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First drive: Dodge to light Nitro wick in June

Candid: Nitro is not for the faint hearted, or environmentally conscious.

Unashamedly in-ya-face, Dodge’s Nitro SUV-for-the-road has landed in Europe

2 Apr 2007

By MARTON PETTENDY in SEVILLE

LOCK UP your daughters because the wild new Dodge Nitro SUV has hit Europe, less than three months before it becomes the second model available in Australia from the born-again DaimlerChrysler brand.

Yes, seemingly unperturbed by issues such as global warming and road fatalities due to collisions between disparately sized vehicles, Dodge makes no apology for the fact its near-2000kg Nitro rides high on a full truck chassis - but isn’t intended for off-road use.

In much the same way that GM Holden expects its upcoming Hummer H3 to be a hit with attention-seeking sealed-road-only SUV drivers, the smaller but similarly styled (and about $15,000 cheaper) Nitro five-seater wagon will also be aimed directly at customers of Korean-built soft-roaders like Kia’s Sorento and seven-seaters in the Hyundai Santa Fe and Holden Captiva mould.

Nitro could also attract customers migrating up from the similarly distinctive Wrangler off-roader from sister brand Jeep, which has carved a popular following among well-heeled young professionals who want to stand out from the crowd – not venture off-road.

To be launched in Australia in late June with a starting price that could be as low as $35,000, Dodge’s first medium SUV does, however, make a convincing value statement - in line with the brand’s pledge to offer "affordable power" and for Nitro to come with "the best entry-level diesel price" and "the best power-to-price ratio".

Nitro is based on a platform that’s similar to, but both bigger and more sophisticated than, that of Jeep’s own Cherokee mid-sizer, which is priced from just under $40,000 in 2.8-litre turbo-diesel manual and 3.7-litre V6 petrol auto guises. Upgraded versions of both engines will also power Nitro.

Chrysler Group customers will have to wait for the release of the next-generation Cherokee, which is expected to make its global public debut at next week’s New York motor show, before Jeep’s medium SUV can match Nitro’s superior underpinnings.

Compared to the current Cherokee, Nitro’s wheelbase is 114mm longer at 2763mm (Cherokee: 2649mm) and its wheel tracks are up to 24mm wider at 1549mm front and rear (Cherokee: 1525mm front).

41 center imageAs such, Nitro is similarly longer overall at 4584mm (Cherokee: 4495mm) as well as wider at 1856mm (Cherokee: 1820mm). However, it’s lower at 1773mm (Cherokee: 1820mm).

More significantly, Nitro has an inferior approach angle (17 versus 36 degrees) and ground clearance (210mm v 239mm), though breakover (20 v 21) and departure (34 v 31) angles are similar.

Inside, the lower, wider and longer Nitro offers less headroom but more shoulder and rear legroom. Vital statistics are 1025mm and 1019mm of front and rear headroom respectively (versus 1033mm and 1071mm for Cherokee), 1036mm and 984mm of front and rear legroom respectively (versus 1036mm and 945mm) and 1443mm and 1436mm of front and rear shoulder room respectively (versus 1435mm front/rear).

Notably, there’s more total luggage space with the 60/40-split rear seat folded (1994 litres versus 1954 for Cherokee), but cargo space behind the second row shrinks from 821 litres to a paltry 369 litres.

Kerb weight is roughly the same as Cherokee, with the Nitro CRD auto weighing between 1940kg and 1995kg depending on the variant, and the Cherokee CRD hitting the scales at 1953kg. And while the 4.0 V6 Nitro weighs between 1875kg and 1945kg, the Cherokee 3.7 V6 weighs 1829kg.

Final Australian specifications are yet to be determined, however, it’s likely we’ll get only the base Nitro SE and midrange SXT variants from launch, powered by both a revised 3.7-litre V6 and new 2.8-litre turbo-diesel engines.

A development of the 60-degree 3.5-litre V6 found in previous-generation Chrysler Group vehicles, Nitro’s new 4.0-litre SOHC 24-valve V6 is standard on the flagship R/T, in which it’s mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode and delivers claimed best-in-class performance of 191kW at 6000rpm and 360Nm of torque at 4000rpm.

The 4.0 R/T may come Down Under later, but from launch its standard leather trim, 20-inch alloy wheels and body-coloured lower bodywork should be optional extras for the SE and SXT variants.

