We’re not sure what to call the Dodge Nitro, but it’s the kind of quirky, no-frills vehicle that we’re glad someone had the guts to build. It shares underpinnings and engines with Jeep’s mid-size Liberty SUV, but comes in a more street-friendly flavor.
It’s unmistakably a Dodge, with the big crosshair grille and general blockiness. One thing we absolutely loved was the front end–the Nitro’s wide fender bulges echo the trucks of yesteryear with their long, narrow engine compartments tapering down into a tall chrome grille between two broad fenders.
The longer you look at the Nitro, the more apparent its appeal becomes. It’s got true style, not the kind you put on with a brush or a chrome strip. It looks brawnier and bigger than its cousin Liberty, and has that chopped, small-windowed look of old. This could be due to the fact that its roof is one inch shorter than the Liberty’s, and its belt line might be higher as well. In contrast with the Liberty, there are hardly any curvy lines (although it looks as though the Liberty will adopt the Nitro’s boxy look for 2008). It looks like a combination of a Hummer and a Scion xB, good company for a vehicle whose success will depend largely on its curb appeal.
Dodge delivered us a Nitro SLT, with two-wheel-drive rather than four-wheel-drive. We initially lamented this choice, but it gave us a chance to examine the Nitro as a street car, and we’re guessing that’s how it will be used for the most part.
The SLT is the mid-level Nitro, and came nicely equipped with few shortcomings. The powertrain is a 3.7L V6 mated to a four-speed automatic transmission, the same combination found in the Liberty. The 3.7 delivers 210 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, and 235 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. Although this is the midpack setup (the Nitro R/T has a five-speed and a 260-hp 4-liter V6), it accelerated nicely with an engine note that was much meaner than we expected. Shifts are smooth and precise, more so than most of the street-focused SUVs Roadfly has tested recently. Government fuel economy figures are pretty standard for this class, at 18 city and 24 highway.
Despite having a solid (or “live”) rear axle, the Nitro exhibited no untoward behavior in everyday driving. Roadfly is located in an office park on a very busy street in Northern Virginia that provides access to one of the country’s largest shopping malls. In short, opportunities to turn left are scarce and short, and need to be seized upon. The Nitro impressed, handling full-throttle exits from our parking lot–while the wheel was turned–with aplomb. One correspondent actually came back from an errand full of praise for the car’s non-existent all-wheel-drive system.
The Nitro was full of surprises. Trucks and SUVs are long on utility and macho appeal, but often short on dynamics and refinement. That wasn’t the case with our Nitro, and the interior was another example of this. Chrysler products have received mixed reviews over the years for their styling, but the Nitro’s cabin is a sure-fire winner.
You can also view the video for the 2007 Dodge Nitro on YouTube.[/div]
The little things really do make all the difference, and one thing we loved was the set of control knobs for the Nitro’s climate control. They are large, and are grooved for easy gripping and twisting. What’s more, they are easy to see, with illuminated indicators to eliminate guesswork at night. The functions are intuitive, and we were constantly able to keep ourselves comfortable without drawing our attention from the road. We’ve seen this style of knobs before, but usually on high-dollar import rides. Well done, Dodge.
The Nitro design team deserves a lot of credit, because the little touches on this car are thoughtful and well-executed. From the pistol-grip handle for the parking brake to the barrel-shaped shift knob with indentations for better grip, this car grows on you and never makes you say, “What the heck were they thinking?”
The center console is simple and handsome, with a three-tiered design finished in brushed silver, and looks like something out of a custom hot rod. The head unit for the stereo is similarly functional and pleasing to the eye, as are the circular door handles with the same silver finish.
In keeping with the Nitro’s rugged personality, our SLT featured upholstery that Dodge claims will resist stains, static, odor, and fading as the Nitro ages. Due to the etiquette constraints of our business, we didn’t confirm this first-hand, but we’re eagerly awaiting the internet buzz on how well said upholstery holds up.
Storage options are numerous and flexible, befitting the car’s mission. The center armrest is deep and wide, with a separate tray on top and numerous dividers for keeping your stuff organized. There’s also a small compartment to the left of the steering column, akin to what Honda and Toyota have been doing for years, but bigger. In contrast to those Japanese change purses, the Liberty’s can fit a digital camera, PDA, Each row of seating gets two cup holders, and the Nitro’s cargo area is home to one of the most innovative features on the market today.
Dodge calls it “Load N’ Go,” but we called it magic. The Nitro’s load floor extends up to 18 inches over the rear bumper, which makes loading large or heavy items less of a strain. The sliding panel, which can support up to 400 lbs. fully extended, features two beefy grab handles and six cargo tie-downs. There’s also a shallow hidden compartment underneath it. Combined with the rear seats and front passenger seat, both of which fold totally flat, Load N’ Go transforms the Nitro into one of the most capable haulers offered in the US today. It was a standard item on our SLT, and in our opinion, remains the defining feature of this car.
The Nitro is one of the best products to come out of the Chrysler Group since the 300 sedan. It knows that its target customer is an urban or suburban twentysomething that wants generous helpings of style and utility, and it serves that customer without compromise. To top it all off, the Nitro is a bargain. Our tester SLT came with a long list of standard equipment, including a keyless-entry and security system and a tire-pressure monitor. Our brilliant blue paint added $225, the sunroof added $850, and audio options totaled a little over a grand. That still only pushed our sticker to $25,465. Adding four-wheel-drive would cost more, for sure, but you get what you pay for. This mid-size SUV is honest, rugged, and well-rounded. These virtues, coupled with an attractive price tag, should make the Nitro a very hot seller.