to make up distance, with tires howling.  That’s what always just got me about it, that it always felt very solid–that’s about the best way I can put it.  I’ve had some choice words about Chrysler products, but this one felt really well put together, and was amazing in that respect.

Really, with this truck there wasn’t a whole lot to improve on; however, there were some nagging annoyances here and there.  First, despite its outward appearance–larger than a compact truck and packing a V8, inside it definitely was a compact pickup. There never was a lot of room in there.  In fact, it was downright small. Second, I always wished it had a limited slip/locking rear diff so I wouldn’t have had to use four-wheel drive so much during the winter: The 4.7 had no problem almost constantly overwhelming grip on anything other than dry pavement (and sometimes even on dry roads).  Third, while it had a awesome sliding bed cover, it took up more of what tiny space there was in the bed; the bed was almost comical in its lack of space.  I could fit my bike back there only if I angled it <i>just right</i> and took the front wheel off. Finally, I’ve always wanted a sliding rear window on a pickup, as air tended to buffer around in every truck I’ve owned due to the small cab space, even the Quad Cab.  Nothing major, just little things keeping it from perfection.


Did I point out that it did a lot of things, <i>brilliantly</i> though?  One of those was winter traction in four-wheel drive–the thing was simply unstoppable.  Every winter I’d wedge my gigantic snowblower in the back and go to my parents’ and sisters’ homes to snowplow them out without any worry of getting stuck.  Heck, one February we got hit with a ton of wet, heavy snow. A huge branch from a big maple narrowly missed the wretched minivan, but needed to be removed from the driveway.  Hello, Dakota!


In January of 2013 my uncle needed to move, so my brother, my Dad and I headed to go help him.  Only one “gotcha” – he lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin (remember when I said January?).  My youngest son came with us, and we had a nice long winter drive up to Green Bay.  Snow Cat Dakota make short work of the Wisconsin winter. Even with a large trailer on the back, the Dakota backed up a steep hill in my uncle’s snow-covered front yard without any drama whatsoever.  A few days later, it took us to the shores of Lake Michigan in Algoma, WI, so my youngest could see “the ocean” and we could stock up on fish.


When I started thinking of my COAL series, I thought for sure this would be my last entry.  Ha–funny how things change!  Early in 2014 my office moved from 2.5 to 8.5 miles away, taking my zero- (if by bike) to five-mile daily commute up to a 17-35 mile-per-day commute.  What’s worse, by bike my commute was 8.5 miles, if I took busy city streets/sidewalks (which, honestly, I won’t do).  If by bike path, which there is a direct route, it’s more like 15 miles each way.  So I had to rely on driving again.  With never over 11 mpg, and gas at $4/gallon, my weekly gas costs went from not even being on my radar to $12 per day.  I know many have much higher costs, but that was a wake-up call to our budget.


In addition, by this point the Dakota needed new tires.  It had Goodyear Wrangler RT/S tires on it when I got it and always heard how terrible they were, but I never really had much issue with them until they started getting pretty worn.  Lots of flat tires, and some four-wheel drive sideways pucker moments the previous winter did it for me.  I finally discovered during that last winter that for some odd reason, Dodge only put rear ABS on this truck.  Chalk that up to another annoyance.

Come May 2014 my tags were up for renewal, as was my insurance.  I quickly found that this truck had a rather oddly sized tire with a limited selection – all of them were very very expensive, even for truck tires.  As a final blow, we had a substantial amount of medical bills at the time and some cash influx would be a good thing.  So I figured I’d give it a shot – I’d put it on Craigslist at high retail book value with quite literally 100,011 miles on it.


Sure enough I did that late one Friday evening and the calls and texts came in rapid-fire.  Honestly I was pretty surprised, with my last truck I had to bargain basement discount it to get rid of it, but now even at high book my demand was high.  On Saturday morning I quickly took it to the wash, and by the time I got home the first couple to look at it was there.  Long story short–they bought it for full price, admitting how hard it was to find a pickup for under $15,000 that wasn’t completely trashed.  Apparently mine was not only really excellent mechanically, but several times they questioned whether had I even let the kids ride in it, as the interior was spotless.

Once my happiness of selling it passed, panic set it.  I realized it was Saturday and by Monday I’d need a new vehicle, since I had a killer week ahead and it would be next to impossible to take time off. Cycling would be really tough that week, and furthermore, I rapidly realized my main choice that I’d brainstormed before putting it on sale, a Subaru Outback, would be a terrible choice.  Tales of woe involving head gaskets abounded, and I didn’t want to step into another maintenance nightmare.  My fallback plan, a Honda Accord, wasn’t looking too good either, as they seemed to be either abused to the end of the earth or too much money.

2010-06-29 11.57.49

I took my wife and kids to used car dealers to look, with zero luck, while rapidly browsing Craigslist on my iPhone as we played laser tag to alleviate my annoyance with the car lots.  I found a Lexus ES300 that claimed to be perfect, but had a transmission that slipped on a test drive.  Finally found a Outback with the H6 – apparently said motor didn’t have any of the issues of the others, but it had pretty high miles and leaked oil.  In addition, it didn’t do that much better on gas than the Dakota did.  I was beginning to think I’d be throwing a lot more miles on the bike for a week or two.

As I was seriously considering a ’94 Camaro Z28 (not as impractical as you might think), or using some money as a down payment, some texts started coming through and wouldn’t you know it?  Exactly what I’ve always wanted fell right into my lap for the perfect price.  As a quick spoiler – in 1999, if I could have ordered a new vehicle exactly how I wanted it, it would have been the one.

All that said, just as life intervened with the story on how this truck left, our family hauler did the same thing to me in February.  So you’ll have one more week of old vehicles, then it will be on to our two current ones.