My parents hate Mopar with a passion, having had a first year K car. However, my experience was different.
I was 19; poor, and driving the world's worst Mustang II, which promptly soiled itself on the Dodge dealer's lot. I wanted a cheap new car, and there were two on the lot that fit the bill - a basic Neon coupe, and the red Dakota. I test drove both, and chose the Dakota, because it had the old fashioned 2.5 Jeep engine, a manual transmission, and I thought it had the best chance of being reliable in the long term.
Being a 'work special', it was not loaded. No AC; no radio; no carpet, no cruise, well no anything really. However, it had all of the things I wanted: full instrumentation, airbag, rear ABS, mud tyres (on a 2wd!), a rear step bumper, and thank you Dodge, really good speakers already installed in the doors! Oh, and a flimsy cup holder, which I think the parts department only sells in packs of 3 now.
Needless to say, they saw me coming. Being young and stupid, I can say that I paid too much, and got ripped off on the finance deal. However, although I don't rate the dealer highly (Chrysler/Dodge dealers in my experience do have a reputation for poor sales and service), the truck itself was brilliant.
I drove the thing everywhere - off road, through the Rocky Mountains, through 2.5 foot of floodwater in New Orleans, through snow in Detroit on unplowed roads, and across I-94 around Lake Michigan during a lake effect snowstorm, and the thing always made it home.
The 2.5 engine is one of the best truck engines ever made, with engine internals way over-engineered for the job required. I would compare it to an old 2.25 Land Rover engine in terms of ruggedness. Way better than the K-car engine that was in the '95 Dakota.
I also found the interior to be comfortable, with a good cloth bench seat, a dashboard with full gauges including temp, oil and amp needles - all on a base model. Mopar has always been good for giving full instrumentation. Furthermore, I really appreciated the rubber floor instead of carpet - far more practical for truck use.
The chassis on the truck was built to a high standard, the brakes were excellent, and for a 2wd truck, it really handled the snow well.
Servicing was a breeze, with that huge V8 sized engine bay and a little four banger, so my 4000 mile oil changes could be done in 10 minutes, without having to jack it up.
The bodywork was typical '90s Chrysler, with EZ-fade red paint that required constant polishing to look good; door hinges made of tin foil, and panels that dented if you looked at them wrong. But for all of that it had front and rear bumpers, something that Rangers and S10s didn't, as well as a frame that looked twice as strong as the others. Plus, the bed would hold a sheet of plywood flat on top of the wheel humps.
The styling? Well the '96 was the last year of the old body, so it looked like a '72-91 Ram in miniature, which I kind of liked. Compared with the S-10 or Ranger, which I think looked a bit round and girly, the Dakota was a proper truck.
Driving the Dakota was quite an experience. It really had the ruggedness of a truck and the handling of a car. It had rack and pinion steering, instead of a vague and woolly steering box like the Ranger. The gearbox was long throw, but precise, and the brakes were ABS on the rears. I don't remember having a single Oh Crap moment, even in the weather mentioned above.
My best buddy purchased a S-10 the same year, also on a rip-off finance deal. The trucks were like chalk and cheese. The Dakota felt robust and truck like, was bigger and had a real truck engine. The S-10 seemed like a Cavalier with a bed put out back as an afterthought. He had all sorts of trouble with his, and mine was reliable as the day is long. Looking underneath, the springs, shocks, and frame were all heavier gauge on the Dakota. Clearly the S10 was aimed at people who valued style over substance. My buddy now drives a Ram.
The thing about Chrysler, is that they design and engineer excellent cars. If you happen to get one built properly, you'll have a 200K+ mile vehicle. It's a lottery though, and I won.
That Dakota got me through the toughest years of my youth, and I only sold it to get out of the car note so that I could go to university. However, I was so sold on Chrysler, that I promptly went to the St Vincent De Paul and purchased a Slant 6 engined '83 Gran Fury for $500... But that's another story entirely.