A Tough-Guy Ride With Some Rough Edges

2007 Dodge Nitro R/T
2007 Dodge Nitro R/T (Daimlerchrysler Via Wieck Media)
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Driving is more fun than shoveling snow, which is why I choose to turn away from the precipitous miseries of this winter's storms and reflect on a somewhat happy time behind the wheel of the 2007 Dodge Nitro R/T mid-size sport-utility vehicle.

I expected to dislike the Nitro, a stylistic work of conspicuous masculinity, with its cross-haired grille and muscular angularity. It is the automotive version of an adolescent male who insists on wearing a moustache and beard, although they are nothing more than unglamorous stubble.

It's all part of a marketing plan by DaimlerChrysler, the owner of Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles.

The mid-size Dodge Nitro shares the same platform and is made on the same Ohio assembly line with the Jeep Liberty, a somewhat soft SUV primarily geared to women. Thus, looked at another way, the Nitro, especially the muscle-flexing R/T edition, is for boys. The Liberty in all of its iterations is for girls.

It is what we have come to in a world where marketers have dedicated themselves to exploiting every niche, real and imagined. And had the Nitro been nothing more than a commercial version of motorized testosterone, I would have disliked it immensely.

But it turns out that the thing actually has something approaching character. For one thing, it is the first Dodge product I've driven in years that was absolutely flawless in the things that count -- fit, finish, interior design and comfort, and overall utility.

On the latter point, I especially like the slide-out tray in the tested Nitro R/T's cargo bay. Using it relieves the strain of lifting heavy packages and wrestling them into place behind the rear seats. Simply pull the tray forward, lift your goods, put them on the tray, and shove it and your packages neatly into place. Bingo!

Equally clever is the integrated entertainment and information communications setup in the Nitro R/T, the Mygig Multimedia Infotainment System. It comes with onboard navigation, Sirius Satellite Radio (with the first year's subscription provided by Dodge), a 6.5-inch color display screen, and a USB port capable of downloading and storing 1,600 songs on a 20-gigabyte hard drive. It is the neatest, most useful infotainment system I've experienced in any car or truck at any price.

You could load up the system with blues or jazz and cruise, which is what I did for a couple of hundred miles of Miles Davis. For a moment, I was about to fall madly in love with the rear-wheel-drive version of the Nitro R/T under my command.

But life has roads rough and smooth; and the Nitro R/T, despite its self-consciously masculine design, was less than pleasing in the rough. Its big, 20-inch diameter wheels did nothing to soften the bumps of travel along less-than-perfect roads, and they did even less to help correct the Nitro R/T's sway-to-left-sway-to-right handling. Ditto the SUV's sports suspension, which seemed to take a timeout on streets and highways with imperfect surfaces.

I turned away from the bad roads and drove toward good pavement, which I found in abundance on westbound I-66 and southbound I-81. There, the fun began. The Nitro R/T is one of those compromise SUVs, designed more with a bias toward favorable ride and handling on smooth roads. It looks tough and rugged, but it is more Al Gore than Arnold Schwarzenegger, more station wagon than it is SUV, even with its welded body-to-frame construction.

The Nitro R/T felt good on smooth highways. It was impressive in curves. And in dense, hostile traffic, the evening rush-hour commutes that turn dream cruises into nightmares and fellow motorists into perpetrators, the Nitro R/T's more-masculine-than-thou looks finally served some purpose: Its menacing appearance kept nasty, rude drivers out of my space.

People assumed I was as mean as the SUV I was driving. I'm really a nice fellow. Heck, I clean house, shovel snow, and occasionally boil an egg or two -- never hurt anyone. But sometimes looking mean and having everyone think you are feels so good, so powerful, and so very right.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company