Car reviews - Dodge - Nitro - 5-dr wagon range
Stand-out styling, high levels of standard gear, two years of free insurance, excellent practicality
Room for improvement
Poor handling, little steering feel, harsh ride at low speeds, build quality issues
29 Jun 2007
FEW cars this side of $100,000 have as much presence as the Dodge Nitro.
With styling as subtle as a US military operation, the muscle-bound wagon is sure to lure a considerable amount of customers with its shape alone.
No matter how mean the car appears on screen, be assured it looks even more aggressive in the metal, especially with the SXT’s monster 20-inch wheels.
Its grille is one of the most confronting on the road, right up there with that of the Rolls-Royce Phantom.
For $36,990, the Nitro provides a lot of attitude for the money. Even without taking the styling into account, the car represents good value.
There is a lot of standard equipment including valuable safety features across the range like electronic stability control and six airbags.
The inclusion of two years free insurance, which was signed off at the last minute before this week’s launch, in the purchase price is a big plus.
Dodge says the cover, available to any customer who holds a valid driver's licence, is worth up to $3600 over the two years.
But the Nitro story is not all good.
Like the PT Cruiser before it, the Nitro has awesome style but delivers a disappointing drive.
This of course is unlikely to deter those who have fallen in love with the styling, but drivers who expect a car-like driving experience could well be put off.
It is the Nitro’s ride and handling that let it down.
Built off the same super-sturdy platform as the next Cherokee, the Nitro was always going to feel like a four-wheel-drive.
With its ground clearance and its hefty weight, the Nitro doesn’t like corners. Attempt to take one at speed and the Nitro leans and reluctantly turns.
The bodyroll makes the driver think they are in a serious mud-plugger, rather than a vehicle that will be used mostly in the city.
Pushing into tight corners also reveals a propensity for the nose to push on.
Unlike car-based SUVs like the Ford Territory which have a fully independent rear suspension, the Nitro still has a solid rear axle.
So a mid-corner bump that the Territory could tackle with minimal disruption throws out the Nitro, causing it to bounce and skip.
Those used to 4WDs might not mind, but the types of buyers who have stepped up from regular family cars might not be so impressed.
The steering is also a Nitro weak point. It is light enough, which will please those using it for a lot of city work, but passes on very little feel to the driver.
The steering feels dead around the on-centre position.
Ride quality of the SXT, the grade tested by GoAuto, was mixed.
This model, equipped with the 20-inch rims, seemed to pick up a lot of imperfections and struggled to damp them properly at low speeds.
At higher speeds, considerable dips or bumps caused quite a lot of vertical movement in the suspension, which returned a soft-pillow feeling.
It will be interesting to see how these dynamics are affected by the more sensible 16-inch rims, which are likely to offer more ride comfort at lower speeds - at the expense of filling out the Nitro's wheel-arches.
The Nitro did handle well on the bumpy dirt roads at the vehicle’s launch this week in Victoria, easily coping with some stages used for the Rally of Melbourne.
With the 4WD system engaged, via a button near the transmission, the Nitro grows in confidence.
It’s clear the Nitro has dirt in its genes. Don’t think about going too far off road though, as the Nitro’s low-hanging bumpers and the SXT’s low-profile tyres mean it is not suited to serious off-road adventures.
Which brings us to the 4WD system. This old-school centre-locking system is a grade below the 4WD system that will be used for the next Cherokee, chosen because it is cheaper to produce.
The Nitro 4WD system can only be used on loose gravel or other slippery surfaces and must be disengaged (by flicking the switch) before the car hits the tarmac.
That means Nitro owners miss out on all the safety benefits of 4WD when travelling on sealed roads.
Dodge argues that the electronic stability control will keep the car under control on tarmac, which does make you wonder why this car comes with 4WD in the first place.
It is sold as a rear-drive only in the US, but all right-hand-drive models have 4WD.
The reality is that even if a rear-drive model was available, Australia would still take the 4WD because of this country’s outdated import duty rules that give an advantage to 4WDs.
Nitro’s engines are adequate, with the diesel the best choice if you can afford the $3500 premium.
There is nothing wrong with the V6. It is pretty thirsty and isn’t the spiciest engine in the world, but it works well enough given the bulk it has to move along.
The four-speed auto is pretty well matched and performed adequately.
Sure, it would be nice to have a six-speeder, but that would have pushed up the purchase price.
The diesel gives the Nitro some more urge, especially at lower speeds, and would easily be the better bet for those who tow.
However, the diesel’s extra torque still doesn’t make the Nitro’s acceleration overly impressive given its weight disadvantage.
The oil-burner is still pretty noisy at idle and under load, and that alone could put off some customers, but it is reasonably quiet at cruising speeds.
The five-speed automatic is well matched and the shifts are smooth and well timed.
Practicality is a real positive for the Nitro. There is a lot of interior space that stems from its boxy shape. All five passengers have more than enough head and legroom.
The fact the front passenger seat can fold flat, along with the rear seats, means the Nitro can also carry a heap of cargo.
Nice touches include features like the reversible floor in rear cargo area in the base SX model, which creates a shallow waterproof trough that's perfect for grubby items like muddy shoes and pot plants that might otherwise stain the carpet.
The 'Load and Go' feature, which is standard in the SXT, is also a great feature.
It comprises a plastic floor that slides out 45cm, allowing you to more easily load heavy items. This means you don’t have to risk putting your back out by leaning into the cargo area.
There are also plenty of storage areas around the vehicle, including a large centre console bin.
The Nitro’s interior looks good when you slide in, with simple and stylish design that matches its exterior.
Closer inspection reveals that some of the plastic quality is below-par, that there are some uneven gap lines and that one of the Nitro test cars had an unpleasant rattle, but this is unlikely to be a deal breaker.
The Nitro is well-equipped, practical and has stand-out styling - just don’t expect a driving experience to match.
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