Forget about the Chinese invasion of cheap and (hopefully) cheerful light commercials and focus for a moment on the big and brash offerings from the US of A – heavyweights like the Hummer H3 and now, the Dodge Nitro
In a day and age when aerodynamics are a key feature of vehicle design, the new (in SA) Dodge Nitro looks like something of an anachronism, but it isn’t about to apologise for that – or anything else for that matter.
With the biggest wheelarches ever seen on a soft-roader, a tall and upright body with bevelled edges and a vertical grille with a “cross-hair” grille at the centre of which is the Dodge ram’s head symbol, the Nitro is one of a kind. It is, to quote the brand’s advertising pay-off line, meant to take life by the horns.
Adding to the macho demeanour are a low-slung stance which is almost anti-SUV, a high beltline resulting in narrow windows and 17-inch wheels with 65-profile rubber for SXT versions.
Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★
This test is of the two-pedal 2,8-litre common-rail turbo-diesel. Adding to the base price of R349 900 for the SXT are leather (R10 000) and Electric Blue metallic paint (R1 200) for an “as-tested” outlay of R361 100.
The CRD oilburner gets a boost to produce 130 kW and a hairy-chested 460 Nm in automatic guise, which is 50 Nm more than you’ll have to work with if you choose the six-speed manual. Either way, it should mean, er, explosive performance.
The Nitro shares its basic underpinnings with a Jeep Cherokee (albeit stretched between the wheels) which means it should – in theory – make a decent fist of being a part-time 4×4.
However, it gets a rather less sophisticated all-wheel-drive system which, at the flick of a switch, sends torque to the front axle and simultaneously locks the distribution in a 50:50 ratio. It is not able to distribute drive automatically to the axle that can use it best.
The Nitro comes fitted with an advanced stability program that includes “electronic roll mitigation” – designed to reduce the chance of a rollover accident. Passive safety kit is also generous, with front, side and curtain airbags, “Latch” (the American equivalent of Isofix) child seat mounting points, pre-tensioning front seatbelts and a tyre pressure monitoring system all fitted.
★ ★ ★
The Nitro has some fundamental design issues that affect how easy it is to get into the driver’s seat and once seated, how easy it is to get comfortable.
One problem is a footwell compromised by the wide transmission tunnel. Another is a driving position which, despite electric adjustment for the seat, taller drivers found difficult to tailor perfectly.
The steering column adjusts only for height, which means moving the seat backwards and stretching out is not an option because the wheel is then too far away…
There’s a unique and appealing initial ambience and the overall effect is modern and sporty. However, those with more Eurocentric taste may be disappointed to find little in the way of soft-touch plastics and while there’s some texturing of materials, the effect is fashionable rather than cosseting. And if plastic could sound tinny, that’s how the Nitro’s glovebox would sound when slammed shut.
But it certainly isn’t all bad news. Features like a lock/unlock control on both front doors, appealing and highly-legible instruments with a driving computer display inset in the fuel/temperature pod and user-friendly steering wheel satellite controls are all welcome, as are the chunky and finger-friendly air-con/ventilation controls.
Between the seats is a deep storage compartment, the lower reaches accessed by removing a plastic tray with built in coin-holders. The handbrake, though light of action, is placed on the far side of the centre console, pointing to the Nitro’s left-hand- drive design.
The rear is extremely roomy with excellent head and legroom, and the backrest can be reclined for added comfort. However, the split seat – which felt slightly over-stuffed – is too low, and taller passengers must therefore adopt a knees-up position.
The seats fold forward 65:35 and collapse flat against the floor to provide excellent utility volume which is all useable thanks to the brick-like shape. We thought the Load ‘n Go system – a shelf which slides out from the luggage compartment to allow for easier loading – was a little gimmicky considering the Nitro’s short boot, and the retractable luggage cover of indifferent quality.
★ ★ ★
Fire up the big four-pot and there’s a fair amount of combustion noise and a little bit of vibration, but most of it soon disappears. There’s always a hint of coarseness to its nature though, but with the beefy delivery we’re prepared to live with it.
And with five ratios the motor is easily kept within shouting distance of the torque platform, which starts at about 1800 r/min and reaches its maximum at 2000.
That said, the box can sometimes be a little slow to react and even when using the left-right (as opposed to fore/aft) sequential mode, the considerable time lag between moving the lever and the gear-change being executed can make it easy to hit the 4500 r/min limiter.
Stopping performance is handled by a mix of ventilated and solid discs, aided by ABS and brake assist. While there is little fade even in harsh usage, they are ultimately indifferent in hauling the Nitro’s two-ton bulk back to standstill – an occurrence that is accompanied by a fairly dramatic amount of nose-dive.
Ride and handling
★ ★ ★
There’s nothing fancy about the Nitro’s suspension and (like the Cherokee) it uses a live axle at the back located by trailing arms at a Panhard rod.
This set-up definitely counts against it when it comes to rough road ride comfort. There is a tendency for the rear to hop and skip prematurely when bumps are encountered, and for the noise to reach the cabin.
The front is wishbone and coils, and the soft settings contribute to a freeway ride that is limo-like. But handling is of the jelly and custard variety as a result: turn into a corner enthusiastically and the car rolls onto the outside front wheel, accompanied by a great dollop of understeer. The rack-and-pinion steering is lifeless and accentuates the sensation of being one step behind events.
Keep the power on and the overly-aggressive ESP comes into play – or rather totally kills any chance of play. Fortunately, it can be overridden – something which would invariably be done before venturing off the tarmac.
But don’t think of this as a Freelander rival. In fact, its off-road ability is so severely curtailed by the low-slung front valance, ground-hugging side sills and long wheelbase as to be almost nonexistent. In fact, after just a couple of obstacles on our low-impact 4×4 track at Gerotek, we turned back rather than face the prospect of doing permanent damage.
★ ★ ★
This is a heart rather than a head purchase and we doubt too much rational thought will go into it (despite the fact that it’s a 350K decision) and – like the Hummer tested in the previous issue – it will find willing buyers simply because it is unique.
There is actually a lot to like about it, however, and apart from looks that are clearly designed to mimic the physique of America’s WWE stars, in turbo-diesel guise it has an impressive drivetrain. The cabin is a bit of a mixed bag with most of the shortcomings merely idiosyncrasies rather than real flaws – depending on your point of view, of course.
The dynamics are unimpressive, though once again, if enthusiastic driving is not your bag, this is unlikely to matter much. What does matter is whether it gets you noticed. And yes, it will.