The Dodge Nitro is distinguished by its squared-off styling with exaggerated fender flares. The Nitro looks and feels larger than its size. It's on the smaller end of the midsize SUV class but larger than the compact SUVs. The Underneath, the Dodge shares its basic structure with the Jeep Liberty.
Nitro features a high seating position and good cabin space. Its Load n Go cargo system makes loading heavy objects easy thanks to a rear cargo floor that slides rearward out over the rear bumper and can hold 400 pounds. And the rear seats and front passenger seat fold totally flat in seconds.
The Nitro comes with either two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, with a choice of V6 engines. The newer 4.0-liter V6 is better than the old 3.7-liter, with 50 more horsepower and fuel economy that's only about one mile per gallon less. The 4.0-liter engine only comes in the sportier R/T model, and it also benefits from a five-speed automatic transmission versus a four-speed in the other models.
Three types of upholstery are available: 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.
The Nitro gets suspension, steering and brake revisions to make the vehicle more linear and precise for 2009. Dodge says retuned springs, shocks, anti-roll bars and steering gear valve, plus stiffer rear axles, improve steering and handling, while a retuned brake booster, low rollback calipers and a revised brake pedal improve pedal feel. Dodge has also discontinued availability of a manual transmission, as well as the all-wheel drive system that was offered on SLT and R/T models.
The 2009 Dodge Nitro comes as three models, SE, SLT and R/T. All are available with rear-wheel drive (2WD) or a part-time four-wheel drive (4WD) system that should not be left engaged on dry pavement.
Nitro SE 2WD ($22,240) and 4WD ($23,900) come with a 210-hp 3.7-liter V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, air conditioning, remote keyless entry with power windows and door locks, 115-volt power outlet, flat folding front passenger seat, 60/40 folding rear bench seat, AM/FM/CD with MP3 with six speakers, Sirius satellite radio, auxiliary input jack, tilt steering column, slate-colored molded front and rear fascias and fender flares, folding power mirrors, theft-deterrent system, rear window washer/wiper, roof rails and P225/75R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.
Nitro SLT ($24,560) and SLT AWD ($26,220) add Yes Essentials cloth upholstery that Dodge says is stain, odor and static resistant; leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls; six-way power adjustable driver's seat; heated exterior mirrors; vehicle information center; auto-dimming rearview mirror; universal garage door opener; fog lights; Load 'n Go cargo storage system with tie-down rails; 115-volt power outlet; chrome interior accents; cruise control; compass; tinted windows; body-colored front and rear fascias and fender flares; and P235/65R17 tires on aluminum wheels.
Nitro R/T 2WD ($24,560) and R/T AWD ($26,220) feature a 4.0-liter V6 making 260 horsepower, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. The R/T comes with a sport suspension with P245/50R20 Goodyear Eagle tires on chromed aluminum wheels. The R/T is equipped like the SLT.
Options for all models include leather upholstery with heated front seats ($830); power sunroof ($895); rear park assist ($250); a Travel Convenience Group ($820) with an alarm, heavy-duty engine cooling, a Class III trailer hitch receiver, a wiring harness and a full-size spare tire; a Chrome Accents Group ($1,210) with chrome on the side steps, fuel filler and door sills; and Dodge's UConnect Multimedia Suite ($2,145), which has a navigation system with voice command, an iPod adapter, UConnect Phone wireless cell phone link, 6CD changer, and a 30-gigabyte hard drive to store music and photos. R/T and SLT offer a Convenience group ($1,345) with rear obstacle detection, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Dodge's UConnect wireless cell phone link, remote engine starting, eight speakers and a subwoofer. The SLT can be ordered with chrome alloy wheels and the R/T sport suspension ($1,505).
Safety equipment that comes standard on all models includes dual front air bags, head-protecting curtain air bags, and a tire-pressure monitor. Active safety features include ABS with brake assist, traction control, and electronic stability control with Trailer Sway Control.
The Dodge Nitro is distinguished by its boxy styling. The exaggerated fender flares are the only rounded parts in the styling. Every other angle is square. It looks and feels larger than it is, which some will find to be a good thing. It is, however, smaller than many of its midsize competitors.
From the front, the Nitro is unmistakably Dodge. It's got that big crosshair grille, which looks much better in body color (R/T) than chrome (SE, SLT). The horizontal headlights, turn signal slits and fog lamps 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. Beneath the bumper is 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.
