PALM SPRINGS, California - Some vehicles aim so squarely and flagrantly at the young market that older shoppers might prefer to avert their eyes. In the case of the Nitro, Dodge's first entrant into the midsize-SUV market, that might be a sensible decision.
While there's little doubt that the Nitro will turn into a hot number among its intended audience, this isn't a prime choice for mainstream drivers. Sure, some youth-oriented vehicles, such as the Scion xB and Honda Element, have attracted sizable numbers of mature customers due to their practical benefits. But the Nitro, which audaciously flaunts its upright profile, doesn't seem likely to join that group.
Even though the Nitro exerts a "very strong, masculine appeal," Ron Zarowitz, senior manager of truck marketing, believes women, too, will say: "Yeah, that bad boy is just for me." Main customers will be in their 20s and 30s. Principal rivals include the Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox, and Nissan Xterra.
With the starkly upright Nitro, owners can "express assertiveness rather than aggression, masculinity rather than macho," said senior design manager Dennis Myles. With its high beltline and "compressed upper," the Nitro "looks like nothing else out there," Myles explained. In his view, it blends "a bit of bad-ass with a touch of class."
The grille, headlamps, and parking lamps are all contained in an integrated module. A simple clamshell hood lets cutlines run along the sides and into the door cuts. With its "very substandard, generous wheel flares," there's plenty of room for tires up to 20-inch size.
"We tried to create a performance seat" inside, Myles noted, augmented by anti-microbial, stain-resistant upholstery and brushed or satin silver accents. Mounted on steel tracks, the rear load floor extends rearward up to 18 inches. Standard on SLT and RT models, it exposes a 4-inch recessed compartment for secure storage.
Offered in three trim levels (SXT, SLT, and RT), the Nitro gets a standard 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 engine. A 4.0-liter V-6 with 50 extra horsepower and developing 265 pound-feet of torque is optional for the top-rung RT edition, which is fitted with 20-inch tires.
Either a six-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission can accompany the smaller V-6. The RT's 4.0-liter gets a five-speed automatic. Nitros may have two-wheel drive, part-time four-wheel drive, or full-time 4WD. "You're going to be able to pass people," said program manager Laura Beachum, pointing out the obvious. "It's going to be great."
On the safety front, Nitro stands tall. Standard features include antilock braking and an Electronic Stability Program with electronic roll mitigation. Curtain-type airbags also are standard.
With the 4.0-liter engine, the Nitro gets an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA fuel-economy estimate of 17 mpg in city driving and 21 mpg on the highway. The 3.7-liter V-6 is more frugal, promising 18/24 mpg according to the EPA.
Despite a smooth and energetic engine, the Nitro RT with the optional 4.0-liter V-6 doesn't exactly leap ahead on mountain upgrades. In fact, it struggles a bit. Operation of the five-speed automatic, on the other hand, is barely noticed.
Steering is a lot lighter than expected: perhaps too much so for an "assertive" type of vehicle. As a rule, tough-look SUVs demand a little more effort to twist the steering wheel.
On gentle pavement, the RT rides nicely. But as soon as a bump comes along or the surface gets wavy, the 20-inch tires take their toll on comfort.
Overall, the SLT with the smaller engine oesn't feel as confident through curves as an RT. Ride quality may be a bit easier, but optional 20-inch tires still make for some harshness. Steering feel exhibits about the same degree of lightness, but feels more threatening and less secure in this case unless you keep speed comfortably down in curves. Though gearchanges are crisp and prompt, operation of the SLT's four-speed autommatic is definitely more noticeable.
Acceleration from 50-55 mph with the 3.7-liter engine is actually on the feeble side, though strongly when increasing speed from 20-30 mph. That's quite a surprise, in view of the Nitro's heavily male target audience.
Fabric seats are firm and amply (but not snugly) bolstered, with good thigh and back support. Front occupants can make use of a big, wide glovebox. Leather-upholstered seats feel more comfortable than their fabric counterparts: not quite as firm.
Nitro prices start at $19,985 (?) for the entry-level SXT model, which may have a manual or automatic transmission and either 16- or 17-inch tires. Stickering for $23,295 the mid-level SLT can hold either 17- or 20-inch tires. The top-ranked RT, with its full body treatment, plus an available 4.0-liter V-6 and performance suspension, goes for a minimum of $25,790.
Convenience options include a remote starter and rear entertainment/game system. Nitro buyers can also request a MyGig entertainment system that can hold 1,600 songs, a navigation that operates with voice commands and a touch-screen, Sirius satellite radio, and a Uconnect setup.
"Dodge is connected to both the rational and the emotional needs of the buyers," marketer Zarowitz said, pointing to worldwide sales of 1.4 million units.