Job One for Chrysler Corp.'s redesigned 1997 Dakota is July 19 and Bob Eaton's (Lutz's, too) boys are assertive about the new truck's looks -- and its role in a segment that's shrunken markedly in the last few years.

No need to look further than the new Dakota's "mini Ram" styling to know that Chrysler's bald-faced about cashing in on the undeniable styling -- and marketplace -- success the fullsize Ram pickup has enjoyed since its launch as a '94.

"The Dakota's strong resemblance to the Ram is not a mistake," admits Rich Schaum, general manager-truck engineering.

The 1997 Dakota is heavily reengineered to match its solid new appearance. The most noteworthy work has gone into the chassis and suspension. Front suspension is by control on the two-wheel drivers, coil springs on four-wheel-drive pickups. A hefty five feet has been hacked out of the turning circle as the result of new front suspension geometry, and the frame is 50% stiffer than the one on the previous Dakota, launched in 1987. A few hot test laps at Chrysler's Chelsea, MI, proving grounds prove that the suspension work is accomplished. This truck handles like no other.

Chrysler has quietly repositioned the Dakota since its inception, abandoning its original marketing of the vehicle as a "midsize" pickup. Company execs say the midsize label proved too ambiguous in the market; it wasn't until it was pitted against the established compact-truck players -- Chevrolet's S-10 and Ford's Ranger -- that Dakota found a home with the segment's dominant buyer, the "lifestyle" pickup customer.

The engine lineup -- a 2.5L 4-cyl., the graying 3.9L inline six and the 5.2L V-8 -- remains with minor modifications. Two transmissions are offered, a 4-speed automatic and the New Venture Gear-produced 5-speed manual. The V-8 is unique to the compact segment, fitting for a truck that is larger, by far, than its competitors. Maximum trailer towing, too, is the being the class.

Marketing focus will be on club cab and 4WD models. There's no third door option, says Chrysler, because the company wanted to make the new truck a value leader. In reality, part of the no-third-door decision may actually have been made when Chrysler decided to spin a sport/utility vehicle (SUV) off the new Dakota for the '98 model year. WAW sources say Chrysler currently is tooling its Newark, DE, assembly plant to knock out as many as 200,000 of the Dakota-based SUVs each year.

That leaves Chrysler with the plan to produce 150,000 new Dakotas in its first full year of production at the Warren, MI, assembly plant, already home to big-brother Ram. Then the idea is to sell a whopping 190,000 in Dakota's second full year. In 1995, Chrysler moved about 111,000 Dakotas.