Dodge has worked hard to make the Nitro seem bolder than bold, and on the outside it is indeed a bold, tough-looking little truck. With Jeep Liberty underpinnings, it should also be pretty tough in reality, especially with its standard 3.7 liter truck engine. For those who need to be bolder, there's a powerful 4.0 liter engine, used in the not-so-tough-looking Pacifica. Its 250 horsepower, pushed through five gears, all seem to be available at just off idle, so it provides instant gratification.
Part of the tough motif are big square headlights, and these are actually functional, projecting a fairly bright beam; they also dispel any remaining similarity to the Liberty. Oddly, though, the Jeep door-handles remain, including the quaint thumb-press that made its return on the PT Cruiser.
Inside, the Nitro isn't especially tough or bold; unlike the “trucks will be trucks” Chevy Colorado and Nissan Frontier, the Nitro has a smooth, comfortable ride, good sound insulation, and quiet engine. The heavy vibration and stiff ride of the “real trucks” was replaced by a Toyota-like comfort level. The interior was not particularly upscale, with plastic everywhere on our mid-level test SLT. The seats were comfortable, with a less than luxurious but somewhat tough-looking cloth and decent support; the rear seatbacks fold forward for a nice flat loading surface, and the front passenger seat also folds down, a neat trick that enables hauling long, bulky items when needed.
The interior styling is typical 21st Century Plastic, with lots of dull chrome relieved in spots by shiny chrome. The climate control is the clever new Dodge corporate unit, with bright chrome accents that are the actual knobs, and labels on the pushbuttons for (from left to right) the rear defroster, air conditioning compressor, and recirculation; the knobs themselves control fan speed, temperature, and vent choice. The system is instantly familiar and usable, and what's more, it feels good. At night, the selection notch is clearly lit from the side and the front.
The stereo is the standard Chrysler corporate selection, now without separate bass and treble knobs, but with a push-to-select audio setting system that doesn't require much more effort or distraction. Integrated into the stereo, whether you buy it or not, are UConnect buttons for Bluetooth-compatible cell phones. Satellite radio is optional, along with a navigation system. The sound on our optional unit (with six-disc DVD changer) was excellent, though talk radio voices come out, especially on AM, with far too much bass - even with the bass control at minimum.
The usual Chrysler trip computer is standard on the SLT model, with controls mounted on the steering wheel (the company seems to be experimenting with new and different places for those buttons). The trip computer has a new control system, with three buttons instead of the past two, yet manages to be more confusing than in the past. Eventually, no doubt owners get used to it. As with past Jeep and Dodge systems, you can use it not only to get compass heading, temperature, average gas mileage, and distance to empty, but also to set the car's various preferences (door locking, lights, etc.) and to check on the air pressure in the tires.
The standard new Dodge gauge cluster is present, with its usual white backlighting (contrasting with the green backlighting throughout the rest of the cab). The usual gauges are all there and quite clear, with a sensible 120 mph speedometer and a tachometer whose scale ends with the redline (instead of having the fashionable huge “you can't go here” area). A bit of chrome would be nice here, but it's still clear and readable in all types of light.
Storage abounds, with map pockets, a Toyota-style compartment to the left of the wheel, the usual cupholders (this time with grippers in the bottom), a little change area by the automatic gearshift, and a two-level console between the front seats (the second level is reached by taking out a plastic insert which has an integrated three-column coinholder). There's also a good amount of space behind the rear seats, and a little plastic clippy thing by the rearview mirror for holding turnpike tickets or directions.
The ride and handling of the Nitro are better than in the Liberty, because this vehicle was designed without the need to have good off-road characteristics. The various off-road measurements - approach angle, departure angle, ground clearance - are all better in the Liberty, but the Nitro can boast of better cornering, a smoother, softer ride, and a better overall feel. That's pretty good, because the Liberty wasn't bad at all. Cracked pavement, potholes, and old cement roads were no match for the Nitro's shock absorbers.
The 3.7 liter engine puts out a good amount of power through the four-speed automatic; a manual transmission apparently wasn't in the cards, and the five-speed is reserved for the 4-liter engine, which paradoxically needs it less. The Nitro isn't a performance vehicle by any means, but it can hold its own easily enough, even though sometimes that means a second downshift accompanied by lots of noise. Those who want more can get the 4-liter. In both cases, the power ratings are deceptive, because these engines make good power relatively low in the rpm range. Acceleration with the base engine is good for the class - not the best, not the worst.
The transmission is generally smooth and unobtrusive, though it's easy enough to make it clunk by accelerating lightly, then suddenly letting the gas go in that range when it wants to shift up; with a heavy thump, the transmission will upshift (this is a characteristic of the transmission and not necessarily a problem). Otherwise, gentle driving will bring practically invisible shifts, while more spirited driving will bring firmer, quicker shifts. It's an adaptive transmission, so it learns how people drive and compensates to match.
Gas mileage is fairly poor, albeit not really off the mark for the class of vehicle; EPA ratings claim 17 city, 23 highway. Our vehicle was not yet broken in during our testing, and recent Chrysler engines have shown remarkable increases in gas mileage over their first ten thousand miles, so we have to reserve judgement on actual mileage; but 17/23 is less than you'd get in a big ol' minivan.
Visibility is surprisingly good, with the rear windows helping to reduce the rear quarter blind spot (now caused by the rear seat headrest). The big, curved mirrors keep side traffic in check; the hood mounted washer jets are less likely to freeze up, albeit more likely to get covered in snow. Our only complaint is the same as with all vehicles that have automatic-dimming rear view mirrors, namely that they don't really darken enough in night mode. The outside mirrors are the foldaway type, which can be handy if you go off-road (or just came from a right-hand-drive country); they fold back in either direction, not just the usual glass-in way.
Standard features on the Nitro SLT include side airbags, traction and stability control, four wheel antilock disc brakes, cruise, antitheft system, power locks, windows, and mirrors, tire pressure monitor, power windows with express up and down, 110 volt power outlet (switched for safety), air, wheel-mounted audio controls, six-speaker CD stereo, tilt wheel, YES Essentials fabric, universal garage door opener, floor mats, automatic auto-dimming mirror, 17 inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, and power heated foldaway mirrors. That, with part-time four wheel drive (and a single-speed transfer case - no low gear!), runs to $24,805, not that far off the base model's $20,000-or-so. Our test car had just two options - the power sunroof at $850, and a stereo upgrade we don't recommend at $350 - raising the price to almost exactly $26,000. We don't expect huge discounts on the Nitro, because the Liberty is a good seller; and the Nitro should keep demand up for the Liberty, since they are both made on the same line.
Overall, we found the Nitro to be a great alternative for those who want a big, bold look - Hummer H3 buyers and such - but who don't need to live with an overly thirsty, uncomfortable nightmare of an offroad vehicle. The Nitro is quiet, comfortable, and refined on the highway, with a tough-enough basic chassis proven along many trails in Liberty form, but with suspension tuning and interior concessions to support the modern-day traveler, who doesn't need to climb the larger rocks or cross the deeper streams.
Dodge Nitro information and specs
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