Jude Morte / Jude Morte | September 18, 2008 00:00
Ride loudly and carry a huge stickIn the urban jungle, the norm is to follow the status quo of conformity. Sticking out presents one's self as a showboat, and more often than not there will be many that are more than willing to take you down. But if you're the type that goes against the flow, the best way to attack the status quo (from an auto owners' viewpoint) is to drive a vehicle that calls attention to one's self in more ways than one, without rubbing bystanders and onlookers the wrong way.
The Dodge Nitro may be guilty on all counts.
Let's start with the exterior. The high beltline (with huge 20-inch wheels) and a wide stance covered by aggressive flares are hard to ignore, even if you're an SUV hater. The monochromatic rust orange paint on the test unit doesn't hurt either. And don't forget the fake vents on the Nitro's front-quarter panels, which are eerily similar to the vents on the Range Rover Sport.
But it takes more than jaw-dropping looks to compete. The Nitro answers the call, but for some reason doesn't go all out. The front seats are comfortable (read: soft) and provide an upright driving position, but feel a little bit like they're inflatable until you adjust to sitting on them rather than in them. Rear-seat legroom is sufficient for adults, while radio and aircon controls are all logically placed and easy to use via large knobs. Instrumentation is arranged logically in three binnacles, with the speedometer in the center, tachometer on the right and fuel and temperature gauges on the left. Other controls, specifically the hard-to-find hazard button (under the aircon controls) and the emergency brake handle, don't feel designed for human use. The latter is too thin; grabbing it is like grabbing a knife handle. Also, there are no aircon vents for the second row, something competitors in its price class (like the Ford Explorer) have in enjoyable abundance. The rest of the interior materials, especially the hard plastic on the dash and in the cargo area, is abundant and looks a little cheap. There are, however, plenty of small bins and storage areas.
Speaking of storage, its 60/40-split rear seat folds flat (as does the front passenger seat) providing great space for long items. The rear hatch is easy to reach, even for the vertically challenged. There's a sliding cargo tray (billed as Load ‘N Go) behind the rear seat that extends over the rear bumper and can accommodate 400 pounds. However, the tray is only semi-useful; its versatility could be greatly increased with the ability to slide out another 10 inches, even if means cutting its capacity in half.
The Nitro's lower powerband is narrow, making acceleration from standstill starts feel almost like an eternity. Then again, that's hardly surprising given the 1867 kg curb weight (and the additional unsprung weight of people and items) that the engine has to move. But when the Nitro has momentum it can go mighty fast, going up to 200 kph. The bad news? Hauling all that mass puts a strain on fuel consumption (6.41 km/l, four days mixed driving), and the four-speed a/t has a tendency to upshift too early, which affects emergency lane change movement. Oh, and given the 20-inch rims, you might as well use the SUV's 4x4 ability on hard earth, not muddy terrain.
Given the looks of the unit, handling isn't a strong point. True enough, its front suspension is underdamped, which allows excessive body motion over bumps and freeway undulations. It may be good for many an American freeway, but for the near off-road conditions of Metro Manila tarmac the damping is cause for concern. Also, its steering is slow and doesn't offer much feedback. At least the P 1.98 million Nitro's aggressive stability control system reins hard cornering heavily, holding traction from the Goodyear Eagle RS-A P245/50R20s up to 83-85 kph.
Much like its handling aspect, safety is also middling. Brake grip is strong, but handbrake grip is very weak. You have to pull up the latter close to 45 degrees to get decent bite. There are parking sensors at the rear but none in front, and with the small side mirrors (which only fill up to the first lane of lateral sight on either side), parallel parking can be tricky. The low roofline and chunky c-pillars also create blind spots at the rear.
The Dodge Nitro may be lacking in certain areas, but it certainly isn't on the short end of garnering attention to itself and its occupants. Just like Yosemite Sam in Bugs Bunny Throughout History (where in one segment he plays the presidential rival of Bugs Bunny's Theodore Roosevelt), the Nitro speaks loudly. And carries a much bigger stick than competitors to drum up interest.