2008 Dodge Nitro SXT Review

By Kevin Miller


I travel a lot for work. Nearly every week I rent a car, usually from Avis at an airport rental location. I’ve become an Avis First member, one of their preferred frequent renters who receives vehicle upgrades when they are available. So even though I always reserve a midsized sedan, I often receive an “upgraded” vehicle. Lately the upgrades have been to SUVs, which haven’t been very exciting rides. In the past two months I’ve driven a Suzuki XL7, Mercury Mountaineer, Toyota RAV4 FWD, and (2007) Jeep Liberty, in addition to several mid-sized sedans. Of the SUVs, the Suzuki was my favorite because of its car-like ride and comfortable interior. The Liberty was my least favorite because of its terrible ride and cheap plastic interior. As a “car guy”, I like having the opportunity to dive different vehicles on rentals, though the rental cars typically aren’t very exciting.

Last week I found myself renting a car to make a 250 mile drive from Madison, Wisconsin, to Minneapolis. When the rental agent handed me the keys to a Dodge Nitro, I pictured a Dodge Caliber in my head; the Nitro is not a vehicle that was even on my radar. I was surprised when I got out to the Nitro, as I’ve seen very few on the streets. New for 2007, the Nitro is a mid-sized 5-passenger SUV available in rear-wheel or all-wheel drive. Mine was a silver Nitro SXT all-wheel drive version with black cladding, a very nice satellite radio, but few other frills.

The headlights, grille, and body-side vents in the front fender create a unique and distinctive look. The “face” of the Nitro looks like nothing else on the road, and in fact each my colleagues and friends who rode with me asked me what type of car it was, telling me that it was really nice for a rental car. That demonstrates both the fact that it caught the eye of each of those people, and that people aren’t seeing other Nitros on the road. One associate said that the vents on the body side reminded him of a Land Rover LR3. That may be a bit of a stretch.

Aside from the eye-catching front end sheet metal and brightwork, the Nitro is very visibly a badge-engineered cousin to the Jeep Liberty. A quick review of the two vehicles’ specifications shows that they share a power train, though they do have different wheelbases. The narrowed front sheet metal with black plastic fender flares betray its relationship to the Liberty, as do its very vertical sides.

The first thing you touch on any vehicle when you’re getting in to take a drive is the door handle. That first touch is a not a pleasant interaction with the Nitro. In common with the handles on the redesigned-for-2008 Liberty, it has an awkward round pushbutton on its rearmost edge, with a semi-circular button guard on its rear half. The handle assembly and its pushbutton feel cheap when they are grasped and actuated, and the button’s shape and location relative to the handle make it awkward to use when one’s hand isn’t empty.

Climbing in to the Nitro, I found seats upholstered in black fabric with gray inserts, and a center stack and console that is shared with the Jeep Liberty. The instrument cluster and dashboard are unique to the Dodge, as are the interior door skins, though those door skins do remind me of the ones in the pre-2008 Liberty, with their semi-circular interior handles. Unfortunately the Nitro SXT I rented didn’t have audio controls on the steering wheel, and it was such a long reach to the audio controls on the dash that I had to lean foward every time I wanted to change stations on the Sirius-enabled unit.

Having established its relationship to the Liberty, it is worth noting that the Nitro handles much better. While the ride is not what I would consider car-like, the handling of the Nitro is much more stable and settled, both at speed and around town than the handling of the 2007 Liberty I drove recently, which bounced unpleasantly around Orange County’s suburban sprawl like a mid-‘80s Cherokee.

The Nitro’s boxy profile made it susceptible to cross-winds on I-94 through rural Wisconsin at 75 MPH. Without the wind, the Nitro exhibited good directional stability and pretty good turn-in response around town for an SUV. The steering wasn’t particularly quick, but the turning radius was good enough to maneuver the Nitro in to tight parking spots.

The Nitro has a console-mounted switch for selecting 2-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, and a four-speed automatic transmission with D, 2, and L positions. I was unable to find a way to select/hold third gear in the Nitro, and Avis didn’t provide me an owner’s manual so I wasn’t able to look up whether that feature is available.

While the Nitro looks like a small car on the outside, probably because of the narrow sheet metal at its front end, it seems like a large car from the driver’s seat. The short greenhouse defined by narrow windows inhibits the view out when reversing and changing lanes.

The 210 HP, 3.7 liter SOHC V6 in my Nitro SXT, which is shared with the Liberty, provided plenty of power for the commuting and freeway driving I did. It has a distinct exhaust note at higher RPMs. Throttle response is quick such that it is difficult to pull away smoothly from a stop, instead I tended to roar quickly away from a stop and then let up on the throttle a bit, causing the car to initially pitch rearward and then lurch frontward. During the course of my three-day rental I didn’t get much smoother in my operation of the throttle.

The luggage compartment is accessed via a rear liftgate with fixed glass. While a liftgate is much more convenient to use than a side-hinged cargo door like the Toyota RAV4 uses, the Nitro has a large, high rear bumper, and the cargo floor is a few inches higher than the liftgate’s threshold over the bumper because of a built-up cargo floor which seems designed to allow a flat floor above the stowed spare tire. While the carpeted cargo floor cover is removable to access a flat storage bin beneath, and it can be flipped over and installed as a molded plastic tray for dirty items; however, it is not hinged and is awkward to handle.

A definite down-side to driving an SUV is that it consumes more fuel than a mid-sized sedan does. On my trip I drove 350 miles (200 of them at 75 MPH on cruise control), and used 18 gallons of regular unleaded, for an observed fuel economy of 19.4 MPG, compared to the 2007 EPA rating of 17/23 MPG.

In a crowded field of mid-sized SUVs, the Nitro stands out with its unique front end appearance, but it doesn’t otherwise distinguish itself as a significantly better vehicle, which may be why I haven’t seen more Nitros on the road. Because my colleagues all commented on the car’s appearance and asked what type it is, I would say the Nitro can definitely attract attention, but perhaps that alone isn’t enough to attract buyers willing to spend their money on one. Of course, if becomes reality, the Nitro will likely be phased out because only Jeep will be selling SUVs, and they already have the nearly-identical Liberty to sell.

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Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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  1. My brother has a new Nitro which I’ve driven a couple of times since he just moved, and I was drafted to help him move. I like it. In fact, I’m thinking about getting one myself I like it so much. As far as looks I think it looks better than anything in it’s price range.

  2. But the inside looks so low-end. It just basically says “sorry your life didn’t turn out better”. I’d buy one if I needed a 4WD for a place in the mountains or a place at the beach, but since I only have enough money and space for one vehicle at this point, I’d pick something else.

  3. I think it’s much better styled than the Liberty. But it’s not like either one is the bomb, you know?

  4. Inside, the Dodge Nitro is a plastic pig. It could have been so much better with such a small amount of money.

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