The five-seat Nitro is a blast to drive in a straight line thanks to a gem of an engine in the available 4.0-liter V-6, but it suffers from trucklike ride and handling that has no place in an SUV designed for onroad performance.
Exterior & Styling
Despite my normal aversion to overly aggressive-looking SUVs, I'm fond of the Nitro's Tonka-tough appearance. Still, it's hard not to feel a little like a goof when driving it alongside everyday Accords and Corollas. Though it may not get as many looks (or smirks) as a Hummer H3 or Toyota FJ Cruiser, it's a head-turner.
The Nitro's boxy shape is accentuated by gigantic front and rear fender flares and a short greenhouse. The nearly vertical grille is silver on SXT and SLT trims, but the crosshair portion of the grille is body-colored on R/T models.
Ride & Handling
The Nitro's independent front and solid rear axle suspension system is available in sport or performance tune, the latter featuring changes to the stabilizer bars, coil springs, shocks and bushings. The performance suspension — which includes 20-inch chrome wheels — is standard on the R/T, the trim level I tested.
Dodge says the performance suspension is designed to have a firm ride, and I have to agree. The Nitro uses a lengthened and widened version of the Jeep Liberty's Uniframe unibody/frame-rail platform, and driving on rough roads is a jarring experience; hitting a bump or dip in the road results in an exaggerated response from the suspension that can toss occupants around in their seats. Even relatively smooth concrete highways can make the body start bouncing.
The driver gets a commanding view of the road, but the high seating position doesn't inspire much confidence when driving through corners, which I often took gingerly. I like the feel of the R/T's thick-rim leather-wrapped steering wheel, but the rack-and-pinion power steering system provides too much assist for my taste when traveling at highway speeds. The light effort is appreciated around town, though.
Going & Stopping
Two V-6 engines are offered, and the larger and more powerful 4.0-liter V-6 that's standard in the R/T goes a long way toward backing up the Nitro's burly exterior with its eager responses and ever-present exhaust burble. This engine gets the two-ton Nitro up to highway speeds easily, and is quite smooth considering its displacement.
|Dodge Nitro Engines|
|3.7-liter V-6||4.0-liter V-6|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||210 @ 5,200||260 @ 6,000|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||235 @ 4,000||265 @ 4,200|
(RWD, 4WD manual)
The base 3.7-liter V-6 teams with a six-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic, while the 4.0-liter V-6 drives a five-speed automatic that features Dodge's AutoStick clutchless-manual mode. Whether you're driving in the city or on the highway, the five-speed automatic readily kicks down when more of the 4.0-liter's ample power is needed.
Both rear- and four-wheel-drive versions are available, and two 4WD systems are offered. The part-time system should only be engaged when driving on slippery surfaces (RWD is used under normal driving conditions), but the full-time system includes a center differential and operates without driver intervention. Neither system has a low range, which disqualifies the Nitro from extreme offroad driving.
All-disc antilock brakes are standard. The brakes stop the Nitro without incident and are fairly linear, but the pedal itself has an uninspiring, spongy feel.
Like the exterior, the Nitro's cabin is a bit austere. The three-pod gauge cluster sits atop a skinny dashboard that falls away rapidly from the driver and front passenger. The base SXT's interior is accented in black, but SLT and R/T models feature silver trim pieces on the center dash, door pulls, door armrests and center console. Manual air conditioning, a 115V power outlet and a CD stereo are standard.
There's room for five in the Nitro, which has two front bucket seats and a 60/40-split, folding rear seat. Its backrests can recline for enhanced passenger comfort, but the rear seats don't slide fore and aft like they do in the Toyota RAV4 and Mitsubishi Outlander. Cloth seating surfaces are standard; stain-resistant fabric and leather-trimmed seats are available.
The leather-trimmed bucket seats are surprisingly soft; you sink into them rather than sit on top. The upper section of the backrests hit my shoulder blades uncomfortably, but otherwise the Nitro's front seats are easy to live with. More annoying are the impossibly small front footwells and the lack of a footrest for the driver's left foot. The outboard rear seats are roomy and there's headroom to spare, though backseat passengers don't get a center armrest and the door pockets are tiny.
As of publication, only the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had crash tested the Nitro, which received five stars for its performance in the agency's frontal test. Side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system are standard.
Cargo & Towing
The Nitro has 32.1 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seats, which is the same as the Ford Edge but smaller than both the RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Folding the rear seats brings 65.2 cubic feet of space and is a straightforward process that doesn't require the two rear head restraints to be removed.
SXT models have a reversible cargo floor with a molded-in tray on one side that's designed to keep messes confined to the cargo area. SLT and R/T trim lines have the Load 'N Go cargo floor. Capable of sliding out of the cargo area up to 18 inches, Load 'N Go brings the cargo floor to you when loading objects, and Dodge says it can hold up to 400 pounds. There's a concealed storage bin underneath both floors.
The Nitro's standard towing capacity is 2,000 pounds. Selecting the optional Trailer Tow Group — which includes heavy-duty engine and power steering cooling systems, a Class III hitch and a full-size spare tire — raises trailer towing capacity to 3,500 pounds; fitting a so-equipped Nitro with a weight-distributing hitch bumps maximum towing capacity to 5,000 pounds, which is at the high end for small SUVs.
Available entertainment options include the MyGIG navigation system, which features Sirius Satellite Radio and the Bluetooth-based UConnect cell phone system. MyGIG features a 20GB hard drive that can hold music and images uploaded to it from a disc or USB flash drive (image files can be set as the background on the system's 6.5-inch screen). In conjunction with Sirius' real-time traffic data, MyGIG can reroute the Nitro around traffic accidents. A rear-seat video system that features a 7-inch overhead screen is also optional.
Nitro in the Market
Though more consumers are migrating from truck-based SUVs to more fuel-efficient and better-riding car-based models, there will always be a market for statement vehicles like the Nitro, where practical considerations hold less sway. Even if the Nitro's reception by consumers is only lukewarm, which seems a remote possibility, it brings Dodge into a segment where until now its market share has been zero, and how can anything be worse than that?
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