Australia’s entry-level Nitro will be powered by the same two-valve 90-degree 3.7-litre V6 that motivates Cherokee, mated to the same four-speed auto. In this case, however, outputs rise marginally from 150kW/307Nm to 151kW/314Nm.

Expected to attract a similar $2500 premium over the 3.7 V6 as the Cherokee CRD commands (rather than being the base variant, as in Europe) is the Nitro CRD, powered by a second-generation "Panther" 2.8-litre common-rail 16-valve four-cylinder intercooled diesel with a variable-geometry turbo, Piezo injectors, Bosch EDC 16 direct-injection, 17.5:1 compression and belt-driven twin overhead camshafts.

Mated to the same W5A580 five-speed adaptive auto as the 4.0 R/T, the Nitro’s new (but still iron-blocked) CRD mill delivers 130kW at 3800rpm and 460Nm of torque at 2000rpm.

That’s up from the Cherokee CRD’s 120kW and 400Nm peaks, but in standard NSG370 six-speed manual mode the Nitro CRD offers reduced maximum torque of 410Nm. Either way, it’s claimed to offer best-in-class power, torque and acceleration and, like the 3.7 and 4.0 V6s, is Euro4 emissions-compliant.

Combined EU fuel consumption figures are 8.6L/100km for the 2.8 manual (9.4L/100km for the auto, versus 9.9 for Cherokee), 11.3L/100km for the 4.0 and 12.1L/100km for the 3.7. Claimed CO2 outputs are 228g/km for the 2.8 manual, 250g/km for the 2.8 auto, 269g/km for the 4.0 and 288g/km for the 3.7.

Also on claimed figures, the Nitro 4.0 is quickest to 100km/h at 8.5 seconds, followed by the similarly auto-only 3.7 (10.3 seconds), the CRD auto (10.5) and the CRD manual (11.5). The top speed pecking order is identical, with the 4.0 topping 202km/h, the 3.7 offering 190km/h and the CRDs both topping out at around 180km/h.

Built at Toledo, Ohio, all Nitros will come with a NV143 4x4 drivetrain, comprising a single-speed transfer case and shift-on-the-fly 2WD and 4WD modes, the latter offering a maximum 50/50 front/rear torque split. All Nitros also offer a 3500kg braked towing capacity, with the exception of the CRD manual, which is rated at 2000kg.

As part of Nitro’s new underpinnings there’s a more sophisticated new coil-sprung double wishbone independent front suspension, which reduces the Cherokee’s 12.0-metre turning circle to 11.1 in the Nitro. A relatively high-geared (for an SUV) steering ratio returns 3.4 steering wheel turns lock-to-lock, and steering remains via a power-assisted rack-and-pinion system.

Out back, however, Nitro retains a coil-sprung five-link live axle with upper and lower trailing arms.

In Europe, the base SE gets 16x7.0-inch alloys with 235/70-section all-season rubber, while the SXT gets 17x7.0-inch alloys with 235/65 tyres. It’s available with the R/T’s standard platinum-finish 20x7.5-inch alloys with 245/50 R20 tyres.

Braking is via vented 302x28mm front discs with single-piston callipers, plus solid 316x12mm rear discs with single-piston callipers.

As per Cherokee, standard across Nitro range is ABS, ESP stability/traction control, Electronic Rollover Mitigation, brake assist, seatbelt pre-tensioners, multi-stage twin front airbags, full-length side curtain airbags and a basic tyre pressure monitoring system.

Apart from its 4.0-litre V6, body-coloured bodywork and massive alloys, the top-shelf Nitro R/T adds rear parking sensors, tyre pressure monitoring with individual tyre pressure read-outs and leather trim.

Other Nitro options will include soil-repellent "Yes Essentials" seat fabric and the optional MyGig multimedia infotainment system – a new MP3/WMA/DVD/CD-compatible sound/navigation system that features a flip-down 165mm TFT display with touch screen and a 20-gigabyte hard-drive capable of storing map data, photos and up to 1600 songs.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THERE’S absolutely no doubt about it: the Nitro has more road presence than just about anything this side of a Hummer.

Spanish pedestrians scurried out of the way of its unapologetically bluff signature crosshair grille in the villages surrounding its global launch in Seville last week, looking on with both surprise and intrigue.

