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The new Dodge Nitro is only the latest work of a company famous for producing 4x4s, but it will still take its place in the firm's history books. It's the firm's first ever mid-size SUV, and the first Dodge SUV of any size destined for beyond the borders of the USA and Canada.

It's not entirely a clean-sheet design, but a distant relative of the current Jeep Liberty. However the Nitro has grown in some essential ways-it's longer than the current Liberty, for example-in which the new Liberty will also grow when it's revamped after the 2007 model year. The next Liberty will get a low-range ratio and a tougher suspension befitting its badge, but this Nitro is designed more for the on-road SUV crowd.

The Nitro goes on sale in the U.S. later this year. As the Liberty is, the Nitro is aimed at domestic offerings such as the Ford Escape, Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe.

Looks about right

Three models make up the range. The SXT is the base vehicle and comes with a six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission and a 210-hp V-6. The SLT adds trim but only comes with the four-speed automatic. Rear-drive is standard, while four-wheel drive is optional on these. The higher-performance R/T gets a 260-hp V-6 and a five-speed automatic, as well as standard four-wheel drive.

No matter which model, there's no mistaking the looks of the Nitro. It certainly has an appeal, and judging by its impact on our California test route it's unquestionably a head-turner.

For those seeking to stand out from the crowd, the Nitro is bold and different. An understated piece of automotive design this is not; the car's aggressive looks, big wheels, cross-shaped grille and slab flanks means it could be the Land Rover LR3 younger-and meaner-half-brother.

Growl like the wind

Buyers have a choice of two gasoline engines. The first is a 3.7-liter V-6, offering 210 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque, mated to a six-speed manual, or a four-speed or a five-speed automatic gearbox. Above it is a 4.0-liter V-6 with 260 hp and 265 lb-ft, linked to a five-speed automatic, found only on the R/T.

There are three different drive systems, including a basic 2WD (rear-wheel drive) car. Full-time 4WD is standard on the R/T, while the 3.7 gets a part-time 4WD setup that can be electronically controlled by a dashboard button.

We drove a base Nitro with the 3.7-liter V-6 and rear-wheel drive. On uneven surfaces the ride quality was acceptable when we were doing up to around 40 mph, but the damping lacked control the faster we went and we found ourselves bouncing up and down regularly. The steering was quite vague, and at speed if you turned the wheel up to about 45 degrees either side of straight ahead there was little change of direction. It meant we found ourselves constantly adjusting the wheel to keep the Nitro on line. That spoiled its ability to go smoothly through corners, which was a shame because the lateral body control, if we went fast enough into bends, was good.

The 3.7-liter Nitro isn't a car that responds well to being rushed or pushed. If you travel along with the traffic it's fine, but with no manual "AutoStick" option on the four-speed auto gearbox, you have to floor the throttle and wait for the kickdown to pass other vehicles. When it comes it's not very impressive; the V-6 gets very noisy and coarse, and doesn't provide the burst of acceleration you'd expect from an engine of this size.

There was also noticeable wind noise from the A-pillars and large door mirrors at freeway speeds. The brakes worked well, but if you took your right foot off the pedal too quickly there was a loud clunk as it sprung back up to the default position. It got quite irritating after a time.

Likeable cabin

In the cabin, there's much to like. It has a chunky, utilitarian feel, but in a modern way rather than an antiquated one. The central console is well laid out, with three big ventilation system knobs below an audio unit that's easy to use and has big buttons. The brushed aluminum surround looks right for the car.

There are two generous-sized cupholders near the parking brake, and the storage bin between the seats is one of the biggest we've ever seen. Helpfully it has a shallow tray that fits in the top to stop smaller items from getting lost inside. The glove box is near-vertical rather than horizontal but it's still a good size.

The rear is decent enough, with plenty of head and shoulder room for passengers, though sitting behind a six-footer will cause knee-space issues. Access to the trunk is via a one-piece lifting hatchback, and inside there's a new feature called Load 'N Go. It's a sliding floor than comes right out of the bumper so you don't have to lean in with heavy loads, and is designed to take up to 400 pounds. The full-sized spare is attached externally beneath.

There are things about the interior which aren't so clever. The front door bins are too narrow, shallow and short, the latter being because of the very large round audio speakers build into the trim. There's no central rear armrest, and just one map pocket on the back of the front seats. The steering wheel only adjusts for rake not reach, and there's no footrest for the driver's left foot. It also felt like the whole driving position was too high, and the electric driver's seat adjustment could have done with going an inch or two lower.

The entry level machine gets 16-inch steel rims, while the SLT gets 17-inch alloys and Yes Essentials premium seat fabric. The Load 'N Go floor is standard on that model, as well as the R/T, while 20-inch chrome wheels are available on the SLT and the R/T. Audio equipment includes MP3 playback, and the Nitro is Dodge's first vehicle to offer MyGIG, a touch-screen infotainment system with a 20-gigabyte hard drive to store music and photos.

The Nitro is a striking piece of design. But cars today have to have substance as well as style, and while it may have a leg up in fashion, in driveability it's got its work cut out to topple the likes of the Escape and Santa Fe.

2007 Dodge Nitro
Base price:
$17,500 (est. SXT)
Engine: 3.7-liter V-6, 213-hp/235 lb-ft; 4.0-liter V-6, 260 hp/265 lb-ft (R/T)
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual (SXT); four-speed automatic (SXT, SLT); five-speed automatic (R/T); rear- or four-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 178.9 x 73.1 x 69.9 in
Wheelbase: 108.8 in
Curb weight: 3931-4162 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 18/24 mpg (manual/210 hp); 17/21 mpg (automatic/210 hp)
Safety equipment: Anti-lock brakes, stability and traction control; dual front and curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning; roof rails; power locks/windows/mirrors; fold-flat front passenger seat; 60/40 split rear bench seat; AM/FM radio with CD/MP3; tire pressure monitors

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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