Everybody understands that finding the right name is important. Just ask the child of almost any celebrity. Probably the best example in the automotive world is when Ford realized its "Probe" wasn't selling well with men--and women. Most people, in fact, prefer to stay away from probes. At the other end of the spectrum is the all-new Dodge Nitro, which sounds more like an X-Men superhero than it does transportation. When the 2007 Nitro goes on sale later this year, how long before it's joined by Detenator, Dynamite, or Kaboom?
In what's sure to go down as one of the best shared-platform designs in SUV history (GM, please take notes), the Dodge Nitro gets four more inches of wheelbase, an extra inch of track width, and a dramatically different look from its Jeep Liberty donor. Front and rear suspension pieces (short- and long-arm front suspension, with coil springs and a multilink rear) are identical, with several small adjustments made to the bushings and spring rates due to the slight weight differences between models.
Built off similar lines in the massive Toledo, Ohio, plant, the Nitro uses a reinforced unibody chassis strong enough to offer a 5000-pound trailering capacity with the optional 4.0-liter V-6, which produces 255 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 275 pound-feet of torque at 4000. The standard engine offered for base and SLT Nitros is the same 3.7-liter pushrod V-6 found in the Liberty, Grand Cherokee, and Commander. That engine produces 210 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 235 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Of the two engines, the 4.0-liter is the one we'd recommend--not only is it more sophisticated, with dual overhead camshafts and four-valve heads, but the 60-degree block angle and special attention to noise and vibration make this V-6 especially smooth and quiet. A smaller, transverse-mounted version of the same engine is currently used in the Chrysler Pacifica.
The stout NSG370 six-speed manual transmission will be standard on base and SLT models, with the 42RLE four-speed automatic the option. The A580 five-speed automatic transmission comes with the 4.0-liter V-6 (an option for the SLT and standard on R/T models). As part of its sportier personality and to further separate the Liberty and Nitro, the Dodge will only be offered with one of two different all-wheel-drive systems. Manual transmissions will require the part-time MP 143 system, which allows switching from rear- to all-wheel-drive lock with the push of a button. This setting should only be used on low-traction surfaces like snow or gravel roads--it doesn't have set-it-and-forget-it capability. The second system, the MP 140, is a full-time all-wheel-drive system and has no settings or buttons to push, making it virtually invisible. All the necessary changes in power distribution happen automatically, sending as much as 70 percent of engine power to the rear wheels when necessary. The MP 140 system is standard in R/T models, but it'll be an option in base and SLT models.
The Nitro's exterior is appropriately bold and aggressive and thankfully not similar to the big-brother Durango's. Large fender arches and wheel flares, a good-size grille and ram's head on the front, and a wide, flat hood and roofline, all add up to a more masculine look than that of the puffy, rounded Jeep Liberty. Further, the 20-inch-wheel option package (standard on R/Ts; an option for SLT models) provides a brawnier stance with wider tires and a stiffer suspension (springs, anti-roll bar, shocks). In fact, all R/Ts include the largest wheels in the class (20-inch alloys) and 50-series low-profile tires.