Another on-road-only SUV may be the last thing European roads (and the environment) need, but the slab-sided Nitro’s pumped-up wheel-arches, high belt-line and the sheer crassness of its blocky proportions might prove less confronting to fewer Australians.

Either way, Dodge makes no apologies for Nitro’s unashamedly bold design, which certainly stands out from the medium SUV crowd but, despite lower (sub-$40,000) entry-level pricing, is likely to attract a smaller, niche-market audience than its sister model Cherokee, from fellow Chrysler Group brand Jeep.

On paper, Nitro makes a compelling value-for-money argument. In global terms, Dodge claims it will offer the best entry-level diesel price in its class, as well as even better value than its car-based Korean rivals – including Santa Fe, Captiva and Sorento.

Even if its sticker price isn’t as sharp here, Nitro will still represent a lot of metal for your money, in that it offers significant new technology via a new ladder chassis with an all-new double-wishbone suspension that’s expected to underpin the next-generation Cherokee.

Furthermore, Nitro CRD employs a new four-pot turbo-diesel that’s more powerful than Cherokee’s, albeit still a little noisy and mated as standard to a six-speed manual transmission. Reinforcing the fact Americans still don’t care for either driving or developing manuals, it’s vague, notchy and long-throw.

In fact, compared to the five-speed auto-equipped Nitro diesel, the CRD manual is a chore to drive, delivers lower peak torque, vastly reduced towing capacity and higher fuel consumption.

Both versions of the CRD make for effortless highway cruising well beyond license-losing speeds, it’s just that the auto masks Nitro’s near-2000kg kerb weight better.

Similarly, on paper at least (our entry-level 3.7-litre V6 was unavailable for test in Spain), the 4.0-litre R/T is the pick of the auto-only Nitro V6 range.

It offers much quicker claimed acceleration as well as lower fuel consumption and exhaust emissions and, unlike the four-speed 3.7, comes mated as standard to a five-speed self-shifter.

Nitro is as utilitarian on the outside as it is from within. Its simple, functional cabin is dominated by a large, upright centre stack, a motorcycle-style three-pod instrument cluster and, even in top-shelf R/T guise, hard and cheap-looking interior plastics.

The leather-wrapped, four-spoke R/T tiller features cruise, trip computer and audio controls, but is not adjustable for reach.

The seats are surprisingly well bolstered up front, fully powered on the driver’s side and split 60/40 at the rear. This, and the fitment of the "Load’n’Go" cargo floor in SXT and R/T variants, which slides 457mm rearwards and holds up to 181kg on its ‘tailgate’, makes the cavernous cargo area even more versatile.

There’s no separate-opening rear glass and luggage space behind the second row is much smaller than in Cherokee, but the front passenger seat folds fully flat to stow long items and comprises a lipped seatback that doubles as a tray table. There’s plenty of storage space in the doors and console up front, but no front grabrails.

Most noticeably, however, the Nitro driver sits close to the windscreen behind the extremely short dashboard, and is hampered by a bulging transmission tunnel and the chopped-top roof – which won’t suit tall drivers.

For a full-chassis SUV, Nitro offered reasonably plush ride quality (at least on southern Spain’s smoother-surface roads) despite firm spring rates that kept bodyroll and headshake to respectable levels.

Stability was never in question at high speeds and Nitro’s well-weighted steering and more neutral chassis are a step up from Cherokee, but the substantial size and mass of the live rear-axled Nitro was always apparent in dense traffic and in tight, bumpy bends.

The full complement of safety equipment never intervened even during spirited going in the 4.0 R/T on damp tarmac in rear-drive mode, but the shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive mode added a welcome increase in grip levels on a mild off-road loop and other low-traction conditions.

A host of options including the MyGig and rear DVD infotainment systems make the fully-optioned Nitro an accomplished long-distance tourer.

And, notwithstanding the R/T’s 20-inch wheels that are likely to be optioned by most customers, the high-riding Nitro’s full-chassis ground clearance of more than 200mm will permit decent unsealed road adventures with confidence.

Alas, however, like most medium SUV owners, we suspect the majority of Nitro drivers will never venture off-road.

The fact Nitro delivers more advanced engine and chassis technology at a lower price than Cherokee may come into it, but for them a commanding seating position, in-ya-face styling and the rugged image that goes with it will be what matters most.

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