Lots of show, little go Huge fender flares and 20-inch chrome wheels pump up the Nitro's road presence. By Josh Jacquot Date posted: 10-30-2006 260-hp V6 - 20-inch wheels "Dude! Dodge is making that?" "Huh?" "That thing you're driving. It's a Dodge?" "Yup. A Nitro." And so it goes with the 2007 Dodge Nitro, which, in R/T trim, is perhaps the most striking midsize SUV sold today. We drove Dodge's latest creation from L.A. to Vegas and back and fielded more questions, confused gawks and outright stares than the last Lamborghini we drove home. People in L.A. and Vegas know Lambos, but they've never seen anything quite like Dodge's stubby, flared-fender, fat-tired creation. It's the proportions that get the attention and, ultimately, make the look work. The high waistline with huge wheels and a wide stance covered by aggressive flares are impossible to ignore — even if you don't like SUVs. The monochromatic paint doesn't hurt either. And don't forget about the fake vent on the Nitro's front-quarter panels, which looks disturbingly similar to the vent on the Land Rover Range Rover Sport. R/T models get a body-color grille, fenders and trim, which further hammer home the in-your-face theme. But it takes more than a pretty (in your) face to compete in this increasingly popular segment. Here, you've got to be all things to all people: stylish, cost-effective, efficient and practical — big enough to haul the family and its accessories and small enough to not punch a truck-size hole in the wind. Sometimes you'll need all-wheel drive, sometimes you won't, so you better have both. Whatever you do, don't drive like a truck or be small like a car. Crossover or SUV? Twenty-inch chrome wheels are standard on all R/T-trim-level Nitros. The Nitro's segment-defying looks make it difficult to place in any one category, so here are some facts that help: The Nitro shares most of its underpinnings — unibody construction, basic front and rear suspension — with the Jeep Liberty. Its 108.8-inch wheelbase is 4.4 inches longer than the Liberty, but only a half-inch longer than the Mazda CX-7. Unlike many contenders in this class, the Nitro is decidedly not car-based. Its live-axle rear suspension and the North/South orientation of its powertrain point more toward SUV-based roots than most of its car-based competition. Its large engines, too, are more reminiscent of SUV heritage. The Nitro is available with a choice of two engines — a 3.7-liter V6 rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque and a 4.0-liter V6 rated at 260 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. Three transmission options are offered depending on trim level. A six-speed manual is standard on 3.7-liter SXT 4x2 and 4x4 models. A four-speed automatic is optional on SXT models and standard on SLT models. A five-speed automatic is available only on 4.0-liter R/T versions. All four-speed-equipped 4x4 models have full-time four-wheel drive. Our tester was a 4x2 R/T model. The $2,675 R/T package adds the larger 260-hp V6, five-speed automatic transmission, 3.55:1 axle ratio, 20-inch chrome wheels with Goodyear all-season tires, a recalibrated "performance" suspension, Sirius Satellite Radio, various body trim enhancements and R/T logos on the seats. Clearly, Dodge is aiming to steal potential Acura RDX, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano and Toyota RAV4 buyers with the Nitro. And it might just happen on looks alone. And then we drove it On the road, the Nitro lacks the composure of other midsize SUVs, with awkward suspension tuning and aggressive stability control. We say looks will be the Nitro's primary selling point because it isn't the best driving vehicle in the segment. Its suspension, especially its front suspension, is underdamped, which allows excessive body motion over bumps and freeway undulations. Its steering is slow and doesn't offer much feedback. Basically, it's fairly obvious from behind the wheel that the Nitro, fundamentally, is a Jeep — so it's logical that it's not a sharp-steering, precise-responding machine. If you find the patience to rev it all the way to redline, the 4.0-liter V6 feels and sounds like it's ready to chew its way straight through the hood. There's ample motivation, though. It makes some noise, but it never felt underpowered. Still, we'd guess that many buyers will be willing to overlook the Nitro's less-than-stellar road manners in exchange for its striking looks. Plus, on numbers alone, it