The Dodge Nitro is distinguished by its boxy styling. The exaggerated fender flares are the only rounded parts in the styling. Every other angle is square. It looks and feels larger than it is, which some will find to be a good thing. It is, however, smaller than many of its midsize competitors.
From the front, the Nitro is unmistakably Dodge. It's got that big crosshair grille, which looks much better in body color (R/T) than chrome (SE, SLT). The horizontal headlights, turn signal slits and fog lamps are a tidy fit in the massive face.
However it doesn't appear as if much attempt was made to have the front bumper fascia be tidy; it's got edges all over the place. Beneath the bumper is a wide air intake for the power steering cooler, whose thin fins are exposed to flying stones because there is no screen.
Taking a cue from the faux portholes on the Buick Lucerne, or possibly the tradition of a Mercedes-Benz sports car, there's a trapezoid-shaped insert, black plastic with three chrome ribs, located just forward of the mirrors. It's intended to look like a cooling slot. It's a nice touch, and for such a small piece it goes a long way toward relaxing the Nitro's blocky shape.
With its upright windshield, high beltline, rectangular windows and short front overhang, the Nitro's silhouette is reminiscent of a '62 Dodge Power Wagon. But from the rear three-quarter angle, the lines around the rear glass are reminiscent of the big Jeep Commander. We like the cleaner black, rather than chrome, around the windows.
Our test Nitro R/T was equipped with standard 20-inch chromed aluminum wheels, and they sure are showy. The narrow sidewall on the 20-inch tires doesn't appear to offer much defense against flats. Our preference would be for taller tires on smaller-diameter wheels.
The Dodge Nitro SE comes with the base cloth, while the SLT and R/T get the premium Yes Essentials fabric designed to repel stains, controls odors and reduces static electricity. The optional perforated charcoal leather with red stitching in one test R/T was beautiful. The front buckets were comfortable and supportive, with excellent bolstering. We found leather better than stain-resistant fabric for dogs because their fur tends to stick into the latter.
The four-spoke steering wheel is handsome, with a big center hub and thick spokes at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock, smaller spokes at 5 and 7. Info center buttons are under your thumb on the big spokes. There are three big main instruments: speedometer in the center, tachometer on the right, fuel and temperature gauges on the left. They look good and are especially legible, with the digital information still visible in the sun because the three pods are thoughtfully shrouded. Chrysler does gauges right, and generally blows GM out of the water when it comes to handsome style and function. On the other hand, Dodge trails GM when it comes to materials quality. Like most Dodges, the Nitro's interior materials are largely plastic and don't impart the feel of luxury or quality. A few more soft-touch surfaces would be nice.
There's good front-seat legroom, and it feels like there's even more because the dashboard is narrow. The dash also has an insert over the center stack, about 6 by 9 inches with grippy rubber at the bottom, and it's perfect for, well, things. The glovebox is the full width of the passenger side.
Rearview visibility is very good, with just windows back there, no attempt at swoopy styling with excess sheetmetal. And again, because the front fenders have no rise or real shape, it's easy to see the front corners of the vehicle, making parking a relief compared to many vehicles this size.
The square theme continues with the center stack and the audio and climate controls. Everything is clean, easy to operate, and easy to understand. We especially like the inside door handles, an intelligent ergonomic design: They form a half loop, and you simply slip three or four fingers against the door inside the handle, fingers facing forward so there's no twist of the wrist, and pull.
Between the seats, along with the gearshift, transfer case, and emergency brake lever, there are two fixed cupholders and a small recess for change. There's a shallow tray in the top of the center console storage bin, and a deep compartment under that.
UConnect integrates the radio and navigation system and a 30-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures and the navigation information. You can rip CDs directly to the system and display your own digital pictures. It responds to voice commands and the navigation system has real-time traffic information. While the screen has a nice display, there's a separate Enter button, which can be annoying because intuition suggests pressing the toggle switch down. We hate the Enter button.
The rear seats are split 60/40 and easily fold flat and the front passenger seat folds totally flat, great for hauling long objects. The SE model has a reversible, washable vinyl rear load floor, while SLT and R/T models have the unique Load n Go system. With the liftgate raised, the carpeted rear cargo floor slides rearward 18 inches, out over the bumper, saving a loader's back. It can hold 400 pounds.
Under half of the cargo floor there's a four-inch-deep compartment that can store things such as jumper cables and tools, or hide a laptop. All told, with the second-row seats folded flat, there is 75.6 feet of cargo space. That's about 10 cubic feet less than a Ford Explorer, 20 cubic feet less than a Toyota Highlander, and more than 40 cubic feet less than a Chevy Traverse. Despite its looks, the Nitro is on the small side of the midsize SUV class.
For the past couple of years, Dodge has been working hard on making their SUVs quiet, and the Nitro succeeds. The 3.7-liter engine is rather harsh-sounding, but the Nitro's sound-deadening material muffles it well.
The air conditioning might be fine on a normal hot day, but it seemed marginal for searing conditions. We drove from San Diego to Palm Springs on a September day, and when we got there it was 104 degrees. The AC was going full blast, and it wasn't doing the job. The fan was blowing strong, but the air coming out of the vents wasn't cold enough to cool the cabin.