Dodge Nitro: Looks are


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In your face styling, an attractive price, and a lengthy list of options make this SUV with attitude an interesting ride. First of all if you don’t like that snow plow grill and upright styling you aren’t going to be reading this review anyway so let’s leave opinions on looks out of this review and stick to the facts.

Number one this vehicle gets a lot of attention and is very versatile while still returning good gas mileage. You have a high seating position giving you good visibility to the front and sides, but the high back window reduces rear visibility.

Dodge has made the suspension fairly firm, but not jolty, and the brakes are adequate, but not exceptional. It feels like Dodge spent more on the styling than the handling and so you have a good vehicle for the base $20,000 (US) price, but not one as smooth as some of the competition. Of course, they don’t get the looks the Nitro does either. Indeed, this Dodge has DUB written all over it. Just add large rims and blacked out windows.

Dodge has placed the Nitro at the lower end of its Durango and Liberty lineup in terms of size, cost, and fuel mileage. You have your choice of the standard 210-hp 3.7-liter V6 or the optional 255-hp 4.0-liter V6. A 6-speed manual transmission is standard on the base models with the upscale R/T version getting a five speed automatic. You can order all wheel or four wheel drive, but there isn’t a low speed transfer case available. Look for gas mileage around 20 mpg with little difference in town or on the highway due to the exterior shape.

Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, an antiskid system, and curtain side airbags. The more expensive models get a Load ‘n Go cargo floor that slides rearward 18 inches to form a table surface that holds up to 400 lb. It makes loading heavy objects easier and we have only seen it on the much more expensive BMW wagons before.  Other major options are a navigation system, DVD entertainment, and a wireless cell phone link.

Mom’s view: Only a mother could love this face. And, to be frank, it is the face that is going to sell the Nitro. The suspension that includes an independent front set-up and a solid rear axle with stabilizers and coil springs is basic. You can get larger rims, but we have learned from past experiences that these are frequent targets of thieves and do little to improve handling on stock vehicles and add braking distances while reducing fuel mileage in around town driving and commuting.

The ride is such that you aren’t going to be alarmed going over most road surfaces, but it isn’t going to put you to sleep either. I didn’t mind it until the road became heavily pock marked when it reminded me of how important seat belts are. I recommend the two-wheel d rive model for a better ride.
The main gauges are large, easy to read and the controls uncomplicated to master, but not really ergonomically satisfying. The cabin plastic and trim are off-road in nature meaning they aren’t at all luxurious. It has an open feel, especially with the high roofline, but the cabin storage is very limited with only a small glove box and center console being significant.

Taking corners at a modest speed isn’t recommended since the rack and pinion steering is off-road vague and the body does lean a fair amount.  If you just drive as a mature adult the Nitro is a good friend. If you insist on pushing it you might have to remind yourself why it is called a Nitro.

Overall, this really isn’t a bad vehicle once you learn to duck your head while entering, can live with some ergonomic irregularities, and don’t mind being stared at by men who worship at the overpriced alter of Hummer ownership. It is easy to park, has good visibility in all directions but to the rear, and was frugal for what it is.
Dad’s view: This is a 4000 pound SUV and so accelerating with base engine takes some patience, especially considering the fact that the 210 horsepower does not come on until 5200 rpm. We got about 20 mpg, which is darn good considering the block shaped front that is being forced into the wind. You can expect four to five miles per gallon less with all wheel drive and the optional 235 horsepower engine. I found the base engine adequate except going uphill with the family onboard. Look for 0 to 80 times in the mid 7 to 8 second range. The transmission is not always willing to kick down without coaxing, but when it does the response is good. Be warned that any frivolity is going to take that 20-mpg average down into the mid-teen area in a hurry.

On the road you quickly get a grip on why the Nitro is probably going to be a good seller and that is the fact that is doesn’t offer any surprises. It has good interior space, acts politely in daily use, and outside of a soft feel to the brake pedal, is a nice place to be. The three-pod gauge cluster gets your attention and is easy to read and the controls are simple to master. The interior isn’t offensive, but it isn’t a show place either. There is a
 115V power outlet and useable cupholders.

You can get five adults into the Nitro and the rear seats can be folded with a 60/40-split. The back seats can also recline. I found the front bucket seats comfortable, but they could use a bit more firmness for long hauls. On the other hand for some reason the front wheel wheels are very slender making those with large shoes a bit uncomfortable, as they have to put their feet nearly under the brake pedal. There is an abundance of headroom for all, but more storage areas would have been a nice touch.

