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The 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T looks 'mahvelous'

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Clearly, there's no need to feel guilty about driving an SUV.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Now we've all heard about global warming and all that, but when people are out in T-shirts and shorts, driving round with the top down in 70-degree weather in January, who says that's not a good thing?

I mean, look at all the straight-laced people who go round driving hybrids, exercising all the time and eating healthy. What happens to them? They get killed by organic spinach! So forget this saving the planet bit and let's have some fun.

Maybe that's a little over the top, but it's what I can see the designers of the Dodge Nitro thinking. The 2007 Dodge Nitro, which uses a stretched Jeep Liberty platform, is Dodge's foray into the mid-size SUV market, and unlike with its serious larger SUV, the Durango, the Dodge designers apparently felt free to indulge a bit of whimsy here. The Nitro looks best from the front, where Dodge's crosshairs grille blends into extremely prominent headlight banks at the corners. A lot about the look is muscular, but playfully so. It's like finding out your body-building neighbor on steroids knows every line of every I Love Lucy episode – it makes the over the top look fun rather than obnoxious. It's not that all the angular sheet metal and the wide track and high beltline and enormous wheel flares and the sheer brawniness of the Nitro don't make it look tough, but there's something in the design that says don't take this too seriously. It's Arnold Schwarzenegger rather than Chuck Norris or, ugh, Jean Claude Van Damme.

As Dodge itself put it, the Nitro is "heavy on the masculine cues yet equipped to attract female buyers to the Dodge brand's newest nameplate and first mid-size SUV." I hate to say this about something so obviously macho, but it's so cute. It's George Clooney cute.

"The mid-size sport-utility market is characterized by vehicles with overall bland designs that many consumers find boring," said Tom Loveless, director of Dodge marketing and global communications. "The 2007 Dodge Nitro will light a spark to the mid-size SUV segment. With its confident, masculine design, performance, features, technology and safety systems, the Dodge Nitro is the SUV to which men aspire and that women appreciate."

I don't know about you, but I'm feeling the need for a cold shower. However, the reality is that in a world where baby Hummers and FJ Cruisers get you noticed, the Nitro, especially with those big 20-inch tires that came standard on my R/T, has what it takes to draw second looks – and buyers.
Big or not, the Nitro would be an even better draw for women if you could open it without risking breaking a nail. It's got one of those push-in rather than pull-out handles that does require a decent amount of force to use. Even I know women hate those, and normally I have no clue what women do or don't like. So I'm betting the Nitro-driving crowd will be mainly male, no matter what Dodge hopes.

Inside, the Nitro is spacious enough to fit five. Fit and finish were OK, the seats were comfortable enough. The décor was basic Dodge, nothing fancy, just functional, black and white with orange pointers. It's not pretentious, and it works.

The front passenger seat folds flat for storage, and the rear seats give you the expected 60/40 split. Standard in the cargo area of my Nitro R/T was the new Load 'N Go for extra, more private storage. The Load 'N Go floor travels 18 inches, extending over the rear bumper, and holds up to 400 pounds. Beneath the sliding panel is a four-inch deep storage area that can be used to house jumper cables, a laptop computer or utility items. The liftgate is a single piece.

If you've got kids, animals or reporters in your Nitro, you'll be pleased to know that standard on the Nitro SLT and R/T is YES Essentials cloth seats, which repel stains, control odors, reduce static electricity and offer protection against vampires and zombies. The fabric can withstand endless cleanings [even in the same area] and will not rub off or change the texture or comfort of the seats or surfaces during ownership of the vehicle.

So looks are good, inside is fine, performance ... that depends on what you're looking for. The Nitro comes in three different packages, the base SXT, midline SLT and performance R/T. My tester was an R/T.
The SXT and SLT come with a 3.7-liter SOHC V-6 that kicks out 210 horses. Standard on the R/T is a 260-horsepower, 4.0-liter V6.

Power is not the problem. The engine put out plenty of power for the five-speed automatic on the R/T to handle. It was the coil-spring independent front suspension and an all-new five-link, coil-spring rear suspension that concerned me. Dodge tells you up front to go to the SXT or SLT for comfortable suspensions. The R/T is listed as a performance suspension with a revised sway bar, springs, shocks and bushings and obviously biased towards sport. That means it's a stiff suspension – or, as Dodge put it, "the emphasis is on responsive, fun-to-drive handling accompanied by a firm ride" – which is tolerable if the tradeoff is holding the road. Unfortunately, the comfort I felt going in a straight line with the Nitro R/T was not duplicated going into corners.

I don't know how the softer suspension feels, but given I wouldn't be taking the Nitro round the far curve at Lime Rock, I might be tempted to lean toward comfort rather than what I felt was a too-stiff suspension. I think part of the problem was the steering wasn't as tight and responsive as I'd like, and without the whole package, parts don't make sense. Overall, I'd say handling was OK and the ride was unexpectedly quiet, but the truck heritage came through much too strongly for me to really think sport.

Safety is a high point for the Nitro. The Nitro has a full range of active and passive safety systems. Among the vehicle's standard equipment are Electronic Stability Program, Electronic Roll Mitigation, all-speed traction control, Brake Assist, Advanced antilock brakes and side-curtain air bags. Nobody should get a car without these safety features if possible, and it's good to see Dodge isn't trying to lowball the consumer at the expense of safety by making these optional. Now let's hope they add front side airbags.
The Nitro comes in either front- or four-wheel-drive, with at least two different four-wheel-drive systems available. The 4.0-liter V-6 engine runs on mid-grade gasoline, with EPA estimated mileage of 17/21. The R/T's sticker starts at just under $26,000 for the two-wheel-drive version, add another grand and a half for the four-wheel-drive model.

After a week in the R/T, I still loved looking at it. It brought a goofy grin to my face every time. Those of us old enough to remember when Saturday Night Live was funny, at least intermittently, should remember Billy Crystal's character, Fernando. When I think of the Nitro R/T, I remember Fernando's catchphrase:

"It is better to look good than to feel good, and dahling, you look mahvelous!"
Whatever else, the 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T looks marvelous.

Andy Mais is an auto columnist for The Stamford Times.

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