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Dodge didn't pussyfoot around with macho Nitro

By Matt Nauman

Mercury News

DETROIT - For all the talk about the decline of the domestic automakers, I find that here in Motor City, people still appreciate the home-grown sheet metal.

``I've been waiting to drive one of these,'' said the valet at a restaurant as I handed over the keys to the new Dodge Nitro I was driving. ``Hot.''
The Nitro exploded -- sorry, I couldn't resist that one -- onto the scene in September as the newest SUV from Chrysler. It borrows much underneath from the Jeep Liberty. Both vehicles are built in Toledo, Ohio.

But the look -- and the attitude -- of the Nitro is pure Dodge. Think of the Ram, a surly full-size pickup. And the Magnum, a macho station wagon, which would have seemed ridiculous a couple of years ago. Or the Charger sedan and the coming Challenger, two cars with roots in the '60s muscle-car era that have found buyers in the environmentally conscious '00s.

There's very little that's subtle about Dodge, a brand with the hellacious Viper as its halo car, and which once had the intention to sponsor the pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl during the Super Bowl but eventually backed out.
The names and looks of its vehicles set it apart from Ford, Chevy and Toyota -- a good thing in these hyper-competitive times. (Dodge sales fell 8.6 percent last year, mainly due to the drop in popularity of its big trucks and SUVs. Yet it remains one of the five brands, along with Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota and Honda, to record more than 1 million annual sales.)

However, the Nitro emerges as something of an anti-trendsetter. Other makers are tripping over themselves to produce crossovers, based on car platforms, but the Nitro shares its underpinnings with a Jeep SUV. Rivals are producing curvy specimens -- just check out the Ford Edge and the ever-rounding Honda CR-V -- but the Nitro is all square shoulders.

With its cross-hair grille, exaggerated fender flares and big 17-inch alloy wheels, the Nitro seems happy being the bad boy on the block. Even its unusual door handles, stolen right from the Jeep parts bin, smack of no-nonsense attitude.

And nothing on the inside dispels that notion: From its semi-circle interior door handles to the thick, four-spoke steering wheel to the radio and climate buttons, it's a design approach that reflects function over frivolity. Our test model, a mid-level SLT version, came with optional gray leather seats. The upscale R/T version gets more gimmicks, from two-tone seats to a body-color grille.

Not that neat touches are ignored. Our Nitro came with the load 'n' go slide-out cargo floor, which made tossing in my suitcases a much easier task. This was especially good in the winter, as it meant I didn't have to brush up against a dirty bumper. It can hold up to 400 pounds of stuff, Dodge says. The back seats and the front passenger seats all fold flat, too, for extra cargo-carrying room.

Powering the Nitro SLT is a 3.7-liter V-6 engine that makes 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Here in Detroit, where they appreciate a heavy foot when the light turns green, this engine had plenty of kick, although it was quite loud at times.

The standard transmission is a four-speed automatic -- functional, if unspectacular. The SXT comes with a six-speed manual, while the R/T pairs a five-speed automatic with a 260-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6. That model gets 20-inch wheels, too.

On the road, the Nitro had a steady drive and did especially well over the many potholes found here. I had a four-wheel-drive version, but a week without snow made it an unneeded accessory.

My Nitro wasn't equipped with the optional MyGig, Chrysler's 20-gigabyte hard-drive system that can be used to store songs and pictures. Leather seats, Sirius satellite radio and a sunroof highlighted the list of options on my vehicle.

Safety equipment makes the Nitro competitive. The list of standard fare includes four air bags, traction control, stability control and four-wheel anti-lock brakes.

Prices start at $19,885 for two-wheel-drive, stick-shift SXT models. Our SLT tester had a base price of about $24,000 and a window sticker of more than $28,000. A well-stocked R/T will probably cross the $30,000 barrier.

Class rivals include all sorts of small SUVs, from the Ford Escape to the Chevy Equinox, but I expect the Nitro will attract those looking for attitudinal vehicles such as the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Hummer H3 and Nissan Xterra.
¿Quien es mas macho? The new Nitro certainly makes its case.

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