Dodge Nitro: Does It Live Up to Its Looks?

Dodge showed concept and production versions of Nitro at the Chicago Auto Show, in 2005 and 2006 respectively (click for our coverage of the 2006 reveal). In September, VehicleVoice and AutoPacific correspondents had our first opportunity to drive it. Starting at Broadway Pier in the San Diego Harbor, we drove the Nitro on a long, winding route to Palm Springs.

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Related to the Jeep Liberty and built in the same facility, Nitro is bigger, has an all-new suspension, and is optimized for the on-road side of life. Entering this segment late, Dodge’s best opportunity for creating a buzz was exterior styling or innovative new interior features. Dodge saw an opportunity for an in-your-face look with a decidedly male-oriented bias and went for it; the brand’s established in-your-face attitude would be best supported by an aggressive, in-your-face mid-size SUV and there aren’t many of those out there already. Nitro competes with soft-road or crossover SUV entries including Toyota RAV4, Saturn VUE, and latest Mitsubishi Outlander as well as with more traditional SUVs Nissan Xterra, Kia Sorento, and Jeep’s own Liberty. In this arena, only the Xterra wears strongly masculine styling.
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Dodge Personality Strong and Clear
Nitro successfully carries the family personality, grille to rims. A restrained use of chrome and brightwork contributes to a purposeful instead of pretty exterior. The SXT and SLT wear a chrome grille and the R/T a body-colored grille. Only the base SXT gets grey fender flares and fascias, with SLT and R/T sporting body-color elements. Wraparound jewel headlights sit below a clamshell hood. The deep body sections and tall beltline create a narrow window graphic, similar that Hummer H2 and H3 though not as dramatic. Wheels are at the corners and tucked under bold fender flares. Base models get sixteen-inch wheels, with seventeens standard for the mid-level SLT and chrome-clad twenty-inch wheels for the R/T. Rear ornamentation is minimal, with beveled taillamps, a lighted license-plate visor, and Nitro badges.

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While not much chrome is found outside, brushed silver accents are on interior door handles, center console, gearshift, and HVAC controls. SLT and R/T add chrome detail on the steering wheel, instrument cluster, first-row grab handle, and center console. Storage inside includes a deep center console, door and map pockets, and cupholders in first and second rows. Depending on trim level and upholstery, the interior comes in a two-tone color scheme.
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Value is part of the equation as well, and launch pricing has Nitro starting at $19,885 (4×2 SXT), including destination. The 4×4 R/T comes in at $27,630, but more buyers are likely to take the SLT ($23,295 for 4×2 and $24,805 for 4×4).
Standard V6 Power Keeps Nitro Moving
Looks aside, Nitro is not as stiff or harsh as the Xterra, the smaller Wrangler, or even Liberty, all of which claim off-road capability as a core value. Nitro’s firm, compliant ride is not as aggressive as its look. In terms of powertrain, Nitro offers two V6 engines. The more powerful option is bested in output by Xterra and RAV4 but has a slight edge over Saturn VUE’s V6 and beats Mitsubishi Outlander’s V6. Nitro’s base V6 has more power than the standard four-cylinder many mid-size SUVs offer, but uses more fuel.
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The SXT and SLT get Liberty’s 210HP 3.7L V6, but the R/T takes a 255HP 4.0L SOHC 24v V6. The 4.0L gets a five-speed automatic transmission, while the 3.7L is standard with a six-speed manual for SXT and four-speed automatic for SLT. While we did not drive the five-speed manual, the five-speed automatic mated to the 4.0L V6 was predictably smoother than the four-speed automatic and 3.7L V6. The 3.7L V6 is adequate, but not inspiring. The 4.0L is stronger and smoother, but neither makes the Nitro feel aggressive from a stoplight. As the Nitro is an on-road animal, the optional 4×4 systems are single-speed units.
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Solid List of Convenience and Safety Features
Dodge didn’t bother with a baby-size third row seat, having a Durango with more people space. Optional equipment is geared toward on-road convenience, including available navigation (the Chrysler Group’s new MyGIG hard-drive system), remote start, and leather heated seats. Nitro has lots of storage cubbies and utilitarian options like the Load ‘n Go floor, which incorporates a tray that slides out eighteen inches, and YES Essentials fabric. When extended, the floor can hold 400 pounds. Loading heavy, bulky boxes (think big-screen TV) is easier: Pull out the floor, put the box on the floor, and push it in. The front passenger seat folds flat, with a plastic back so you can put stuff on it, the reclining rear seats fold 60/40. Available YES Essential cloth resists stains and smells, a feature nearly all Chrysler products offer for 2007.
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Nitro also comes with a competitive list of safety features. Among the standard electronic aids are ABS (with four-wheel disc brakes), Brake Traction Control System, electronic stability control, and electronic roll mitigation. Front airbags are standard, with side-curtain airbags available. As is true of the roll mitigation, the Nitro’s standard tire-pressure monitoring systems are partly a result of changes to federal standards changes in reaction to the Ford-Firestone rollover scandal several years ago.
Styling is the Hook
Nitro is a well-equipped, well-priced mid-size SUV. Our short drive didn’t convince us it outperforms the competition in driving dynamics, but the package doesn’t want for much. The standard 210HP V6 can be bested by other V6 options in the segment, but offers more performance than the standard I4 engines many mid-size SUVs get. The 255HP V6 in the R/T is respectable, if not scalding fast like the 269HP RAV4. Taking a Nitro home gets you the strong Dodge personality and a couple of unusual convenience features. Nitro meets the needs of most mid-size SUV buyers, but its most interesting hook is its typically tough Dodge styling and personality.
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