Dodge Nitro — head-turning crossover

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

We were sitting in the parking lot of a convenience going through the Sirius satellite radio offerings when a couple women walked by obviously admiring the red Dodge Nitro R/T.

"Look at that truck. That's what I want," one of them remarked to the other as they slid past keeping their eyes glued on the in-your-face Nitro.

This brief occurrence was noteworthy because it happened at a time when  the Nitro had been in the marketplace for more than a year, populating the roads of America long enough — to the tune of more than 50,000 sales in 2007 — to be familiar to most people, no longer a head-turning oddity.

But for these women, our Nitro was indeed a head turner.

And the muscular styling with it's oversized Dodge grille, high waistline, huge wheels pushed to the corners and wide aggressive stance is probably the truck's strongest selling point.

Aggressive looks turn heads.

But we discovered after a week behind the wheel of a 2008 R/T model powered by Dodge's 4.0-liter V-6 making 260 horsepower that the Nitro has more than just brawny looks going for it.

It drives commendably well for a sport utility, it has plenty of on-road gusto with the bigger V-6, the driving position is good, the seats comfortable and the interior remarkably quiet.

This is not to say that everything is just right with the Nitro. Hard, cheap plastics adorn the interior, gas mileage is a headache-inducer especially with pump prices skyrocketing back over the $3-a-gallon mark and the satisfying performance comes only in the most expensive trim level.

The Nitro is a compact sport utility, a slightly stretched version of the Jeep Liberty, a unibody-constructed vehicle lacking the off-road capabilities of the Liberty. It isn't endowed with 4X4 low-range gearing, its four-wheel drive configuration better for snow and ice than tracking over a rock-strewn hillside. But that's the case with most sport utilities these days. But most of the current offerings don't have the macho stance exhibited by the Nitro.

Four-wheel drive is not full time and must be dialed in. But even in rear-wheel drive sure-footed bad-road-surface handling can be accomplished with some measure of confidence because — to the credit of Dodge — Electronic Stability Control is standard across the lineup.

The Nitro comes in three trim levels — SXT, SLT and the SLT with the R/T package.

As noted above the R/T package comes with the big V-6 for $3,175 in rear-wheel drive format boosting the SLT price to $26,840. Perhaps the best bet is the mid-level SLT, sans the R/T add on, starting at $23,665 in rear-wheel drive and $25,325 for four-wheel drive. The base SXT starts at $20,255.

Those vehicles come with the 3.7-liter V-6 pumping out 210 horsepower. That's adequate power based on our experience in several Liberty trucks with the same engine.
And the smaller engine carries the same 5,000-pound towing capacity of the R/T.

Standard equipment on all trim levels is generous and includes antilock brakes, traction and stability control, side-curtain airbags, air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks and six-speaker stereo with CD player. The SLT comes with 17-inch alloy wheels.

To get the real macho look, and we figure that's the biggest reason people are buying the Nitro, you need the 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels. They come with the R/T package, but they can be purchased as a stand-alone option for $1,505.

In addition to the bigger engine and the giant wheels, the R/T package adds a sport-tuned suspension and performance tires.

But the tires and suspension didn't do much in our estimation for handling and cornering. The R/T seemed like most high-riding sport utilities, adequate in the curves, but with too much body lean to be considered on the sport side of the sport/utility equation.

Straight-ahead performance is exemplary for a 4,000-pound vehicle. With a pleasing exhaust note, the truck will climb from 0 to 60 in about 7.5 seconds through smooth shifts from the five-speed automatic. And the antilock brakes with brake assist quickly bring the truck down from speed.

We were a bit surprised how much we liked the interior space and the driving position. It suited us about right. There are several places to store small items. One next to the shifter was perfect for a cellphone with a power point just a couple inches away. The center console bin is large and will hold a considerable amount of accumulated junk.

We were a bit dismayed by the cheap look of the interior plastics, but the gauge cluster is attractive, set in three binnacles, and clear. Radio and climate controls are intuitive. Sirius radio information was easily attainable through the optional DVD navigation screen.

The standard audio system is probably all most people need, but we were happy to have seven days with the premium MyGIG system with eight speakers and a subwoofer. It features a 20-gig hard drive to store music and photos.

Rear-seat passenger space is excellent for a vehicle this size. We didn't spend enough time in the rear seat to determine its comfort, however.
Cargo space behind the seats is a healthy 32 cubic feet, and with the second-row seats folded expands to 76 cubic feet. The front passenger's seat can be folded flat to accommodate a long item such as a ladder.

The most disappointing aspect of the Nitro is gas mileage. Granted, this is a heavy vehicle, but 15 mpg city and 20 highway for the four-wheel-drive R/T and 16/21 for the rear-wheel version could be a show stopper as gas prices continue to climb. The smaller engines is only marginally better at 16/22 rear drive and 15/21 four-wheel drive.
The $26,840 starting price for the R/T is probably just pie in the sky. Options are many and a few are probably found on every R/T setting on the car lots of America.

Everything from leather seating to rear entertainment to navigation is available on the Nitro and the bottom line can escalate faster than the price of oil.

Our test vehicle, for instance, included navigation, rear-seat entertainment, power sunroof and a trailer tow package among others to take the bottom line to $32,055 including a $660 destination charge.

We found the Nitro offers more than macho styling. It's a pleasant ride overall, but with less-than-stellar gas mileage. And so far it hasn't made the list of vehicles to be discontinued by the new Chrysler Group.


Base price, $20,255, as driven, $32,055
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
Horsepower: 260 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 265 foot-pounds @ 4,200 rpm
Drive: rear wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 108.8 inches
Length: 178.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,982 pounds
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Turning circle: 36.3 feet
Luggage capacity: 32.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 76 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 19.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 21 highway, 16 city
0-60: 7.4 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider:  Jeep Liberty, Nissan Xterra, Chevrolet Equinox

The Good

• Macho styling
• Comfortable interior with intuitive controls
• Healthy performance with R/T package

The Bad

• Handling doesn't live up to muscular appearance

The Ugly

• Fuel economy may be Nitro's Achilles' heel