With its upright windshield, high beltline, rectangular windows and short front overhang, the Nitro's silhouette is reminiscent of a '62 Dodge Power Wagon. But from the rear three-quarter angle, the lines around the rear glass are reminiscent of the big 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 narrow sidewall on the 20-inch tires doesn't appear to offer much defense against flats. Our preference would be for taller tires on smaller-diameter wheels.
The Dodge Nitro SE comes with the base cloth, while the SLT and R/T get the premium Yes Essentials fabric designed to repel stains, controls odors and reduces static electricity. The optional perforated charcoal leather with red stitching in one test R/T was beautiful. The front buckets were comfortable and supportive, with excellent bolstering. We found leather better than stain-resistant fabric for dogs because their fur tends to stick into the latter.
The four-spoke steering wheel is handsome, with a big center hub and thick spokes at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock, smaller spokes at 5 and 7. Info center buttons are under your thumb on the big spokes. There are three big main instruments: speedometer in the center, tachometer on the right, fuel and temperature gauges on the left. They look good and are 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. On the other hand, Dodge trails GM when it comes to materials quality. Like most Dodges, the Nitro's interior materials are largely plastic and don't impart the feel of luxury or quality. A few more soft-touch surfaces would be nice.
There's good front-seat legroom, and it feels like there's even more because the dashboard is narrow. 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 excess 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 the audio and climate controls. Everything is clean, easy to operate, and easy to understand. We especially like the inside door handles, an intelligent ergonomic design: They form a half loop, and you simply slip three or four fingers 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.
UConnect integrates the radio and navigation system and a 30-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures and the navigation information. You can rip CDs directly to the system and display your own digital pictures. It responds to voice commands and the navigation system has real-time traffic information. While the screen has a nice display, there's a separate Enter button, which can be annoying because intuition suggests pressing the toggle switch down. We hate the Enter button.
The rear seats are split 60/40 and easily fold flat and the front passenger seat folds totally flat, great for hauling long objects. The SE model has a reversible, washable vinyl rear load floor, while SLT and R/T models have the unique Load n Go system. With the liftgate raised, the carpeted rear 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. All told, with the second-row seats folded flat, there is 75.6 feet of cargo space. That's about 10 cubic feet less than a Ford Explorer, 20 cubic feet less than a Toyota Highlander, and more than 40 cubic feet less than a Chevy Traverse. Despite its looks, the Nitro is on the small side of the midsize SUV class.
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.
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.
After long drives in both the Dodge Nitro SLT 4WD and R/T 2WD, we prefer the R/T.
The 3.7-liter engine in the SLT is slightly harsh and too slow, and the four-speed automatic transmission needs another gear. When we floored the SLT once at 40 mph, the transmission 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.
Dodge R/T models are considered high performance, but in this case it's not hot-rod performance, it's simply a higher level of basic performance by the engine, transmission and suspension.
The 4.0-liter V6 is a 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. Both engines can tow up to 5,000 pounds when equipped with the towing package.
The R/T engine is quieter than the 3.7-liter in the SLT, and it gets nearly the same mileage: 16/21 mpg EPA City/Highway with 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 difficult. The upshifts near redline (6000 rpm) are 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.
When the Nitro was released in 2007, it seemed like an old school, 1990s-style SUV with a truck ride compared to the slew of carlike crossover SUVs we've been getting. Perhaps in response to those criticisms, Dodge has retuned the suspension, steering and brakes for 2009 to improve the Nitro's handling and braking. While those changes make the Nitro a bit more precise in its movements, a leopard can't change its spots. The Nitro still has a bouncy, truck-like ride, despite its unibody construction, and the tall, top heavy design makes it lean in turns. The handling of the R/T is reasonably sure-footed, and considerably more precise than the SLT; Goodyear Eagle tires help a lot. Surprisingly, we found the R/T's ride to be better than the SLT's. Theoretically, the R/T's tuned suspension should be firmer, and surely it is overall, but it's also more comfortable; yet another reason the R/T is better than the lesser models.
The Nitro has all the Dodge character. It feels bigger than its size, thanks to a high beltline, high seating position, and much glass at the rear corners. The R/T used to cost $3200 more than the SLT, but for 2009 Dodge has leveled the prices, which makes the R/T the superior value. Mechanically, the SE and SLT models are hindered by the 3.7-liter engine and four-speed automatic transmission. The R/T has a more powerful and smoother 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. If you're going to opt for a Nitro, go for the R/T.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from San Diego, California, with Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.