Before Magnum became a Hemi-powered station wagon (or a mustachioed P.I.) the term referred to elongated bullet casings with extra gun powder. Before the Caliber became synonymous with cheap, underpowered, poor-handling cars, it was the measure of a bullet’s diameter. Once again, The Dodge Boys have raided the Shooter’s Bible, naming their new entry level SUV after Nitro Express elephant gun cartridges (double entendre to NOX fuel a bonus). Does the Nitro deliver the rhino stopping power of Teddy Roosevelt’s big stick, or represent another damp squib for DCX?
The aggressive cross-hair gun sight grill affixed to the nose of the Nitro (as well as all other recent Dodge offerings) is a direct hit. It says, “I’m an American.” Not a PC, sandal wearing, granola eating, citizen-of-the-world type; an American of the self-reliant “don’t tread on me” variety. While once distinctive brands like BMW and Mercedes have abandoned their trademark facades in favor of an aero-Japanese look, the Nitro wears its identity with pride. If this flag waving red meat state demeanor appeals, there is no rival.
The Nitro rolls out of the same Toledo, Ohio assembly plant as the Jeep Liberty, using the same underpinnings and sharing some major components. Nevertheless, this is no badge-engineered con job– at least on the face of it. The Nitro’s designers have banished any features or shapes suggestive of the vehicle's Jeep heritage. Instead, the CAD-CAM crowd drew their inspiration from comic books, mimicking automobiles driven by villains like Big Boy Caprice, Lips Manlis and Pruneface. We’re talking high-sided slab doors, bulging fenders, large wheels and a chopped roof. Add some running boards and Tommy guns and the Dick Tracy look would be complete.
Unfortunately, the design guys cut some corners, literally. Faux air vents just behind the front wheels desecrate the sides of the Nitro. Land Rover homage aside, I reckon nothing says CHEAP or POSER like impotent plastic appliqués. I have nothing against vents per se, provided they work. If not, take them off and figure out some authentic way to break the tedium of the breadbox shape. You have been told.
Sit in the Nitro’s overstuffed front seat and recline. Gaze unblinking at the mouse fur ceiling until your eyes dry out and your vision gently blurs. Now the dash looks great! Three tasteful ovals encircle the gauges; well-positioned controls and handsome aluminum trim frame the center console. Blink and clear-eyed scrutiny reveals a cut-rate misfire: right design, wrong materials. Low-grade brittle plastic adorns every button while a mishmash of textures suffuses interior surfaces. The Nitro’s interior says “rental car” almost as clearly as the exterior of the Ford Taurus.
The Dodge Nitro offers plenty of leg and shoulder room for four full-sized pistonheads daring to enter the no-luxury zone. The SLT and R/T models include a novel “Load ‘N Go” system: a cargo floor that slides 18” out the lift gate door to accommodate large objects weighing up to 400lbs. It’s a must for Mafia hit men and die-hard Home Depot patrons.
Despite optional four-wheel drive, the Nitro’s got no off-road game. The Nitro rides closer to the ground than its Jeep cousin, and it’s wider, longer and heavier than its sister-under-the-skin. And boy, does it feel it. Over boosted steering conspires with a loose suspension to deliver glass-like smoothness at 15mph, even through pockmarked parking lots. Unfortunately, these same characteristics make for poor tracking, numb steering and boat-like dynamics at all other speeds, on anything approach a "normal" road. In short, the Nitro handles like an Olde School SUV– without any of the much-maligned war horses’ compensating off-road capabilities.
The Nitro STX and SLT’s holster Jeep’s 210hp 3.7-liter V6. Dubbed the “Magnum” by Dodge marketeers, the powerplant’s mated to either an archaic Dodge four-speed autobox (as tested) or a six-speed manual. Dodge claims a 0-60mph time of nine seconds– which feels just about as slow as it sounds. Rainy conditions hampered my driving test, but the wet gave me plenty of opportunity to investigate the Nitro’s traction control. Conclusion: Bull's eye! It works.
Dodge promises that its R/T model, due by year's end, will deliver the knock down power pistonheads crave. A 255hp aluminum block 4.0-liter V6, 5-speed transmission and sport tuned suspension will “fling” the Nitro from zero to 60mph in… 8.3 seconds. That’s hardly what I’d call KABLAM! In fact, the Nitro lacks the muscle of its munitions namesake, promised by its wikkid looks. The model's squish-mobile performance is more like the feeble pssst of a piss-ant paintball pellet.
Despite its shortcomings, the Nitro is a stylistic antidote to domesticated CUV’s. It counters the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V with a small SUV that NASCAR dads will be proud to drive. If you can get past the lousy interior, there are worse places to drop $23k and change. If that sounds like I’m damning the Nitro with faint praise, well, that's because I am.