holds its own in acceleration testing. Our tester hit 60 mph in 7.7 seconds — quicker than the last Mazda CX-7 we tested, but not quite as quick as Toyota's RAV4. The same result held true through the quarter-mile, with the Nitro breaking the traps in 15.9 seconds at 86 mph. The CX-7 was 0.3 second slower, while the RAV4 was 0.7 second quicker. Handling, as discussed, isn't a Nitro strong point. Timid suspension tuning aside, the Nitro's aggressive stability control system reins it in heavily through the slalom and around the skid pad. We found ourselves fighting the electronic limits far before the Nitro's chassis had given up hope. In fact, its electronic limits are so low that even the conservatively tuned RAV4, which is also electronically limited, bested it in both our handling tests. The Dodge pulled an embarrassing 0.66g around the skid pad and punched through the slalom cones at a staggeringly slow 58.7 mph — slower than any vehicle we've tested in the segment despite putting the most rubber on the road (245/50R20 all-season tires). For comparison, the RAV4 circled the skid pad at 0.75g and nudged its way through the slalom at 61.4 mph. Braking, by the numbers, is a Nitro strong point. It stopped from 60 mph in 122 feet — shorter than either the RAV4 or CX-7. Its middle pedal felt good initially, but after four stops we did notice it soften marginally. Braking distances increased by a few feet as heat took its toll. Practical interior Despite a reasonably pleasing design, interior materials and build quality aren't a Nitro strong point. We were impressed with the usability of the Nitro's interior. Its radio and heating/ventilation controls are all logical and easy to use, with large knobs, which we prefer over buttons. There's an MP3 input exactly where it belongs — on the front of the stereo on our tester. Dodge's new MyGIG multimedia system is optional on the Nitro. MyGIG is a navigation, audio, entertainment and communication system with a built-in 20-gigabyte hard drive to store music and photos, which starts at $1,545. Instrumentation is arranged logically in three binnacles, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer on the right and fuel and temperature gauges on the left. Other controls, specifically the emergency brake handle, don't feel designed for human use — it's too thin, like grabbing a knife handle. The rest of the interior materials, especially the hard plastic on the dash and in the cargo area, is abundant and looks a little cheap. There are, however, plenty of small bins and storage areas that will accommodate today's gadget enthusiasts. The Nitro's front seats are comfortable (read: soft) and provide an upright driving position (which we like), but feel a little bit like they're inflatable until you adjust to sitting on them rather than in them. Rear-seat legroom is sufficient for adults. Perhaps the Nitro's strongest interior feature is its cargo-space versatility. Its 60/40-split rear seat folds flat, as does the front-passenger seat, providing significant space for long items. There's a sliding cargo tray behind the rear seat that extends over the rear bumper and can accommodate 400 pounds. We found the tray only semi-useful, however. Its versatility could be greatly increased with the ability to slide out another 10 inches — even if that cut its capacity in half. Get yours now The Nitro's bold looks belie its mediocre performance. Base Nitros start at a low $19,885 when they go on sale this month. R/T models will be available by the end of the year. Load up a two-wheel-drive Nitro with the R/T package, power sunroof, UConnect hands-free communication system, towing package, AM/FM six-disc CD/DVD/MP3 stereo, eight-speaker audio option and full-size spare tire and you're looking at a $29,570 price tag (including the $660 destination charge). That's $575 less than a loaded Mazda CX-7 that comes with all-wheel drive and handles more like a car than a truck. Still, the Mazda doesn't have the Nitro's undeniable road presence. The Dodge will get more looks. And sometimes that's all it takes to make any car or truck walk off dealer lots. MSRP of Test Vehicle: $29,570 What Works: Striking styling, practical interior design, Diddy road presence. What Needs Work: Conestoga wagon suspension tuning, rough engine, plastic-attack interior. Bottom Line: The Nitro offers the look of a pricier SUV without the cost. Unfortunately, it doesn't offer the performance or refinement.