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Dodge Nitro R/T is a clever ride for tough guys who stick to smooth roads
Warren Brown / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Driving is more fun than shoveling snow, which is why I choose to turn away from the precipitous miseries of this winter's storms and reflect on a somewhat happy time behind the wheel of the 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T mid-size sport-utility vehicle.

I expected to dislike the Nitro, a stylistic work of conspicuous masculinity, with its cross-haired grille and muscular angularity. It is the automotive version of an adolescent male who insists on wearing a moustache and beard, although they are nothing more than unglamorous stubble.

It's all part of a marketing plan by DaimlerChrysler, the owner of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles.

The Dodge Nitro shares the same platform and is made on the same Ohio assembly line with the Jeep Liberty, a somewhat soft SUV primarily geared to women. Thus, looked at another way, the Nitro, especially the muscle-flexing R/T edition, is for boys. The Liberty in all of its iterations is for girls.

It is what we have come to in a world where marketers have dedicated themselves to exploiting every niche, real and imagined. But it turns out that the Nitro has something approaching character. For one thing, it is the first Dodge product I've driven in years that was absolutely flawless in the things that count -- fit, finish, interior design and comfort, and overall utility.

On the latter point, I especially like the slide-out tray in the tested Nitro R/T's cargo bay. Using it relieves the strain of lifting heavy packages and wrestling them into place behind the rear seats. Simply pull the tray forward, lift your goods, put them on the tray, and shove it and your packages neatly into place. Bingo!

Equally clever is the integrated entertainment and information communications setup in the Nitro R/T, the Mygig Multimedia Infotainment System. It comes with onboard navigation, Sirius Satellite Radio (with the first year's subscription provided by Dodge), a 6.5-inch color display screen, and a USB port capable of downloading and storing 1,600 songs on a 20-gigabyte hard drive. It is the neatest, most useful infotainment system I've experienced in any car or truck at any price.

You could load up the system with blues or jazz and cruise, which is what I did for a couple of hundred miles of Miles Davis. For a moment, I was about to fall madly in love with the rear-wheel-drive version of the Nitro R/T under my command.

But life has roads rough and smooth; and the Nitro R/T, despite its self-consciously masculine design, was less than pleasing in the rough. Its big, 20-inch diameter wheels did nothing to soften the bumps of travel along less-than-perfect roads, and they did even less to help correct the Nitro R/T's sway-to-left-sway-to-right handling. Ditto the SUV's sports suspension, which seemed to take a timeout on streets and highways with imperfect surfaces.

I turned away from the bad roads and drove toward good pavement, which I found in abundance on westbound Interstate 66 and southbound I-81. There, the fun began. The Nitro R/T is one of those compromise SUVs, designed more with a bias toward favorable ride and handling on smooth roads. It looks tough and rugged, but it is more station wagon than SUV, even with its welded body-to-frame construction.

The Nitro R/T felt good on smooth highways. It was impressive in curves. And in dense, hostile traffic, the evening rush-hour commutes that turn dream cruises into nightmares and fellow motorists into perpetrators, the Nitro R/T's more-masculine-than-thou looks finally served some purpose: Its menacing appearance kept nasty, rude drivers out of my space.

People assumed I was as mean as the SUV I was driving. I'm really a nice fellow. Heck, I clean house, shovel snow, and occasionally boil an egg or two -- never hurt anyone. But sometimes looking mean and having everyone think you are feels so good, so powerful, and so very right.

2007 Dodge Nitro R/T
Complaints: Ride and handling in this one leaves much to be desired on less-than-smooth roads.
Ride, acceleration and handling: The Nitro R/T comes with a four-liter, 255-horsepower engine, which is more than enough to move it along with authority. Excellent ride and handling on good roads. Bad, bumpy, swaying ride and handling on bad roads.
Head-turning quotient: A work of chest-thumping, chest-bumping masculinity. If I still had teen-age daughters, I'd slam the door in the face of any suitor who drove up in this one. I'd know he was up to no good.
Body style/layout: The Dodge Nitro is a mid-size, front-engine sport-utility vehicle available with rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. There are three trim levels--SXT, SLT and R/T, with the R/T at the top of the line in terms of engine size, wheel size and appointments.
Engines/transmissions: The Nitro R/T comes with a four-liter V6 that develops 255 horsepower at 5,800 revolutions per minute and 275 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Also available in the Nitro line is a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V6 with a choice of a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission.
Capacities: There is seating for five. Maximum cargo capacity is 76 cubic feet. Maximum payload, the weight of what can be carried onboard, is 1,150 pounds. The Nitro R/T can be equipped to tow up to 5,000 pounds. Fuel capacity is 19.5 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.
Mileage: Averaged 16 miles per gallon in city-suburban commutes, 21 miles per gallon on the highway.
Safety: Head air bags, electronic stability and traction control are standard. Side air bags were not available at this writing.
Price: The 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T with rear-wheel-drive has a base price of $25,970. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $24,236. Price as tested is $29,300, including $3,330 in options (Mygig Multimedia Infotainment System, leather-covered seats and trailer towing package) and a $660 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $27,233.
Purse-strings note: Compare with Hummer H3, Toyota FJ Cruiser.
 
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