The Dodge Nitro compact SUV moves into its second year for 2008 with some heady competition - from its own parent company.
Introduced just last fall, the Nitro actually is a version of the redesigned Jeep Liberty that arrives this fall.
But as Jeep dealers roll out the Liberty, Dodge dealers want consumers to remember that the Nitro is available, too, and might be a better choice for consumers who aren't really into the kind of off-road activities that Jeep owners enjoy.
The Nitro is a very nice sport utility in its own right, and while Dodge has not been promoting it as a crossover, its unibody construction and smooth on-road manners actually do qualify it for that designation. When the Nitro came to market a year ago, calling it a crossover wasn't as important as it is today. Crossovers are the SUVs of choice for today's consumers, who seem to be abandoning the once wildly popular traditional SUVs at a frantic pace.
Consumers might have some confusion when they shop in Dodge showrooms beginning next year, though, as the 2009 Journey compact crossover, aimed specifically at women, joins the lineup.
The major difference in the two types of sport utility vehicles is that the traditional models, such as the Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner, are trucks underneath, with their bodies dropped onto sturdy steel frames. The crossovers, such as the Toyota Highlander, Honda CR-V, Ford Edge and GMC Acadia, among others, have the unibody design of cars, in which the frame and body are essentially one piece.
This arrangement allows these vehicles to ride more like cars than trucks, and most have at least slightly better fuel economy. That's mostly because they weigh less without the steel truck frame underneath.
Chrysler made Jeep dealers wait a year for the new Liberty, giving Dodge dealers a head start with the Nitro.
And even though the Nitro has the necessary elements to classify it as a crossover, it doesn't look like one. In fact, it looks quite a lot like the Hummer H3, a similarly sized compact sport utility that falls into the truck-based class - it's built on the chassis of the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon compact pickups.
The new Liberty, on the other hand, looks much like the venerable Jeep Cherokee that the original Liberty replaced for 2002.
Despite their common underpinnings, the Nitro and redesigned Liberty aren't expected to compete against each other. Chrysler says they are aimed at different consumers.
That's probably so, as there are key differences between the Nitro and new Liberty besides their overall styling and the fact that each carries the signature grille of its respective brand.
The Nitro has an optional all-wheel-drive system, but no low-range gearing for serious off-road use. But the Liberty offers a choice of two off-road-capable four-wheel drive systems and is Jeep "trail-rated" with either of those. The Nitro is not intended for rugged trails, although with its H3-like styling it looks as though it should be.
"The Jeep buyer takes his vehicle and sits on the edge of the Grand Canyon, enjoying nature," Dodge truck marketing manager Ron Zarowitz said during last year's rollout of the Nitro. "The Dodge customer is an on-road driver."
Although designer Dennis MylesÖ introduced the Nitro as "Dodge's first midsize SUV," he listed as its competitors three vehicles that help anchor the compact SUV segment - the Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox and Nissan Xterra. Of those, the Ford and Chevy are clearly crossovers not suited to off-road use. But the Xterra is a truck-based, true SUV that comes with optional extreme off-road gear that makes it as trail-ready as the new Liberty.
Nitro is slightly larger than the others in the compact class, but not as big as the key players in the midsize crossover segment, including the Edge, Highlander, Honda Pilot, Acadia and Saturn Outlook. Most of those vehicles are offered with a third row of seating, while the Nitro comes with just two rows and can hold only five passengers. In the midsize SUV class, Dodge has the Durango, which is based on the chassis of the Dodge Dakota midsize pickup. As a traditional SUV, its sales are down this year along with most of its truck-based competitors. That vehicle grew somewhat when it entered its second generation three years ago, but it's still considered midsize and competes primarily against the Explorer and Chevy TrailBlazer.
The Nitro's starting price - a surprisingly reasonable $19,595 plus $660 freight for the 2008 model - also puts it firmly in the compact class. Midsize SUVs such as he Explorer and 4Runner begin in the upper $20,000s.
The target consumer group for the Nitro also is the same as the rest of the compact segment. "We're aiming for young singles and young couples just starting out," Zarowitz said.
Goals for the design of the Nitro, he said, were to make it "assertive rather than aggressive, and masculine but not macho."
"To design it, we went back to our heritage," he said, specifically the 1999 Dodge Power Wagon concept vehicle, a truck whose front end design is similar to the Nitro's. Three trim levels are offered, starting with the base, rear-wheel-drive SXT, which has the under-$20,000 price. It comes with the same 3.7-liter V-6 engine that made its debut in the original Liberty, rated at 210 horsepower. Standard is a six-speed manual gearbox and 16-inch wheels. A four-speed automatic is optional, as are part-time and full-time all-wheel-drive systems. Four-wheel drive SXT models start at $21,255 (plus freight).
EPA fuel-economy ratings (2008 formula) for the two-wheel-drive automatic 3.7-liter models are 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. With all-wheel drive, the ratings are 15/21.
The midlevel model is the SLT, which begins at $23,005 with two-wheel drive, the 3.7-liter V-6, automatic transmission and 17-inch wheels. This model also has a two-tone interior. With four-wheel drive, SLT prices begin at $24,665.
Top of the line is the R/T, which starts at $26,180 ($27,840 with four-wheel drive).
This one is the performance version, with a 4.0-liter V-6 engine rated at 260 horsepower and 265 foot-pounds of torque. The engine is connected to a five-speed automatic gearbox, and 20-inch wheels are standard. A performance suspension is included in the package.
EPA ratings for this engine are 16 city/21 highway for two-wheel-drive, and 15/20 for all-wheel drive.
The 4.0-liter engine was new for 2007, and also appears in the Chrysler Pacifica wagon.
No manual gearbox is offered in the SLT or R/T models.
Standard on all Nitro models is electronic stability control with rollover mitigation. Also included on all models are side-curtain air bags for both rows of seating to protect occupants in the event a rollover does occur.
Nitro options include a DVD audio system with eight speakers, a rear-seat entertainment system, and remote start. A sport suspension is optional on SXT and SLT models, and both of these trims can be upgraded to the 20-inch wheels.
SLT and R/T models come with Dodge's new "load 'n' go" cargo floor, which moves 18 inches out over the rear bumper so that bulky objects can be loaded into the vehicle more easily. The rolling floor can hold up to 400 pounds.
A hidden storage compartment can hold valuable items such as laptop computers. There is a power outlet inside this compartment.
Also standard on SLT and R/T will be Chrysler's new "YES Essentials" cloth seats, made with a fabric that repels most ordinary stains such as permanent ink markers, mustard and ketchup. It also helps control odors, and eliminates static electricity.
Another innovation is the optional MyGIG navigation/audio system ($1,700), which includes a 20-gigabyte hard drive that can hold 1,600 songs in MP3 format. An auxiliary jack on the Nitro's audio systems allows an iPod or other portable music player to be connected directly, so the music can be heard over the system's speakers.