Why the heck wouldn't you build a Dakota or Durango?! They've got 1/2-ton powertrains packed into midsize packages with good off-road rear suspension right from the factory! They have a great power-to-weight ratio (with the right engine package) and a well thought out physical build as far as handling and maneuverability go. On top of that, they're just danged sexy vehicles.
For practical purposes, we're going to concentrate on the '97-'03 body style, but the pre-'97 Dakota body style also came available with the 1/2-ton V-8 packages.
What's the hottest package you could get? The 5.9L R/T AWD edition. All-wheel-drive with a 360ci V-8 and 9.25 rear axle, this midsize rocket was quick and strong enough to give any decent tuner car or luxury import a run for its money. And when modified with a supercharger or turbocharger, a Dakota would take a Ford Lightning's lunch money.
Unfortunately the off-road aftermarket never glommed onto them, though the street market certainly embraced these little screamers.
We see a lot of potential in these Dakotas and Durangos. In fact, we have one here in our Off-Road stables, and it might just be a matter of time before we crack into a really trick long-travel 4wd suspension for our Durango. Stay tuned.
- 360ci V-8 engine available
- 9.25 Chrysler rear axle
- Midsize package
- Had rack-and-pinion in 2000
- Had ball-joint recall that scared people away in 2000
- Rack-and-pinion limited the bolt-on lift kits
- Weak front differential ('97-'99)
- IFS does not yield much travel
Engine: 5.9L V-8, 5.2L V-8 ('97-'99), 4.7L V-8 ('00-'03), 3.9L V-6, 2.5L I-4
Automatic Transmission: 46 RE
Manual Transmission: NV3500
Transfer Case (if 4WD): NP231D or NP242D
Rear Axle: Chrysler 9.25 (V-8 engine) or Chrysler 8.25 (V-6 engine)
Front Centersection (if 4WD): AMC Model 35 ('97-'99), Chrysler 8.0 ('00-'03)
Dakotas and Durangos built between 1997 and 2003 were available with either a 2.5L I-4, 3.9L V-6, 4.7L V-8 ('00-'03), 5.2L V-8 ('97-'99), or 5.9L V-8 with what we've found to be an underrated 245 hp. With a completely stock 5.9L engine - save for an ignition coil, air intake, and headers - our Durango makes over 300 hp at the flywheel. And we know for a fact that we didn't gain 55 hp from an ignition coil, air intake, and headers!
In the original '97-'99 models, Dakotas and Durangos used an AMC Model 35 front centersection. It was relatively weak, and owners reported breaking them on the street before even hitting the dirt. In 2000, Dodge made a number of changes to the Dakota and Durango platform, and one of the upgrades was a new Chrysler 8.0 front differential. We could not find many stories of complaints with this centersection, and we will tell you that ours has survived mild off-roading so far.
Depending on the engine package you get, you'll see either a Chrysler 8.25 or Chrysler 9.25 rear axle. Our R/T Durango came with the 1/2-ton truck 9.25 rear axle with a Trac-Lok limited-slip differential. Since we have the R/T version, we automatically got the optional 3.92 gear ratio too. The standard gear ratio is 3.55:1.
Dakotas and Durangos can be had with either an automatic or manual transmission. All models we've ever seen used either a 46 RE automatic transmission for the V-8s or an NV3500 for the manual trannies. We have heard rumors that there were a few first-year 5.9L engine models that came with an NV4500, but our research leads us to believe that Dodge stopped using the NV4500 behind its V-8 engines in 1996 (before the '97-'03 body style was available).