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Avg. Price Paid:$9,997 - $12,537
Original MSRP: $20,320 - $25,320
MPG: 18 City / 24 Hwy
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2008 Dodge Nitro Performance

This performance review was written when the 2008 Dodge Nitro was new.

Most reviewers feel the 2008 Dodge Nitro suffers from a rough ride and handling compared with its smoother-riding crossover competitors. Edmunds sums up the attitude of most auto writers by noting, "Looks will be the Nitro's primary selling point because it isn't the best driving vehicle in the segment."

On the plus side, reviewers find that the Nitro's two available V6 engines offer plenty of power. But the engines can't make up for the Nitro's real problem -- its handling disappointed nearly every reviewer who got behind the wheel. "Its suspension, especially its front suspension, is underdamped, which allows excessive body motion over bumps and freeway undulations," complains Edmunds. "Its steering is slow and doesn't offer much feedback."

The Nitro is practically a clone of another Daimler-Chrysler product, and most of its flaws are carried over from its corporate cousin. "Don't be fooled: you're looking at little more than a re-skinned Jeep Liberty," says Automobile Magazine. Likewise, Edmunds says, "It's fairly obvious from behind the wheel that the Nitro, fundamentally, is a Jeep -- so it's logical that it's not a sharp-steering, precise-responding machine."

Despite its Jeep roots, the Nitro is not an off-road vehicle. Though it can be equipped to tow a class-leading 5,000 pounds, the Detroit News notes that "it features car-type unitized construction and is not offered with a two-speed transfer case, which is critical for serious off-roading." Plus, the Nitro has enough trouble just handling rough roads, where "hitting a bump or dip in the road results in an exaggerated response from the suspension that can toss occupants around in their seats," according to Cars.com. Buyers should make no mistake. They are buying a tough-looking SUV, not a tough-acting one.

With a selection of V6 engines that are powerful for this class, "the five-seat Nitro is a blast to drive in a straight line," says Cars.com, "but it suffers from trucklike ride and handling that has no place in an SUV designed for onroad performance."

Acceleration and Power

In a class where four cylinders is the rule and a V6 is usually a costly upgrade, the Nitro offers two V6 engines and a variety of drivetrain configurations. The base and SLT models feature what Car and Driver calls "an adequate, if uninspiring" 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower engine, while the R/T gets a 4.0-liter, 260-horsepower engine. Despite the size of the base engine, its 210 horsepower is nearly identical to the output of the much smaller engines found in many competitors' SUVs. "It feels raspy at anything over 3500 rpm," notes AutoWeek. SXT models mate the 3.7-liter engine with a six-speed manual transmission. SLT models combine the same engine with a four-speed automatic, which is optional on the SXT. Reviewers are unimpressed with this automatic, with Automobile Magazine finding it "rough and clumsy."

Most reviewers find the 4.0-liter V6 much more satisfying than the 3.7-liter. "Only when equipped with the 4.0-liter engine does the 2007 Dodge Nitro feel truly quick," says Edmunds. "On numbers alone, it holds its own in acceleration testing." In tests, the Nitro hit 60 miles per hour in 7.7 seconds -- "quicker than the last Mazda CX-7 we tested, but not quite as quick as Toyota's RAV4," Edmunds notes. The engine comes paired with a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shifting capability that reviewers prefer over the other transmission options. Automobile Magazine says it "shifts nicely."

Fuel efficiency is not one of the Nitro's strong suits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the 2WD base engine with manual transmission is rated for 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 in highway driving. The 4.0-liter engine with the automatic transmission gets 16 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway -- both surprisingly poor numbers for this class.

Handling and Braking

Reviewers largely find the handling dynamics of the 2008 Dodge Nitro to be disappointing. Common complaints include slow, unresponsive steering and a suspension that struggles to keep riders comfortable over bumpy roads. "Steering feel, especially with the available twenty-inch chrome wheels, grows awfully numb at speed," complains Automobile Magazine. Explains Cars.com: "The rack-and-pinion power steering system provides too much assist for my taste when traveling at highway speeds. The light effort is appreciated around town, though." Edmunds says that "handling around corners is unimpressive for a small SUV, as even the sporty R/T model exhibits slow steering and significant body roll." Maneuverability, however, is in the SUV's favor: "The compact exterior dimensions of the Nitro -- it's shorter than a Chevrolet Cobalt sedan -- makes this SUV relatively easy to park," says the Detroit News.

SXT models ride on 16-inch tires with a sport-tuned suspension, while SLT models package the same suspension with 17-inch tires. This suspension package is not well-liked by reviewers. "Soft suspension damping allows too much body motion over bumps," says Edmunds. R/T models ride on a performance-tuned suspension with firmer springs and larger tires, but still perform no better in reviewers' eyes. "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," comments the Washington Post. "Ditto the SUV's sports suspension, which seemed to take a timeout on streets and highways with imperfect surfaces."

The Nitro's standard anti-lock brakes perform well in testing, but are still cited as a drawback by many auto writers. "The brakes stop the Nitro without incident and are fairly linear, but the pedal itself has an uninspiring, spongy feel," explains Cars.com. Edmunds agrees, saying, "The brake pedal has a long travel and a somewhat vague feel (typical of a trucklike vehicle), but stopping distances are convincingly short -- that same Nitro R/T tester stopped in 122 feet from 60 mph."

Four-Wheel Drive

The Nitro is available in rear- or four-wheel drive. A part-time four-wheel-drive system is standard on 4x4 models with manual transmissions, while a full-time four-wheel-drive system is included on 4x4 models with automatic transmissions. "The part-time system should only be engaged when driving on slippery surfaces (RWD is used under normal driving conditions), but the full-time system includes a center differential and operates without driver intervention," reports Cars.com. Buyers should note that the systems include no low-range gearing for off-road use, so those looking for an all-terrain vehicle should look elsewhere.

Towing

Properly equipped, the Nitro can tow a best-in-class 5,000 pounds. A Trailer Tow Group is an available option, which includes heavy-duty cooling systems for the engine and steering, a class III hitch and full-size spare. New for 2008 is optional Trailer Sway Control, which reduced trailer sway and improves handling in poor towing conditions caused by crosswinds or traffic.

Review Last Updated: 2/17/09

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