NASHVILLE — Pickup trucks are such a big part of Americana that it seems odd to hear a designer of one speak with an English accent.
Britain has produced plenty of car designers, but so few pickup designers that you likely could fit them all in the bed of a Dodge Dakota and still have room for a few bags of cement.
Yet the chief designer of the '05 Dakota is British-born Cliff Wilkins, who has worked for DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group for 11 of the 18 years he's been in the U.S.
“I've been here long enough to understand the American culture,” he says. “I know that guys in this country grew up with trucks. Some of them were conceived in trucks.
“But for a designer, it's really all about style. With the right attitude, you can design just about anything.”
Wilkins thinks the new Dakota has the right attitude: graceful yet aggressive — especially along its bold sides sporting a faceted look.
Overall, the redesigned vehicle is bigger and beefier yet more refined, both in looks and performance.
“The design had to retain the brand characteristics so that it is immediately recognizable as a Dodge,” says Wilkins. “But you don't want to serve the same dish at every meal.”
It is designed to look tough, from its angular sides to a front end with a “big-rig look,” centering on the signature Dodge cross-hair grille flanked by “high-tech headlights,” says Wilkins.
The Chrysler Group staged a press preview for the all-new Dakota at a macho milieu: the football field of the Coliseum, the Tennessee Titans' 70,000-seat stadium.
The seats of the new Dakota are vastly improved, says Wilkins.
“They're not of the consistency and feel of stuffed animals that you sometimes find in vehicle seats,” he says. “They have a European quality.”
Adds Jason Vines, Chrysler Group's vice president of communications: “The seats are the greatest interior refinement. We went back and forth three times with our supplier, Lear Corp., to get it right. It's the German influence of DaimlerChrysler, a seat that's precise and solid and one that you don't sink down in.”
Meanwhile, Dodge hopes the redo will put more buyers into seats of the new Dakota, a vehicle that has lost sales in a generally shrinking segment.
The compact pickup segment overall has seen sales fall from 1,082,436 units in 1999 to 743,656 last year. In that time, Dakota deliveries dropped from 144,148 to 111,273 units.
Dakota 2004 sales through June are 55,690 units, 6.4% less than the same time a year ago. But Dakota, by about 5,000 units in the first six months of this year, has outpaced its chief competitor, the Chevrolet Colorado, that debuted this '04 model year as a successor to the Chevy S-10.
The Colorado and the all-new Dakota are part of the compact pickup segment's new breed of vehicles that are less than fullsize but larger than the diminutive 2-seater trucks that once exclusively occupied the segment.
The '05 Dakota project team members say they tracked market trends and listened to consumers as part of the redesign.
The trends told them that standard cab pickup sales were waning. Consequently, the new Dakota is offered only in Club Cab and Quad Cab 4-door configurations.
“Consumers told us they wanted all the comfort and conveniences and the ride and handling of a car because that's what a lot of them are coming out of,” says Bob Hegbloom, senior manager-Dodge truck marketing. “I worked the field 10-12 years ago, and I wish I was selling these then, rather than the lineup of before.”
The Dakota lineup has been narrowed to three trim lines: the entry level ST, SLT and top-of-the-line Laramie.
“We used to have several models, but we simplified it for the showroom,” says Hegbloom.
The new Dakota is the only truck in its segment to offer an optional V-8. For the SLT and Laramie models, the 4.7L 16-valve engine also comes in a high-output version, boosting power from 230 hp to 250 hp.
The standard engine is a new-generation 3.7L, SOHC 12-valve V-6.
Including $695 destination charges, prices range from $19,210 for a base ST Club Cab 2-wheel drive to $34,669 for a loaded Laramie Quad Cab with 4-wheel drive and the high-output V-8.
Other options include 17-in. chrome-clad aluminum wheels, 4-wheel anti-lock brakes and side curtain airbags.
Dakota Program Manager Steve Jakubiec says the Dodge out-tows the Colorado, 7,150 lbs. vs. 4,000 lbs. He says the Dakota payload sets a segment benchmark of 1,800 lbs.
“It has fullsize pickup capacity in a midsize package,” he says. “I've spent the last two years of my life working on this vehicle and only on this vehicle. I've become very attached to it.”
Dealership owner Ken Gupton of Gupton Motors, selling Chryslers, Jeeps and Dodges in Springfield, TN, expects the Dakota to get a “warm reception” when the trucks go on sale in October. About 40% of his Dodge truck sales are Dakotas, the rest fullsize Rams.
“You really can't call Dakotas small trucks anymore because they are more midsize than anything else,” Gupton says. “I see sales in that segment growing, especially as fuel prices rise.”
He says several potential customers spotted the new Dakotas being driven around town during the Nashville press preview.
“I wasn't aware of the event but we got about seven or eight calls from people who saw the trucks on the road and wanted to know when we were getting them in,” he says.
Bart McConley, general sales manager of Warnock Dodge Chrysler Jeep in East Hanover, NJ, says Ram deliveries increased 35% since last year's redesign of that pickup, and he expects a similar boost when the redone Dakota goes on sale.
“We've always done well with the Dakota, but sales have slowed the last couple of years,” he says. “We welcome the new one. It's time for a change.”
Like Gupton, McConley sees the compact truck segment becoming more midsize.
“Those little trucks are becoming a thing of the past,” he says. “Midsize trucks appeal to people who want a fullsize truck but don't want a fullsize truck.”