The Nitro looks and feels larger than its size, with a high seating position that SUV owners like, and good cabin space. It features Load 'n' Go, a cargo storage system whereby the rear seats and front passenger seat fold totally flat in seconds; additionally, the cargo floor slides rearward out over the rear bumper, and can hold 400 pounds, making the loading of heavy objects much easier. It could prevent back injuries.
The Nitro comes in either two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, with a choice of V6 engines, one old and one new. The new 4.0-liter V6 is better than the old 3.7-liter, with 50 more horsepower and fuel economy that's only one or two miles per gallon less. However the 4.0-liter engine only comes in the top-of-the-line R/T model, which costs about $2700 more than the most popular SLT. But a five-speed automatic also comes with the R/T, and that transmission, too, is better than the standard four-speed in the SLT. The R/T has a more comfortable ride, as well.
There are three types of upholstery: basic cloth, a handsome stain-repellant cloth, and beautiful perforated leather. No matter which covering, the seats are very comfortable. The cabin is quiet thanks to heavy use of sound deadening material, and visibility out the rear and to the front corners of the Nitro is excellent.
For a base price of $19,225, a Nitro owner gets many safety features that are usually optional on other vehicles, such as front and rear side airbags, side curtain airbags, an electronic stability program with traction control and brake assist, electronic roll mitigation and a tire-pressure monitor.
Dodge Nitro SXT 2WD ($19,225); SXT 4WD ($20,735); SLT 2WD ($22,635); SXT 4WD ($24,145); R/T 2WD ($25,310); R/T 4WD ($26,970)
From the front, it's unmistakably Dodge. It's got that big crosshair grille, which looks much better in body color (R/T) than chrome (SXT, SLT). The horizontal headlamps, turn signal slits and foglamps are a tidy fit in the massive face.
However it doesn't appear as if much attempt was made to have the front bumper/fascia be tidy; it's got edges all over the place, including a valley that might hold a three-foot-wide license plate, or maybe a bumper sticker that says, I'm a Dodge so I'm in your face! Under that, there's a wide air intake for the power steering cooler, whose thin fins are exposed to flying stones because there is no screen.
Taking a cue from the faux portholes on the Buick Lucerne, or possibly the tradition of a Mercedes-Benz sports car, there's a trapezoid-shaped insert, black plastic with three chrome ribs, located just forward of the mirrors. It's intended to look like a cooling slot. It's a nice touch, and for such a small piece it goes a long way toward relaxing the Nitro's blocky shape.
In silhouette, with its relatively upright windshield, very high beltline and rectangular windows, plus short front overhang, its shape is reminiscent of, say, a '62 Dodge Power Wagon. But from the rear three-quarter angle, the lines around the rear glass are reminiscent of its bigger cousin, the Jeep Commander. We like the cleaner black, rather than chrome, around the windows.
Our test Nitro R/T was equipped with standard 20-inch chromed aluminum wheels, and they sure are showy. The much narrower sidewall on the 20-inch tires doesn't appear to offer much defense against flats.
The steering wheel is a handsome four-spoke, with a big center hub and thick spokes at 9:00 and 3:00 o'clock, smaller spokes at 5 and 7; the info center buttons are under your thumb on the big spokes. There are three big main instruments: speedo in center, tach on right and fuel and temp on left. They're very good looking and especially legible, with the digital information still visible in the sun because the three pods are thoughtfully shrouded. Chrysler does gauges right, and generally blows GM out of the water when it comes to handsome style and function.
There's good front seat legroom, and it feels like there's even more because the dashboard is narrow, making the cabin feel nothing like that in a minivan. The dash also has an insert over the center stack, about 6 by 9 inches with grippy rubber at the bottom, and it's perfect for, well, things. The glovebox is the full width of the passenger side.
Rearview visibility is very good, with just windows back there, no attempt at swoopy styling with sheetmetal. And again, because the front fenders have no rise or real shape, it's easy to see the front corners of the vehicle, making parking a relief compared to many vehicles this size.
The square theme continues with the center stack and its instruments and buttons for the sound system and climate control, although nowadays many cars look like that, which isn't bad, just almost natural. Everything is clean, easy to operate, and easy to understand. We especially like the door handles, an intelligent ergonomic design: they're like a half loop, and you simply slip three or four fingers of the hand against the door inside the handle, fingers facing forward so there's no twist of the wrist, and pull.
