CHICAGO – Dodge is on a mission to redefine the midsize pickup segment with the new Dakota – a truck the auto maker says delivers fullsize styling, feel and power.

Unveiled at the Chicago Auto show, the new-for-’05 pickup, which Dodge calls the most capable and the largest midsize pickup in its class, also comes with the option of a V-8 engine – a feature that significantly distinguishes it from its competitors.

And the competition in this normally stagnant segment is intensifying. The new Dakota needs to stack up against General Motors Corp.’s new entries, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, as well as a forthcoming all-new Nissan Frontier.

“Dakota defined the midsize segment with more room, more comfort and more power than the competition,” says Eric Ridenour, executive vice president-product development, Chrysler Group.

Dodge Dakota

“The all-new 2005 Dodge Dakota repeats that success and injects some Dodge Ram DNA into the design and feel of the new Dakota. Dodge buyers like the ‘right size’ of the current Dodge Dakota, which is more fuel-efficient and maneuverable than a fullsize pickup but can still get the big jobs done.”

The new-from-the-ground-up Dakota starts with a stronger and more durable, fully boxed frame, the same one used in the new Durango SUV, and new front and rear suspensions. The package delivers improved ride refinement, Dodge says, but also provides best-in-class 7,000-lb. (3,175-kg) tow capacity.

As with the Ram, size matters for the Dakota. The truck is 3.7 ins. (9.4 cm) longer than its predecessor, having grown in the area ahead of the front axle for added crush space. Extended bumpers add to better crash protection. The body has grown in width by 2.7 ins. (6.9 cm).

The two models – the Club Cab and Quad Cab – both offer more interior room than all other comparable midsize pickups, Dodge says. The Quad Cab model offers 6-passenger seating, part of a package that’s 7 ins. (17.7 cm) wider than the Chevrolet Colorado, Dodge says.

The Club Cab and Quad Cab models boast the same dimensions: 218.8-in. (555.7-cm) overall length; 71.7-in. (182.1-cm) overall width; and a 131.3-in. (333.5-cm) wheelbase.

Dodge ups Dakota’s V-8 offerings from one to two variants: the 4.7L V-8 Magnum makes 230 hp at 4,600 rpm and 290 lb.-ft. (393 Nm) of torque at 3,600 rpm. The 4.7L High Output Magnum V-8 boosts power to 250 hp and 300-plus lb.-ft. (407 Nm) of torque. Both are rated 3%-4% more fuel efficient than the previous Dakota V-8.

The standard engine is a 3.7L Magnum V-6 that makes 210 hp and 235 lb.-ft. (319 Nm) of torque, as well as a 6% improvement in fuel efficiency over the 3.9L V-6 it replaces.

Transmission choices include a 6-speed manual available with all engines, a 4-speed automatic with the V-6 and a 5-speed automatic for the 4.7L V-8s. Four-wheel drive is optional.

The truck’s design is a critical element to the new Dakota’s chances at success. Dodge borrows heavily from its big brother, the Dodge Ram, incorporating a massive front fascia and more sharply defined grille to emphasize the truck’s size and power.

“The design of the new Dakota is more directly connected to the evolution of the Ram than to the new Durango, as was the case on the previous Dakota,” says Trevor Creed, senior vice president-Chrysler Group Design. “It defines the look for its segment, just as the Ram does for fullsize trucks.”

The interior works to incorporate a more clean, elegant and upscale look than the previous model, as well as options including satellite radio, an integrated U-Connect BlueTooth phone system and heated cloth and leather seats. Heated cloth seats become a segment first, Dodge says.

The pickup comes in three trim levels: the ST, SLT and Laramie. The Laramie trim level attempts a more upscale look with “satin silver” accents throughout.

An advanced airbag system that includes dual-stage front airbags and an occupant-sensing system for the passenger-side front airbag is new for the safety category. Side-curtain airbags with coverage for both rows on both models is available as an option.

The new Dakota, which will be built at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant in Warren, MI, will be available in dealerships in fall.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com