by Bryan Laviolette | The Flint Journal
Most car buyers believe they are simply buying transportation when they plunk down their hard-earned cash, but marketing experts will tell you the decision goes far deeper than that.
How It Rated
(1-5 stars, 5 being best)
• Performance ***
• Interior **
• Handling ***
• Styling ***
• Overall **
People have come to express who they are and what they want the world to think they are through their cars. A Mercedes driver is telling the world -- even if it's subconsciously -- that they are successful. A Toyota Prius screams, "Hey, I care about the Earth!"
But what about those drivers who own vehicles that reflect the lifestyle they only wish they lived?
Frankly, that's the case with most vehicles designed for going off-road, such as this 2008 Dodge Nitro.
The Nitro shares its bones with the Jeep Liberty, so there's no questioning its pedigree.
What it also has is "The Look." A lot of these rock hoppers -- think Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra and Hummer H3 -- feature hey-look-at-me styling.
The Nitro is no exception. Slathered in Electric Blue paint, the test vehicle attracted a lot of attention. One older couple we met at a garage sale were particularly smitten. The lady went so far as to go out and walk all the way around it.
• Good: Extroverted styling attracts attention, Load n' Go floor is a great idea.
• Bad: Chrysler desperately needs to improve its interiors to compete in the marketplace, uncomfortable seats, raucous engine makes unpleasant sounds.
• Bottom line: Check it out if your plans including leaving pavement or if you need more towing capacity than offered by the crossovers.
Attract attention or not, it still doesn't have the presence of some others in the category, in particular the FJ Cruiser which sort of looks like a cartoon version of an SUV. Like a lot of recent efforts, the Dodge stylists missed an opportunity to sell excitement with extroverted styling.
The Nitro also misses the mark under the hood.
This may seem like a unlikely time to introduce a new sport utility, but it starts to make sense when you realize what little it cost Chrysler to do it. By simply reskinning the Jeep Liberty, Dodge offers buyers a different look and Chrysler can keep the Toledo factory where the Liberty is built a bit busier.
It's a good plan, if only Dodge could deliver a great vehicle.
The Nitro comes standard with a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 and a six-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is available with the 3.7. Opt for the R/T edition and you get a 260-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6 with a five-speed automatic.
The 3.7 in the test vehicle had sufficient power, but it was rather raucous under heavy acceleration. A boisterous engine would seem to fit with the Nitro's personality, but only if the engine made pleasant sounds. It doesn't. Instead, it sounds like a garbage disposal unit.
As would be expected in this sort of truck, the Nitro's ride is rather stiff. It's about on par with the FJ and H3, but much less comfortable than crossover sport utes that don't suggest off-road prowess.
Like most recent Chrysler products, the Nitro's interior is frustrating. Why is the cruise control switch in a $40,000 Chrysler Town & Country smooth, but same part in the less-expensive Nitro has burrs? It's the exact same piece.
The Nitro's seats were too narrow for our admittedly wide-of-beam backsides and proved uncomfortable on a three-hour trip Up North.
The basic structure of the interior also comes in for criticism. The base of the nearly upright windshield is very close to the steering wheel. All of the windows are narrow, leading to a closed-in feeling. Most of the vehicles in the rock hopper category have these short windows, but the others seem to have more spacious cabins.
Dodge has come out with several no-one-has-this features lately and the Nitro is no exception. The cool feature in the Nitro is the available Load n' Go floor in the storage area. The floor slides out over the bumper to make loading easier. It also makes a nice work surface. A latch locks the floor in place in multiple stops. There's even a little bit of storage underneath for things like jumper cables and a pair of gloves. Best of all, it's rated to carry 400 pounds in the outward position.
• Base price: $21,015
• Price as tested: $29,835
• Powertrain: four-wheel drive
• Engine: 3.7-liter V-6, four-speed automatic transmission
• Horsepower: 210
• Curb weight: 4,162
• MPG: 16 city, 22 highway
• Built: Toledo
The Nitro starts at $21,015, including destination, for a base rear-wheel-drive SXT. Part-time four-wheel drive starts adds $1,660. The SLT 4X4 tested here starts at $26,015. As tested, this Nitro priced out at $29,835.
There are plenty of better choices out there for most folks. The Ford Escape, Toyota RAV 4 and Saturn Vue ride better, have more room and perform every on-road task better. If you're not planning to go mucking in the mud with this vehicle and you don't need the extra towing capacity (Nitros can tow as much as 5,000 pounds while most crossovers are limited to 3,500 pounds), all of those would make a better choice.
Admittedly, they don't have The Look. Just buy some brush guards and mount some big driving lights to the bumper and call it good.
For years, a former boss of mine drove a bright red Jeep Wrangler, the undisputed king of off-road vehicles. One would think that anyone willing to put up with the Wrangler's obvious shortcomings -- uncomfortable ride, limited interior space, boomy highway manners -- would take the vehicle off road where it would be in its element.
He said that not once had he taken it off road.
That will be the same for most Nitro owners. But they will have The Look.