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.

Inside, textures and materials are more rugged and tough with oversize handles and a thick steering wheel to evoke strength. The extra inches in wheelbase translate into more legroom for back-seat passengers as well as more cargo area behind the second row. In addition, the spare tire was moved underneath the cargo deck (the Liberty's spare hangs off the back, swingout door), so the Nitro's rear door was pushed out even farther. Also of note, the Nitro includes what Dodge calls "Load 'N Go," a special rolling shelf that allows owners to slide their gear out and back about 18 inches for easier loading and unloading. Load 'N Go is exclusive to the Nitro SLT and R/T and can hold up to 400 pounds of weight. Other interior conveniences include double cupholders for front and rear passengers and a center console big enough for multiple CD cases and smaller electronic gear. Leather seats are available in SLT and R/T models.

The Nitro is larger than regular compact SUVs, such as the RAV4 and Escape, yet not as large as a true midsize vehicle like the Ford Explorer or Chevy TrailBlazer. It's right in between. Think smaller midsize SUV--like the Nissan Xterra, Saturn Vue, and Toyota Highlander. The Nitro should have an easy time separating itself from the competition with its unique look and character--and when ordered in the R/T configuration, its power. There's nothing this size that can trump the Nitro on raw personality, but we'll learn more when we get a test unit in our hands.

Nitros will go on sale in early fall, and although Dodge won't say anything about pricing information, expect base-model Nitros to start around $23,000, with top-level R/Ts bumping over the $27,000 range.




2007 Dodge Nitro R/T
General
Location of final assembly Toledo, Ohio
Body style5-pass 4-door SUV
EPA size class Multipurpose vehicle
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD
Airbags Front, head
Powertrain
Engine type 60° V-6, all aluminum
Bore x stroke, in 3.78 x 3.58
Displacement, ci/L 241.2/4.0
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Valve gear SOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Fuel induction Sequential multiport
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 255 @ 5800
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 275 @ 4000
Transmission type A580 5-speed auto
1st 3.59:1
2nd 2.19:1
3rd 1.41:1
4th 1.00:1
5th 0.83:1
Reverse 3.16:1
Axle ratio 3.55:1
Final-drive ratio 2.95:1
Transfer-case model MP 140
Low-range ratio N/A
Recommended fuel Midgrade unleaded
Dimensions/Capacities
Wheelbase, in 108.8
Length, in 178.9
Width, in 73.1
Height, in 69.9
Track, f/r, in 61.0/61.0
Headroom, f/r, in 40.6/40.8
Legroom, f/r, in 40.8/37.7
Shoulder room, f/r, in 57.2/56.4
Hiproom, f/r, in 56.8/47.4
Cargo area behind 2nd row, cu ft 32.1
Cargo area behind front row, cu ft 65.2
Ground clearance, in 7.5
Base curb weight, lb 4150
Payload capacity, lb 950
GVWR, lb 5080
GCWR, lb 10,000
Towing capacity, lb 5000
Fuel capacity, gal 19.5
Chassis
Construction Unit-frame-body
Suspension, f/r IFS, double A-arm, coilovers/ live axle, coil-link
Steering type Power rack and pinion
Ratio 17.4:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.42:1
Turning circle, ft 36.3
Brakes, f/r 11.9-in vented disc/12.4-in disc, 4WABS
Wheels 20x7.5-in chrome-clad aluminum
Tires 245/50R20 Goodyear Eagle HP
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy 17/23 (est)
Price
Base price $23,000 (est)
Price as tested $27,000 (est)
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