Nitro is a totally in your face, stand alone model that features typical assertive Dodge styling. It features a huge grille - a bit like a scaled down Dodge truck - emblazoned with a three dimensional ram's head. Jewel-like rectangular head lamps prominently wrap the corners of the vehicle and a clamshell hood with bold lines completes the front end. The side profile features bulging wheel arches, high waistline and wheels that are pushed to the corners. With short overhangs and wide track the Nitro is agile and stable. DaimlerChrysler is re-establishing the Dodge brand in Australia, with the Calibre launched last year and the Avenger sedan to join the stable later this year. The Nitro is a combination of retro styling and a mix of muscular elements found on many SUVs. While badged as a 4x4, Nitro is essentially a rear-wheel drive five seat wagon, that is pitched at lightweight SUVs, such as the Ford Territory, Holden Captiva and Toyota Kluger, but expects to also win converts from Commodore and Falcon. Setting the Nitro apart from its competitors is not only the eccentric styling, but extremely sharp pricing, matched by a unique two year free insurance package, which is expected to appeal especially to younger buyers.
The Nitro concept was first previewed at the Chicago Motor Show in 2002 and, while sharing the same platform as the next generation Jeep Cherokee, is a unique stand alone product. Nitro is a mid-sized wagon with comfortable seating for five. There is no provision for a third row seat. It is powered by a choice of 3.7-litre petrol V6, or a modern 2.8-litre common rail turbo diesel engine. The petrol unit produces 151kW at 5200rpm and 314Nm of torque at 4000rpm. The diesel powerplant generates 130kW of power and a hefty 460Nm of torque at just 2000rpm. Standard transmission is a four speed automatic for the petrol engine and a five speed auto for the diesel. There is no dedicated manual transmission, although the auto unit we drove had manually selectable steptronic mode. The Nitro has a switchable 4x4 system that allows the driver to switch between two wheel (rear wheel) drive and a part time 4x4 system. The Nitro has a part time transfer case, allowing two and four wheel drive modes to be electronically controlled by a switch next to the gear shifter. Unlike many competitors that feature an on demand all wheel drive system, the Dodge differs to the extent that 4x4 should only be engaged on very loose surfaces.
Notwithstanding, Nitro has a strong arsenal of safety equipment, and a well balanced suspension that allows spirited driving in safety. The Nitro has coil spring independent front suspension and a five-link, coil sprung rear suspension. The system is well suited to local conditions and on a drive route that comprised plenty of bitumen and windy back country dirt roads, the Nitro proved itself to be sure footed, with direct steering and handling that was confident and stable, even when driven enthusiastically around dirt trails. The driver has precise control and there is certainly a fun factor in driving the Nitro. It is nimble and delivers a great balance between responsiveness and firmness. For the majority of driving, the Nitro is more than comfortable in 2WD, with the diesel engine in particular, loaded with enormous torque that is available across a wide rev range. Safety and handling are also well catered for with four wheel disc, anti-lock brakes, and all speed traction control that transfers torque from one wheel to another on the same axle when wheel slip conditions are detected. Also standard on the Nitro is Electronic Stability Control (ESP) which aids the driver in maintaining vehicle directional stability in severe manoeuvres.
On the road the Dodge is easy to drive with a commanding driver position and good vision. The turbo diesel is slightly noisy at launch speeds, but at road speeds this rapidly recedes to acceptable levels. The cabin is comfortable with good head and leg room, although there is an annoying hump either side of the transmission tunnel in the front. The Dodge Nitro is available in two models, the SX and SXT - both well equipped. The SX model comes standard with 16-inch alloy wheels, while the SXT has huge 20-inch alloys. Both models come with a full size spare wheel that is stored under the rear cargo area. Inside the dash falls rapidly away from the glass line, unlike many current vehicles that have a huge area between the fascia and the glass. Interior design is modern and functional, finished in various hues of grey, with chrome highlights on the steering wheel, instrument cluster, centre console and door handles. There is a wide transmission tunnel housing gear shifter, 4x4 switch, hand brake and cup holders. Seats are generally supportive with good lumbar support and padding. The second row seat is a 65/35 split and fold flat. The SXT model also features a Load'n go cargo floor, which slides 45cm rearward for easy loading of large objects.
Also standard on the SX is a reversible load floor. If technology is your thing, you won't be disappointed with the Nitro. Standard fare on the SX Nitro is a 6-disc AM/FM/ CD/MP3/DVD stereo with six speakers. There is also air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, power heated folding mirrors, tyre pressure monitor and 12 volt power outlet. The SXT model adds body colour fenders, 20-inch wheels, Load'n go cargo floor, six-way power driver seat, electronic vehicle information with tyre pressure monitor display, leather wrapped steering wheel with remote audio controls and CD changer. Optional features on the SXT Nitro are a Luxury pack that adds a sunroof, leather trim, heated front seats and alarm for $3,000, and a MyGig multi-media system which includes satellite navigation for $3,500. The Dodge Nitro is priced at SX petrol $36,990, SX diesel $40,490, SXT petrol $39,990 and SXT diesel $43,490. Dodge is also offering two years free comprehensive insurance on the Nitro. The Nitro is an interesting vehicle, which is certain to attract plenty of attention on our roads.