The Dakota was Chrysler’s reaction to the Ford Ranger and Chevy S-10. It was introduced for the 1987 model year and lasted until 2011, produced through three generations.
Generally a well-selling worker bee, the Dakota did make a splash with a convertible Sport version in 1989–91. In addition, since Carroll Shelby was working at Chrysler at the time, a Shelby Dakota hit the streets in 1989 with a 318 parked under the hood. Both the soft-top Sport and the Shelby became instant collectibles at the time, and still have something of a cult following, but the next generation of Dakota brought a sleeper that still is napping today.
A small Ram
The second-generation Dakota was introduced for the 1997 model year and looked the part of a shrunken Ram 1500. It had all the trappings of being milquetoast and boring, although adding the 5.2-L (318-ci) Magnum V8 gave it some snort.
In the spring of 1998, the Dakota got a steroid injection in the form of the spiritual successor of the Li’l Red Express: the 360-ci small-block V8. The 1998 version now had multi-port fuel injection and was called a 5.9-L Magnum, making 250 hp. It was only available in the newly created R/T package, added to the Sport level trim, and only with a heavy-duty 46RE 4-speed automatic transmission and two-wheel drive.
The R/T package included a 3.91 Sure-Grip differential, sport suspension which sat 19 mm lower than a stock Sport 4×2, quicker-ratio steering, upgraded brakes (bigger discs up front, but still with drums out back), dual exhaust, special cast-aluminum wheels shod with 255/55R17 performance tires, bucket seats, and monochrome paint.
The latter was available in one of four R/T exclusive colors: Flame Red, black, Intense Blue and Deep Amethyst. It was also available with either the single cab or the Club Cab — but never the Quad Cab, which was introduced for the Dakota in 2000. 2001 saw a heavy interior refresh and 2002 saw the availability of polished aluminum wheels as the biggest running changes.
The small-block engines were thirsty beasts and were not the easiest to tame for emissions, so the new-generation “PowerTech” 4.7-L V8 was introduced in 2000. The 360 / 5.9 Magnum was finally retired in 2003, after 32 years of continuous service in cars and/or trucks, albeit with multiple light-to-significant updates over the years.
This thing actually handles well
Domestically built small pickups have never been great at handling. Ford made a flaccid attempt at a sporty small pickup from 1987 to 1989 with the Ranger GT, but Ford spent more development money on Mustang GT look-alike lower-body cladding than actual handling upgrades — aside from thicker sway bars. Only available in two-wheel drive and the single cab (although long and short wheelbases were available by 1988), it was a marketing flop. The famed 1991 GMC Syclone is better, but it’s more of a manned missile than a sports car. Otherwise, the first-gen S-10s were motorized wheelbarrows.
Then there’s the gen-II Dakota. Plain Jane out-of-the-box two-wheel-drive examples of this truck actually handle well — not C5 Corvette well, but vastly better than any of their sub full-sized competitors, domestic or foreign. And not too shabby compared even to a fourth-gen Camaro or SN95 Mustang.
That is what the folks at Chrysler were actually gunning for when they developed the R/T, with the emphasis on touring more than quarter-mile times. On the dragstrip, they are good smoky-burnout generators.
Overall R/T sales never amounted to much. Indeed, the rarest year is the final one for 2003 — a mere 802 were built. You might think it’s the most desirable, incorporating the 2001 interior refresh. Yet it appears that the Y2K-and-earlier production models are favored by enthusiasts, due to some extent to slightly easier tuning and slightly cheaper pricing.
The drag-racing and tuner communities prefer the Club Cab, due to longer wheelbase for a more stable platform, as well as more weight toward the rear axle.
Big power, little interest — for now
In today’s market, if you mention “hopped-up Dodge pickup,” everyone thinks of the Viper-powered Ram SRT/10. Most car people don’t know much about the R/T. As such, these are about the best bang for the buck for 1990s rear-drive V8 performance.
Trolling Buy-Here Pay-Here lots can fetch a mega-miles beater for under $3k. Stepping up to a better example will still cost less than a beat Ram SRT/10. Good ones with reasonable miles can be had for $5k to $9k, but expect to spend some time searching the interweb for The Right One. Any examples over $10k had better be New Old Stock virgins. With a little over 16,000 built over six model years, the hardest thing will be to find one, regardless of condition.
With light trucks and SUVs taking over as modern-day cars, future collectors will likely find a small performance truck more natural than us old fogies who still can’t completely wrap our heads around the Dodge Li’l Red Express being the fastest domestically built vehicle in 1978.
Two decades later, the Li’l Red’s spiritual successor won’t be showing a C5 Corvette or Pontiac Trans Am WS6 who’s boss. But in another two decades, the R/T may finally get the respect it deserves.