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Nashville Scene Cardinal Points

A new automotive age debuts with Dodge's new Quad cab

By Marc Stengel

NOVEMBER 29, 1999:  Trucks are in the ascendant for the foreseeable future; and it's entirely possible that, in our next millennium, our scions will awaken into a "truckomotive" universe in which automobiles as we presently know them--cars, that is--are relegated to the status of incidental, recreational toys. Even now, manufacturers of the newest vehicles are beginning to blur the simple definition of a truck. With the arrival of the new-for-2000 Dakota Quad Cab, Dodge brazenly risks consigning the term "pickup" to the etymological discard pile.

Boasting four sedan-sized doors, six-passenger seating, a bobtail cargo "bedlet," and roof-rack stowage, the Quad Cab rolls onto the scene as a Sport/Utility Truck, or SUT. Nissan's smaller Crew Cab model was nominally first last spring; Ford's ballyhooed SportTrac SUT is due next spring. But when Dodge's Quad Cab hits the showrooms Jan. 1, you can say goodbye to all that we have held dear (and irritating) about pickups up to now.

Let it be said first of all that the Dodge Dakota platform is already an anomaly for being less than full-size but much larger than compact. It is, therefore, a perfect starting point for Dodge's maverick gamble to marry a sedan-like interior to versatile outdoor cargo capacity. This is the cardinal distinction of the SUT "paradigm": Unlike the SUVs presently clotting our highways, the Dakota Quad Cab banishes stinky mulch, gooey mountain bikes, or dripping wetsuits to an open-air truck bed where they belong.

Not that Dodge intends to let all this cargo pile up and fend for itself, untended and unloved. Dodge's accessory division Mopar is coordinating the launch of a dazzling array of add-ons to coincide with the Quad Cab's debut. There is the truck world's first-ever roof rack for bikes or kayaks or 150 lbs. of whatever. Taking a page from Nissan's book, a clever "bed extender" uses the lowered tailgate to restore a stubby cargo box measuring 5 1/4 ft. long to a more nearly traditional 6 3/4 ft. A neato, three-piece "gullwing" hard tonneau combines lockable security for items stowed in the bed with convenient access to them from either side or from the rear. Brush guards, winches, bedliners, even a dedicated bed cap joint-ventured with Lear Industries round out a full range of "first wave" accessories from Mopar that will accompany the Quad Cab to market. As a result, this vehicle is likely to become one of the most customizable expressions of personal vehicular taste to hit the road in years.

In motion, the Quad Cab is a curious combination of new and old. Its powertrain and handling dynamics are plainly truckish, albeit in a thoroughly modern and almost refined way. My favorite configuration during the Quad Cab's media debut at Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., was a two-wheel-drive Sport version powered by Dodge's masterful "next generation" Magnum 4.7-liter V8 mated to a smart-shifting five-speed manual. In either SLT or Sport trim, this model starts at $20,070 (base). The lower center of gravity of the 2WD layout notably improves handling, and the 235-horse V8 responds to gear changes from the yard-long shifter like a charging stallion. A 3.9-liter V6 provides entry-level power, and like the 4.7 V8 ($590 option), it can power either a five-speed manual transmission (standard) or a four-speed automatic ($975 option).

For towing, Quad Cab puts a 245-horsepower 5.9-liter V8 to work, with the four-speed auto only; in 4WD layout, this package can reach $25-grand. The 6,100-lb. tow rating for a vehicle this size is impressive; however, several journalists, including this one, found the auto transmission's tendency to race into high-gear overdrive a significant annoyance--and an artless kowtow to federal fuel-efficiency regulations.

It is the passenger experience that rates the Quad Cab's most uncanny reactions. Up front, the 40/20/40 split bench is a three-seater for moments of duress only--and with that lanky shifter in the way, the middle-seat designee might rather go thumbing for a different ride. In back, however, the 60/40 bench is a revolution in terms of head and leg room, whether by truck or sedan criteria. This is genuine long-distance seating, as yours truly can amply attest after hundreds of miles touring the citrus grove and thoroughbred country of Central Florida. The bolt-upright backrest causes initial concern that such proper posture will become taxing after many a mile, but the fear is ultimately unfounded. The rear window just inches aft the head is a more legitimate concern; I'd appreciate knowing that Dodge might eventually incorporate adjustable headrests into the one-piece rear seat back, for safety's sake at least.

Even so, Dodge's problem solvers have done an excellent job designing the rear passenger space. Because the seat bottoms fold vertically flush to the backrest, tall, bulky cargo can be stowed securely inside, even while preserving seating space for up to two passengers. Furthermore, the full-size rear doors open almost 90 degrees for clear access all the way through the vehicle. When the doors are closed, fully retracting windows eliminate that incarcerated feeling typical of other extended-cab trucks.

Much as the Dakota Quad Cab resembles a traditional pickup by its silhouette, it is clear that the appearance of four doors on this midsize vehicle fundamentally reorients the compass to a changing automotive terrain. Part truck, part sedan, part SUV--yet distinct from each one, really--the Quad Cab is the natural result of a truck fascination in desperate search of new ideas. Moreover, it is the clearest indication yet that even more truckomotive innovations are rolling our way.

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