In some respects, we wear what we drive. So, when we change rides, the replacement has to fit not only our driving style, but also our personal style. That's the dilemma many SUV owners have found themselves in recently. Forced by sustained, high gas prices to abandon their large utes, they downsize to economize, looking for the right fit—and the right look. The first question is, how small is big enough? The other issue is image. What a lot of people liked about big trucks and SUVs in the first place was their rugged, bad boy attitude—even if the driver wasn't exactly bad—or a boy. New, smaller SUV's and crossovers are flowing into the marketplace every week. But, while there are lots of good choices, there really aren't many with bad attitudes. Dodge's latest entry seems to qualify on both scores. The Nitro is a midsize SUV that's not too PC.
Nitro's attitude has a lot to do with its looks. The upright, squared off lines are old school SUV. But, the wide stance, flared wheel wells, big rims and bold face give the Dodge a distinctive look in the segment. Inspired by Dodge's M80 concept truck, the front end in particular shows the DNA of the Ram truck line, with its crosshair grille and clamshell hood. Overall, Nitro has compact, beefy lines; a little more hunkered down than most trucks. Dodge calls it masculine, but not macho.
Three models are available: SXT, SLT and R/T, in 4x2 or 4x4 form. Prices for the trio of trim levels start at $19,885 for the SXT ($21,395 for 4x4), $23,295 for the SLT ($24,805 for the 4x4) and $25,970 for the R/T ($27,630 for the 4x4). The new Nitro measures just under 15 feet long, and about six feet wide. It has a 'right-size' feel about it: not too big to park or pick your way through tight spots, tall enough to see over traffic.
Inside, Nitro again gets the nod for its dialed-in dimensions. The cabin seats four adults comfortably; five in a pinch, and cargo space is generous. The driver faces a 3-pod instrument panel, framed by a 4-spoke leather wheel. The gauges are black with gray and white graphics, and an easy read. The wheel is leather wrapped and meaty enough for a good grip. Nitro's rear seat headrests hinder the driver's 3/4 rear view. Seats are upholstered in the strangely named "YES Essentials" cloth on SLT and R/T models, with leather optional. The techie seat material repels stains, reduces static electricity and is said to be able to withstand endless cleaning without a change in texture. If, as expected, most Nitro buyers turn out to be guys, that claim will likely be left unchallenged.
Cabin storage includes a deep, 2-level center console bin, several cubbyholes and the standard complement of cup holders. Bigger gear goes to the rear, and Nitro is sized to hold a lot of it. Capacity in back ranges from a generous 32.3 cubic feet to 66.9 cubic feet, depending on how many second-row seats you choose to use. One novel addition is the Load 'N Go cargo floor. Standard on SLT and R/T models, the spine-saving platform slides forward and back on steel tracks, flush with the load floor. The lip extends 18 inches out over the rear bumper, and holds up to 400 lbs. Access to the cargo bay is via a 1-piece, swing-up door. The good news is that it's unencumbered by a spare tire carrier, so it doesn't block rear visibility. The bad news is that if you're over six feet tall, it isn't, so you'll need to duck under it.
Two engines and three transmissions are available. A 3.7-liter V-6 is standard, with six speed manual transmission. The 3.7 makes 210 hp, 235 lb. ft. of torque and can be linked to an optional, four speed automatic. Standard on R/T model is a 4.0-liter V-6. It is rated at 260 hp, 265 lb. ft. of torque and comes only with a five speed automatic transmission. The 3.7 boasts better gas mileage (EPA rates 4x4 models at 18/24 with stick, 17/23 auto) though with middling midrange oomph. The 4.0 boasts better giddy-up, but there's some giveback at the gas pumps (17/21 according to EPA, and we averaged 18 mpg). We'd give the nod to the bigger six— it has smooth power throughout the engine's rev range and meshes well with the 5-speed automatic.
Nitro can be equipped to tow up to 5,000 lbs. The suspension is independent coil springs in front, with a 5-link rear. No SUV drives like a sports car, but Nitro's got a stable handling feel. A performance suspension package is standard on top-level R/T and optional on SLT. It includes a firmer suspension and bigger (20-inch) wheels and tires. The combo makes for a somewhat stiffer ride, but it stops well short of harsh. We're sure that most people will happily take the minor tradeoff in smooth, in exchange for the added bling of the bigger rims.
The midsize SUV market now accounts for almost 1,000,000 sales annually. And like a popular new restaurant, more people seem to be discovering it, every week. Nitro's combination of smart size, drivability and functionality will help it elbow its way in, and the in-your-face face should make it stand out, in a rapidly expanding segment. (www.dodge.com)