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Dodge explodes into small SUV category with Nitro

November 10, 2006|by MALCOLM GUNN / Wheelbase Communications

Dodge's new Nitro explodes onto the sport-ute scene with a decidedly macho demeanor.

DaimlerChrysler makes no bones about the Nitro's attitude or intentions. According to the company, the vehicle has a "masculine swagger" that sets it apart from the rest of the off-road pack.

True enough.

The Nitro's bad-boy image is typified by its blocky good looks that seem armored-car like or even bank-vault inspired. And that sense of protective security is accentuated by a high beltline (the lowest point of the side glass) plus a greenhouse that appears to have had the roof "chopped" at a custom shop. From the prominent cross-hair-style Dodge grille to the jutting fender flares and on to the near vertical liftgate, the newest Dodge comes across as one tough hombre.

That image also extends to the interior. Nearly every visual feature appears as squared-off as those on the outside, save for the rounded gauge cluster.

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So, is all this tough stuff an act that's - excuse the pun - blown out of proportion, or is the Nitro for real?

Part of the answer can be found in the Dodge's DNA, which actually has its origins in the Jeep Liberty. Both DaimlerChrysler vehicles share the same platform as well as numerous mechanical components. But where the "trail rated" Jeep is all about back-woods escape, the Nitro virtually screams back-street urban warrior with its fancy, flab-absent sheetmetal.

The standard powerplant on the base SXT and mid-grade SLT is a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6. Step up to the R/T version, however, and you'll find a 260-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6 to tingle your taste buds.

A six-speed manual transmission comes with the SXT while the optional four-speed automatic becomes standard when the SLT is ordered. A five-speed automatic is the exclusive domain of the 4.0.

The first of two optonal four-wheel-drive systems is a manually engaged part-time setup that's designed for more serious off-roading. It's connected to six-speed manual models, while full-time four-wheel drive is available on all automatic-equipped versions.

Aside from its dramatic styling, solid powertrains and a maximum 5,000-pound towing capacity, a compelling reason for considering the Nitro is its impressive array of safety features such as anti-lock brakes, stability control to keep the Nitro pointing where the driver intends, traction control and side-curtain air bags that deploy in the event of a rollover.

Other standard equipment includes the usual air/tilt/power controls grouping as well as remote keyless entry. Nitro SXT models add 17-inch wheels and a Load 'n' Go floor, essentially a washable sliding panel that can be rolled 18-inches past the bumper to make it easier for loading/unloading up to 400 pounds of cargo.

Bringing on the bling is the top-running R/T with its 20-inch chrome wheels, fancier interior trim and firmer-riding performance suspension. The R/T will have a delayed introduction (most likely early 2007) so those in need of speed will have to be patient or settle for a tamer iteration.

On the option sheet is what's labeled a MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment System that includes touch screen/voice commands to operate both the entertainment and communications systems. A 20-gigabyte computer hard drive for storing music and photos is also part of the package.

The Nitro blows away any notion that a square vehicle is just that: square. It's bold, exciting and best of all, different. If you're looking to shake up the neighbors with something a little bit sinister parked in your driveway, this Dodge with the dangerous name should pack a explosive punch.

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