It has LR3-ish proportions, a locomotive-snowplow snout, and Magnum window lines. It's based on the same platform as the Jeep Liberty. The new Dodge Nitro is preparing for battle with the likes of the Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, and Nissan Xterra,and it should do well.

With just 250cc separating the two engine choices (3.7- and 4.0-liter V-6s), you might not expect the slightly larger one to be much faster, but it is. Of the two, the aluminum 4.0-liter V-6 is smoother, which is good, because the extra 50 horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque come higher in the rev band than in the cast-iron 3.7. In addition, the 4.0-liter is backed by a five-speed automatic, where the 3.7 offers a choice of six-speed manual or four-speed automatic. We recommend the 4.0-liter for its extra gear and added prowess at altitude or when towing anything near its 5000-pound limit.

The five-speed auto and 4.0-liter V-6 are available only with the R/T performance package, which includes tighter calibrations in the spring, damper, and rollbar rates, and 245/50-series tires on 20-inch alloy wheels. The ride is firm and stable, but larger bumps will feed noticeable impacts to the cabin through the floor and steering column. The R/T carves and slices the road with greater authority and confidence than the other Nitros. The standard-suspension SXT and SLT, with wheels no larger than 17s, rides and slides nicely yet has more body roll. And the standard setup has more compliance and a more progressive steering feel. All Nitros have a good tight turning circle for urban dwellers, and all have plenty of nosedive when you get hard on the binders.

Inside is an optional sliding cargo floor that can hold 400 pounds, if you can lift that amount over the bumper. The standard "floor" is more flexible as it flips over and provides more space underneath for stowage. Posterior passengers will find a flat bench that lends itself well to three kids and enough headroom for six-footers, but they won't find A/C vents, adjustable belt anchors, or fully-retracting side windows. It's less claustrophobic than the old Cherokee or current Liberty and the front seat adjusts enough to make most drivers comfortable. Controls are logically placed, although we'd appreciate a smaller steering wheel, and the shifter on the far side of the center console appears to have been placed with right-hand-drive versions in mind.

We're glad the Nitro doesn't squeeze a third row of near-useless, costly seats in the back, instead returning to earlier SUV designs and dimensions that emphasized utilization of space and resources. No question it's sporty for a compact SUV, especially in R/T configuration, but the trade-off is in ride comfort and perhaps interior noise (well controlled in the SLT and SXT, but the R/T exhaust note adds a bit of boom and drone to the rear seat).