There aren’t many new cars on NZ roads that genuinely illicit long stares from passers-by but since 2007 the Dodge Nitro has done exactly that. With unmissable bodywork and burly American dimensions the Nitro inspires strong opinions from both those who dig the look and those who do not. Whatever camp you’re in, Chrysler has made sure the Nitro is here to stay in NZ and will likely continue when the second-generation Nitro reaches production in 2012. While the 2011 Nitro comes in the twilight years of the first-generation, minor tweaks and competitive pricing are keeping it on the radar of new car buyers. But is this American journeyman a good choice for Kiwi families? To find out Car and SUV looked past the Nitro’s tough shell at the beast within.
So what’s new for the 2011 model? Not too much really. There are some updates to the interior where trim quality has been improved and there are more soft touch surfaces. It’s a good effort and the dashboard that was once a weakness of the Nitro is now robust and functional. Dark grey plastics form bulky shapes and chrome trim adds a sense of quality. The switchgear and instrumentation is basic and looks slightly dated but is easy to use and illuminates nicely in green.
The base model SE (as tested) comes well specified, with equipment including climate air-conditioning, 6-disc CD player with Aux input, cruise control, keyless entry, halogen headlights and rear parking sensors. There’s also a fair dose of interior practicalities in the Nitro like various small storage options, removable cupholders and a deep central console bin. While the wide centre console is ideal for leaning on and storing ‘American’ sized drinks it sits on top of an even wider transmission tunnel that limits space in the footwell. When driving it isn’t easy to find a comfortable position for your left foot, especially if you wear size 12 shoes, like this reviewer.
Elsewhere in the interior finding space isn’t an issue, there is generous width through the Nitro cabin and the backseat offers good legroom. The seats are comfortable, look cool in a two-tone finish and use a hardwearing, stain resistant fabric which is perfect for sporty families. Cargo capacity is equally good and the rear seat back splits 65/35 and folds down for a flat loading area with hide-away compartments.
In terms of exterior design the Nitro speaks for itself or rather shouts for itself. Based on a Jeep platform the Nitro kicks off the bold look with a broad signature Dodge grille that pushes back into pumped out wheel guards filled with 20-inch platinum-clad alloys. Flat sides and a high shoulder line give the Nitro the look of an armoured vehicle and boxy rear styling rounds off the tough-guy appeal. While the Nitro’s looks definitely polarize opinion, it’s brazenly distinctive and for many buyers the purchasing decision will be based largely in raw aesthetic appeal.
Under the long bonnet sits Chrysler’s petrol-powered 3.7-litre V6 engine. It’s a fairly big motor when compared to current diesel or turbocharged competitors but it kicks out a solid 151kW of power and 314Nm of torque. The full compliment of power comes on quite high in the rev range at 5,200rpm just short of the 6,000rpm redline, meaning the Nitro needs to be worked hard to perform well. With a rotund 1,970kg kerb weight it’s no rocket off the line but is a competent cruiser with solid mid-range punch. However, it’s not a very refined motor and can’t match the smoothness and laid back nature of more modern diesel or petrol units.
The engine is mated exclusively to a four-speed automatic transmission which operates fairly well using well-spaced ratios but with only four gears fuel economy isn’t great and is a considerable weakness. On the flip side the Nitro is a very capable towing vehicle and can haul up to 2,270kg in a braked trailer.
In terms of driving dynamics the Nitro is an interesting proposition. It sits on a rugged ladder chassis that allows it greater off-road ability than many car-based SUVs but at the expense of on-road handling and weight. On the tarmac there is some body roll and the suspension can feel a bit vague and floaty at times. The steering is also quite light but once the driver learns the Nitro’s unique handling characteristics it’s an easy machine to control.
A switch in the cabin changes the Nitro between 2WD (rear) and 4WD allowing it to do its thing when the terrain gets slippery. It’s a clever system that endows the Nitro with the ability to go most places and combined with a 210mm ground clearance adds appeal for the adventure focused.
Ride comfort is a mixed bag in the Nitro. The powertrain is often audible particularly under heavy load but the seats are comfortable and little wind or road noise enters the cabin. The suspension deals adequately with dips and bumps in the road and at cruising speeds it can all feel quite relaxed.
When it comes to safety the Nitro backs up its brawn with front and side airbags, ABS braking, three point belts for all, and a full Electronic Stability Program including electronic roll mitigation. It also feels about as solid as the gates of hell.
Is the Dodge Nitro the right SUV for me?
Well there’s plenty to consider with the Nitro, not least the price of $46,990 for the tested base SE model. That’s an excellent price for a mid size SUV and combined with the confronting styling owners can stand out from the crowd quite cheaply. It also has practical appeal for families with its hardwearing, spacious interior, towing ability and off-road credentials. If you enjoy truck-like driving characteristics, don’t mind paying a bit more at the pump and adore the styling then the Nitro is definitely still worth a closer look.
What we like:
- Bold exterior looks
- Spacious and tough cabin
- Off-road ability
- Towing capacity
What we don’t like:
- Unrefined powertrain
- Unnerving body roll
- Small front footwells
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo
Other reviews of interest:
Dodge Nitro SE (2011) – Specifications
Power (Hp DIN @ rpm) 151 @ 6,300
Torque (N.m @ rpm) 314 @ 4,000
WHEELS AND TYRES
245/50R20 BSW All Season tyres
20’’ Platinum clad wheels
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Independent MacPherson strut front
Independent multi-link trailing arm rear
EXTERIOR DIMENSIONS (MM)
Overall length 4,584
Overall height 1,773
Overall width 1,916
TOWING CAPACITY (KG)
Max Gross Trailer Weight (Braked)
With weight distribution hitch 2,720
Without weight distribution hitch 1,600
Max Tongue weight
With weight distribution hitch 227
Without weight distribution hitch 160
SAFETY AND SECURITY
Next Generation multi stage front Air Bags
Supplemental side-curtain air bags with roll sensing technology
Child Protection rear door locks
Power door locks
Electronic Stability Program (ESP) includes All speed Traction
Control, Brake Assist and Electronic Roll Mitigation (ERM)
Remote Keyless / Illuminated Entry
Park Sense, rear park assist
Sentry Key Anti Theft Immobilizer system
Height adjustable seatbelt
Tyre pressure monitor system with warning lamp
COMFORT AND CONVENIENCE
Air Conditioning, manual temperature control
Floor mounted rear seat heat outlets
Assist Handles for all passengers
Full length floor console includes removable cup holders, padded
armrest and covered storage bin with CD storage
Floor Mats Front and rear
Four spoke steering wheel
Bright front grille
Black B & C Pillars
Black liftgate applique
Interior mirror, day/night
Deep Tint side and rear glass
Power folding and heated exterior mirrors
Front fog lights integrated in front bumper