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Bathed in Sunburst Orange Pearl, the chunky 2009 Dodge Nitro R/T 4X4 looks like a child's Tonka truck toy. Hop inside and the SUV's cabin also feels very toylike, with low-grade plastic trimming on every visible surface and a general cheapness to the feel of things that implies disposability.
On the road, the Nitro's 4.0-liter V-6 makes a lot of noise but doesn't seem to back it up with performance. Adding insult to injury, the R/T's "sport-tuned" suspension did a better job of tossing passengers around the cabin than it did of improving the vehicle's handling.
But in the center of this maelstrom of mediocrity is Dodge/Chrysler's fantastic UConnect media center, a hard-drive-based GPS navigation system that works so well, it seems out of place in a vehicle so overwhelmingly meh.
On the road
The Nitro R/T is an odd vehicle. It looks like a hardy off-roading truck, complete with lockable four-wheel drive. However, the R/T package upgrades (bigger engine, sport-tuned suspension, and meatier tires on 20-inch wheels) seem to indicate that Dodge wants the Nitro to be sporty and nimble, rather than beefy and brutal.
We're inclined to believe that part of the reason buyers look to SUVs is because of their supple suspension components that effortlessly soak up bumps. Nitro R/T buyers are in for a surprise.
The suspension, which is sprung stiffer at each corner than the non-R/T model, did a surprisingly good job of keeping the Nitro relatively flat for high-speed off-ramp blasts when the road was as smooth as glass. However, when bumps and imperfections were tossed into the Nitro's path, the firm suspension transmitted more vibration and body movement into the cabin than we were comfortable with.
The vehicle loudly crashed over potholes with more drama than many large sedans we've recently tested. Hitting a bump while cornering with any sort of spirit set the Nitro bucking back and forth, unsettling the suspension and generally scaring the pants off of everyone in the vehicle.
With the tall ride height and high center of gravity multiplying all of the body movement, we found ourselves being tossed around the cabin when the road got rocky, and passengers complained of motion sickness.
The 4.0-liter engine was no less disappointing, offering a decent amount of power, but a low level of responsiveness. Each stab of the go-pedal was met with hesitation followed by a raucous engine sound but no acceleration. This is partially the fault of the single-option five-speed automatic transmission's slow shifting, but most of the problem lies with the engine's narrow powerband. As the revs build, acceleration eventually happens, but we often found that by the time the Nitro picked up steam, we'd already given up and lifted the throttle.
In the cabin
Snuggly tucked in the center of a sea of hard, black plastic is one the Dodge Nitro's few bright spots: the UConnect multimedia system with GPS. The system features a 6.5-inch touch-screen and a 30GB hard drive that serves up map and POI data quickly. The UConnect system features traffic data supplied by Sirius Traffic. A year of service is included as part of a Sirius satellite radio service.
With voice-activation technology, the UConnect system allows you to press a button and verbally choose your destination or call a saved contact. Unfortunately, the Bluetooth hands-free system doesn't automatically pull in your contacts when you pair your phone and, as in previous Dodge vehicles, the button to activate the voice command system is located on the far side of the touch screen's bezel. Is it too much to ask for a steering wheel mounted voice button? There's a dedicated button on the steering wheel to bring up the compass on the multi-information display in the instrument cluster; why not a voice button?
Being hard-drive-based, the UConnect system features space for ripping music from audio CDs and USB devices from the dash-mounted USB port. Unfortunately, the system doesn't allow the playback of files directly from the USB port; instead users must first copy songs to the hard drive, which means you'll have to wait before you can listen to the music on that USB stick. Fortunately, ripping music from USB is quick. We were able to rip 1GB of music (eight albums) in about 12 minutes.
Ripping CDs, on the other hand, is slower going (about 15 to 20 minutes per disc), and if the CD isn't recognized by the embedded Gracenote database, it results in a collection of unnamed WMA files.
In addition to the hard drive, audio sources include a single-disc CD player, AM/FM radio, the aforementioned Sirius satellite radio, and a dash-mounted auxiliary input. Our Nitro R/T was equipped with the available 368-watt Infinity premium sound system with eight speakers plus a subwoofer as part of the connect package. The system tended to favor boomy bass at high volumes that rattles the cheap plastic interior panels, but fortunately it did a good job of placing the soundstage in front of the driver.
Other nice interior touches include an available 115-volt two-prong outlet in the rear of the center for plugging in laptops or portable DVD players, which is good because the Nitro doesn't offer a rear seat entertainment option. The R/T package two-tone orange-and-gray cloth seats are bolstered wide for American rear ends but were quite comfortable for extended rides and, as a bonus, are stain resistant!
In a vehicle as chunky as the Nitro, we'd like to see a reverse camera option, but there isn't one. In its place is Dodge's rear proximity sensor, which beeps if there is an object behind you while in reverse. It works, but it's not as elegant as actually being able to see in the blind spot.
Under the hood
Our Nitro R/T is powered by Dodge's 4.0-liter V-6, which generates 260 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque, and is the most powerful engine available to the Nitro. This engine is paired with a single-option five-speed automatic transmission with Autostick manual shift program. Power is put to all four wheels through a lockable four-wheel drive system.
While the Nitro has an appropriate amount of power for the amount of weight it carries, we're not sure why it takes 4 liters of displacement to generate less horsepower and torque than the 3.5-liter six-cylinder Toyota Camry. Additionally, the lack of responsiveness often puts that power just outside of the driver's reach, as we saw in the On the road section above.
The Nitro is also available with a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 paired with a four-speed automatic transmission at lower trim levels.
The Nitro R/T features a "performance-tuned" suspension, which would be great in a perfect world of super smooth highways. In our real world of potholes and expansion joints, the suspension transmits a good deal of harshness into the Nitro's cabin.
So, she won't win dance competitions and most likely won't win any races, but the Nitro also won't be winning any hyper-miling contests, either. With an abysmal 16 city and 21 highway mpg, the Nitro R/T is miles behind the competition where efficiency is concerned.
Step down to the two-wheel-drive version with 3.7-liter V-6 for 16 city and 22 highway mpg. Not much savings to be found there. We're sure the archaic four-speed automatic transmission has a lot to do with the poor fuel economy.
From a performance perspective, the Nitro seems to make pretenses toward sports car performance, but it simply can't bend the laws of physics. Additionally, there are compromises that we'd be willing to deal with in a sports car that we just can't let slide in an SUV. While we can deal with a harsh ride in a sports car, we expect a suppler ride from an SUV. We also expected the 4.0-liter V-6 to be more beefy with more low-end torque.
Despite subpar cabin materials, the Nitro was able to scratch out a decent cabin comfort score thanks to the availability of the great UConnect technology package.
The Nitro starts at $22,985 for the entry level SE 4X2 model with the 3.7-liter V-6. Add $5,495 to step up to the R/T trim level, which adds the bigger engine, the sport tuned suspension, and the Infinity premium audio. Add another $1,660 to add the lockable four-wheel drive system which, depending on your climate, you should probably skip. The UConnect hard-drive-based GPS and media center is a must have feature for $2,145, but it requires the addition of a $475 convenience group, which includes the rear proximity sensor, remote start, and Bluetooth hands-free.
Add $895 for a power sunroof and a $745 destination fee, and you reach our as tested price of $33,880. This represents a savings of $6,000 over similarly equipped competition from Japan--the 2009 Nissan Murano SL, for example--but the Nitro's road manners, straight line performance, and quality of materials are inferior to the Murano's by just about every measure.
Viewed in this light, choosing the cheaper Nitro doesn't feel so much like getting a great deal as it does like getting what you pay for.