Everybody had a friend who was an instigator. Mine was Mitch. I can hear my mom asking me, "If Mitch decided to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that, too?" Well, Dodge has a friend named HUMMER. And the 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T 4x4 might prompt Mother Dodge to ask, "If HUMMER decided to make an ice cream truck, would you do that, too?" The 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T 4x4 carries a base price of $24,145 ($32,585 as tested), along with a 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a lifetime powertrain warranty for the original owner, and an EPA estimate of 17 mpg city/22 mpg highway. Let's drive.
Let's get this out of the way -- the Nitro is ugly. There, I said it, and I apologize to the talented designers at Dodge for this assessment. It's purely my opinion, and that of nearly every innocent bystander I queried during my time with the vehicle. I can forgive ugly -- after all, ugly is in the eye of the beholder, and it's a purely aesthetic judgment. What I can't quite forgive is the "me, too" pseudo-military styling of the Nitro, very much in the HUMMER vein of vehicle design.
Put two boxes together, stick on some bulging fenders and add some aggressive details, and you've got a rough idea of the Nitro's design aesthetic. The front end is big, square, and sized to look as if an enormous truck engine hides beneath its broad flat hood. A big version of the corporate cross-hairs grille decorates the front fascia, with big horizontally arrayed rectangular headlights wrapping the corners. A tough-looking intake/vent decorates the side of the front quarter panel, a distinctive design feature. The tall passenger compartment sits high on the frame, with very rectilinear features. A high shoulder line leaves little room for side windows and a creates pillbox slot for a rear window, much like the H3's tiny glass area. A swath of chrome on the back adds interest to the square rear fascia. My Nitro rode on 20" chrome-clad aluminum wheels, of course, part of a $1,980 "Customer Preferred" package of options.
Continued below. . .
In the Driver's Seat
It's a healthy climb up to the Nitro's driver's seat. Once you're up there, everything's fine, until you start touching surfaces. On a purely visual basis, Nitro's interior is okay.
But somewhere between design and execution lies that place where the corporate bean counters get involved in the process. The bean counters demand the lowest cost basis for materials and construction, and Nitro's surfaces and tactile feedback reflect the results. A decent layout is compromised by cheap-feeling plastic. Opening trays and bins do not inspire confidence -- the parts feel like they will not last, latches feel like they're bound to break, and the whole military spec aesthetic is undermined with a GI Joe build quality.
It's a shame, because I liked the Nitro's driving position, instrument panel layout and ergonomics. The no-frills approach results in a simple dash, with three round gauges clustered in pods above the steering wheel, a stock sized audio head unit in the center stack above three big rotary dials to control the climate and a row of simple buttons for other functions.
Nitro's second row is functional and similarly no-frills, with a flat bench seat that's roomy enough for three adults. Materials on the door and armrests are disappointing, just like up front. The cool door handles look like aluminum tie-downs, a nice touch.
Behind the second row, a very useful cargo-handling tray helps with loading and unloading. If you have a bad back, and leaning into your SUV's luggage hold is a strain, you'll love this feature. I know I did.
On the Road
My Nitro was equipped with the R/T package, the main component of which is an $895 engine upgrade, from the 3.7 liter V6 (210 hp/235 lb-ft of torque) in the SXT to a 4.0 liter V6 that's tuned to produce 260 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque through a five-speed automatic transmission. My Nitro was equipped with part-time four-wheel drive (4x4), spending most of its time being driven by the rear wheels. For as big as it looks, Nitro is actually relatively svelte at 4151 lbs, so the V6 provides decent straight line performance -- though a 6.0 liter HEMI would have been a better choice for the R/T moniker.
Nitro's suspension setup, independent front with a live axle rear, does the job, if the job is to provide a truck-like ride. I didn't get to test Nitro off-road, but the setup is promising, along with 8.3 inches of ground clearance and a tight 36.3" turning circle and all that torque.
There's a full array of safety equipment onboard, including traction control, electronic stability program, electronic brake force distribution, anti-lock disc brakes, front airbags, supplemental side airbags, LATCH, tire pressure monitoring and five-star front and side impact ratings.
I found the Nitro to be a big of a bear in heavy traffic. I had trouble gauging the vehicle's width and length -- those big fenders beneath the big flat hood caused unease in narrow lanes, and the high should line's tiny side and rear windows made backing and parking an act of faith.
There have been some ugly vehicles in my past. I once owned a 1974 Volkswagen Thing, and I bought a first-generation Toyota Van. So my ugly car credentials carry some weight. Still, I could not get beyond the Nitro's looks. But, just as there were some buyers for the Pontiac Aztek, I'm sure that there are some buyers who don't hate the way the Nitro looks. Maybe they even like it. If you like Nitro, but the price tag seems a bit much, you can get a less expensive version if you're willing to live with less power or less flash. The base model Nitro SXT starts at just $20,235 with a 3.7 liter V6 and a six-speed manual transmission. If you're considering a Nitro R/T, there are several other vehicles to look at.
The HUMMER H3 shares a similar design aesthetic with Nitro, but it's one step closer to the original military spec vehicles. 2008 will see a V8 jammed into the H3 Alpha, and that should be exciting. Toyota's 4Runner is another worthy SUV, as is Nissan's Xterra. Don't overlook the Ford Explorer, a very capable SUV that can be quite competitive in this class.
I know I shouldn't be so focused on appearance. I wouldn't be, if Nitro didn't let me down in so many other ways. Ugly SUVs have to work harder to earn my love, just like ugly dogs have to be a little sweeter, a little more eager to please in order to avoid escape the shelter.