Our base model tester had 16-inch tires, but the SLT has 17-inch tires and the more expensive R/T rides on 20s. I had no problem with the smaller ties and thought they did a better job over badly pitted roads. Larger rims and tires seldom provide better ride quality and usually result in longer stopping distances and less fuel economy in mixed driving. They are better for cornering, but if the road is wet are more prone to hydroplaning. We have found ordering tires and rims that are one size larger than stock is a great way to improve vehicle behavior. Anything more is subject to vehicle dynamic reactions to a larger degress. We know people with large 20-22 inch rims that have had these stolen on several occasions as well. You must tell your insurance carrier when ever you modify your vehicle with more expensive add on from stereos to rims. 

The Nitro is not a heavy-duty vehicle and if you need to tow order the optional Trailer Tow Group with better cooling and a full sized spare. You can tow 5000 pounds with a special hitch and this package. Be aware that the soft brake pedal feel may be exasperated while towing. I found the Nitro quite a good value. However, I like the Liberty better.
Working woman’s view: Safety wise the Nitro appears to do well, but make sure you always order all the safety options. The long stopping distances of large SUVS with their high front bumpers and poor handling always make this a good idea for more environmentally aware drivers. Remember that the Nitro is not light on its feet so avoidance and anticipating other driver’s actions is essential to a safe drive.

There is 32 cubic feet of cargo room behind the second-row seats and 65 with the rear seats folded flat. This places the Nitro in the same ballpark as the RAV4, but I doubt people will cross shop these two vehicles or any other crossover SUV. They are going to want the Nitro because of the way it looks. Case closed.

The SXT models have a reversible cargo floor with a molded-in tray to help provide order for smaller objects, but it does not appear to be well-made or very useful for large packages or grocery bags. The upscale SLT and R/T trim lines have the Load ‘N Go cargo floor that pulls out 18 inches to make loading heavy objects much easier. I really didn’t like the look or feel of the small plastic clamps that held these panels in place.

For some reason the high roofed Nitro has low door openings. So be prepared when entering and wearing a head covering. As well, I did not find the seat adjustments adequate, as the pedal positioning appeared to be too far away unless I moved the seat close to the steering wheel making it uncomfortable to place my arms out in the recommended 10 and 2 o’clock positions. If I had longer legs this wouldn’t have been a problem, but that is why I never played basketball in school either. While wearing even modest heels finding a comfortable position for your left leg is difficult.

As for my business sense, I cannot ignore the Nitro. It is less expensive than the Liberty and even the competition in the form of the Nissan Xterra. The RAV, and CR-X are thousands more for just a touch more performance, styling, and room. I would say that the Nissan is probably going to lose sales to the Nitro, but the others are just more roadable and the extra money they demand is made up in higher resale.

College going male’s view: You can get the Nitro with the MyGIG navigation system that integrates Satellite Radio and a Bluetooth-based UConnect cell phone system while offering a 20GB hard drive to hold music and images. The 6.5-inch screen is a good size and you can use a USB flash drive. Real time traffic reports can reroute you using the GPS. Also available is a 7-inch overhead screen for those in the backseat with remote headsets. Dodge is really doing its best to get into the technology and entertainment market and it shows. The sound system in stock form is not adequate and I highly recommend upgrading to take advantage of the potential the cave shaped interior represents.

There is plenty of rear legroom and passengers have excellent visibility as well. If you fold the split seats you get more cargo room, but it is not generous compared to others in this class. There is a small storage area under the rear floor as the spare tire is mounted under the Nitro.

My take on the Nitro is that it is a good value, but isn’t going to attract attention from the more meek. Certainly worth a test drive, but perhaps too many people aren’t even going to do this due to its snow plow looks. There loss.
Family conference: The Nitro is neither fish nor fowl. It is adequate in fuel mileage, acceleration, and braking, but offers little outside of its distinct shape to make it worthy of purchase over the much more off roadable Liberty. It is not equipped to be a true offroader and not as polished onroad as some of the competition. Its forte is cargo space, versatility, looks, and pricing. It is easy to live with and, if you like its looks, fun to own. We think it is a winner and long overdue from Dodge. For a list of all vehicle websites go to