Shoehorning a powerful V8 engine into a mid-size car is nothing new for the auto industry, but it may be a first for the pickup truck business.

That's what Chrysler has done with its mid-size Dodge Dakota pickup, although its hood had to be lengthened 3 inches to accommodate the 5.2-liter V8 now offered as an option for 1991.Although electronically fuel-injected and mated to a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, this engine is really the tried and true 318-cubic incher that has powered Chrysler cars and trucks for decades.

The Dakota's V8 delivers 165 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, 40 hp more than the 3.9 liter V6 engine also offered as an option in this line. Torque is up to 150 pound-feet at 2,400 rpm vs. 195 at 2,000 rpm in the V6. Towing capacity has been increased to a hefty 6,700 pounds.

This gives the Dakota - still the only mid-size pickup on the market - more power and towing capacity than its smaller competitors, which include the Ford Ranger, Chevy S-10/GMC S-15 and a host of import pickups from Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Isuzu.

It also makes the Dakota, first introduced for 1987, a viable alternative to the popular full-size pickups offered by Ford or Chevrolet.

Like most pickup trucks, the Dakota is offered in a staggering array of models, with payloads ranging from 1,250 to 2,550 pounds.

Prices start at $8,483 for a two-wheel drive version with a 2.5 liter four-cylinder engine, 5-speed manual and 6.5-foot cargo box. At the top is V8-powered, four-wheel drive version fitted with the four-passenger Club Cab introduced for 1990. That can range up to $20,000.

Driven for this review was one version expected to be popular with Dakota buyers: a V8-powered, 2WD Club Cab LE. It was equipped with a long list of amenities, since most trucks are fitted with car-like comfort: air conditioning, stereo, power steering and electric windows.

As tested, it cost $16,088, counting a $450 destination fee. Also added to its sticker was a trailer towing package ($391), 2,000-pound payload package ($248) and anti-spin differential ($257).

Inside, all Dakotas have sensibly arranged dashboards with a full complement of analog gauges, convenient controls and a retractable cupholder.

The only complaints had to do with an electric mirror adjustment knob that can be easily confused with the headlight switch. Also, the vinyl bands on its front seats are sure to be uncomfortable on hot days.

Rear passenger room and exit/entry are very good for an extended cab design. Beneath the flip-up rear seats are storage compartments to conceal valuables.

On the road is where the V8 Dakota shines. The test model was a delight to drive every mile of the way, exhibiting an impressive blend of power, handling, comfort and utility. Power disc brakes up front and anti-lock brakes in the rear are standard on all models.

Quality on the vehicle evaluated was first-rate. Access to routinely serviced items on its V8 engine is very good, although its hood is heavy and mustbe supported by a prop rod.

Fuel economy with the V8 engine and 2WD is only about 16 mpg overall, meaning buyers should carefully evaluate their needs for such a vehicle.

But for those who require extra power or payload in a sensibly sized pickup, the Dakota is a good choice. Dodge expects about 25 percent of all Dakotas sold this year will be V8-powered and that the vast majority of Dakota buyers use their trucks primarily for leisure.

Each Dakota is backed by a one year/12,000 mile basic warranty and a 7-year/70,000 mile powertrain warranty.