Between the seats, along with the gearshift, transfer case, and emergency brake lever, there are two fixed cupholders and a small recess for change. There's a shallow tray in the top of the center console storage bin, and a deep compartment under that; as one lady on the press launch said, it's big enough to stash her cat, on road trips.
But the Nitro really rises to the occasion behind the front seat. The Load 'n Go function quickly and easily flops the 60/40 rear seats and front passenger seat totally flat. With the liftgate raised, the carpeted (washable vinyl on the SXT) cargo floor slides rearward 18 inches, out over the bumper, saving a loader's back. It can hold 400 pounds.
Under half of the cargo floor there's a four-inch-deep compartment that can store things such as jumper cables and tools, or hide a laptop.
For the past couple of years, Dodge has been working hard on making their SUVs quiet, and the Nitro succeeds. The 3.7-liter engine is rather harsh-sounding, but the Nitro's sound-deadening material muffles it well.
Finally, the air conditioning might be fine on a normal hot day, but it seemed marginal for searing conditions. We drove from San Diego to Palm Springs on a September day, and when we got there it was 104 degrees. The AC was going full blast, and it wasn't doing the job. The fan was blowing strong, but the air coming out of the vents wasn't cold enough to cool the cabin.
The 3.7-liter engine in the SLT is slightly harsh and too slow, and the four-speed automatic transmission needs another gear; we floored the SLT once at 40 mph, and the tranny didn't kick down and the vehicle felt gutless. The suspension takes bumps with a jolt, especially at lower speeds and mostly at the front wheels. And when we turned off the stability control and drove it aggressively around a hairpin turn, the front end washed out as badly as anything we've felt in a long time, on its Goodyear Wrangler on/off-road performance tires. This was surprising, because the Nitro is a rear-wheel-drive platform.
The R/T costs about $2700 more, but it's worth it. It's better looking anyhow, with more of its trim in the same color as the body, although those 20-inch chrome wheels are a bit much (as a $1405 option on the SLT, too bad you can't get 17-inchers on the R/T and save the money). Chrysler's R/T models are considered higher performance, but in this case it's not hot-roddy high performance, it's more literal: simply a higher level of basic performance by the engine, transmission and suspension.
The 4.0-liter V6 is a new single overhead-cam engine. It's rated at 260 horsepower, 50 more than the engine in the SLT, and it provides 265 pound-feet of torque at 4200 rpm. That's a lot of horsepower and torque, and we can't say that the R/T really feels like it has that much; but we can say that it accelerates up to 90 mph without messing around.
The R/T engine is quieter than the 3.7-liter in the SLT, and it gets nearly the same mileage: 17 city and 21 highway in 2WD, with 89 octane recommended but 87 acceptable. We got 16.7 mpg driving the R/T very hard out in the country.
The five-speed automatic transmission makes a world of difference in smoothness over the four-speed. However in manual mode, it doesn't listen. It only responds to a shift by the driver (at least this driver) about half the time. Most of the shifts to which it doesn't respond are about saving gas. It refuses to short-shift, or upshift before redline under heavy throttle. Nor will it upshift when you back off the throttle. As a result, passing on two-lanes is unnecessarily un-smooth. The upshifts near redline (6000 rpm) are also a bit slow, not as sharp as one might expect from an R/T. And the shift mechanism is not ergonomic; that is, the shifts are made by moving the lever from side to side, not forward and back, which would be easier on the wrist.
The handling of the R/T is reasonably sure-footed, and considerably more precise than the SLT; Goodyear Eagle tires help a lot. But it's the ride that's radically better, in this 2WD model. Theoretically the R/T's tuned suspension should be firmer, and surely it is overall, but it's also a lot more comfortable.
The Nitro is the first mid-size SUV from Dodge, and has all the Dodge character. It's built on the platform of the future Jeep Liberty, and actually feels bigger than its size, thanks largely to a high beltline, high seating position, and much glass instead of sheetmetal at the rear corners. It's not easy to make an SUV look distinctive, and the Nitro tries very hard. Mechanically, it's hindered by the 3.7-liter engine and four-speed automatic transmission in the SXT and SLT, the most popular models. The R/T, costing on average about $2700 more, has a more powerful and smoother new 4.0-liter engine, which gets about the same gas mileage at the 3.7, along with a good five-speed automatic transmission. It also has a more comfortable ride. Go for the R/T.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from San Diego, California.