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The Dodge Nitro SUV goes on sale in June

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Posted: 04/12/07 02:58 PM

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Dodge muscles in with two big, bad brutes
5:00AM Saturday April 14, 2007
By Jacqui Madelin

The Nitro SUV goes on sale in June. It's easy to drive and there are enough thoughtful touches to please.

The Nitro SUV goes on sale in June. It's easy to drive and there are enough thoughtful touches to please.

Forget the stylish but lightweight Dodge Caliber - two bigger, badder Dodge cars are due to be launched in New Zealand. The Nitro SUV goes on sale in June, and the Avenger a month later.

While it's easy to assume the Avenger will be the bigger seller - after all, it's a mainstream, mid-sized sedan - my bet is Nitro will be the greater hit.

That opinion is not based on the fact the Nitro is an SUV, and our love affair with the behemoths continues, but because in many ways it's the more complete car.

The Avenger certainly looks the part. That swaggering face, those muscular guards, the beautifully executed crease over those rear haunches; it's pure aggression. But the macho promise doesn't follow through to the engines.

At its Spanish launch four powerplants were on offer, a 2-litre and 2.4-litre four; a 2.7-litre six; and a 103kW, 310Nm 2-litre turbo diesel.

No word as yet on which we'll get, but the diesel is desirable - if a tad coarse in action - while the 2.7-litre six is a must.

It produces 138kW at 6500rpm and 256Nm at 4000rpm, and proved smooth and flexible enough on the demanding country roads we traversed, and capable of a bit of boogie for overtaking - though it doesn't deliver the tarmac-tearing terror the looks suggest. We weren't able to try the 125kW, 220Nm 2.4-litre at launch, while the 2-litre is unlikely to come to New Zealand.

Standard features are good, with ABS, ESP and traction control universal, as well as six airbags and a tyre-pressure monitoring system.

Dodge is keen to promote the car's thoughtful touches - the 438-litre boot; the double glovebox with its chilled four-can drink holder; its heated or chilled cup holder; its iPod connecter; its 20-gigabyte capacity that'll hold 1600 songs and the USB port to download a photo to the screen; the stain-resistant fabric for the seats; and so on.

But the car's interior doesn't stand up well to close scrutiny. The plastics look and feel cheap; while fit and finish for these press cars was the worst I've seen for a long time.

Which was a shame, because the interior's lines were handsome, those details really are rather nice, the engine was smooth and well matched to the four-speed auto gearbox, and the ride was very good.

This isn't a sports car, but roll was admirably controlled, understeer progressive and well telegraphed, and the car absorbed the worst a Spanish country road could throw at it.

It's a bit noisy over the rough stuff, but smooth and noisy is always preferable to quiet and lumpy. You could drive from Auckland to Wellington and back in complete comfort.

All this assumes we get the right tyres for our coarse chip seal. Detroit-based product manager Bill Valasco says tyres are a hot issue. "No tyre on a car in the US will ever be sold outside the States, because if there's a tyre failure they recall every tyre."

The interior quality is this car's Achilles heel. Valasco admits there's a problem - and that Dodge is working on it.

Whether that poor cabin quality will annoy will depend on price - and it'll have to undercut the Mazda 6 and Peugeot 407 cited as European competitors.

It'll need a tag that'll have you appreciating the car's good qualities, and overlooking those dropped balls.

You'll still have to like the looks, and forgive the lack of a truly gutsy engine. The Nitro doesn't have as much of a problem in this regard. It's big, it's beefy - it's almost a caricature of a muscular SUV - and it's got enough grunt.

It has been launched in Europe with three powerplants - a 191kW, 360Nm 4-litre V6 topping the range; a 3.7-litre V6 with 151kW and 314Nm of torque; and a 2.8-litre common rail diesel, with 130kW and 460Nm.

We won't get the 4-litre, but we should see the other two. Both work well, punting the big body along with ease.

The petrol gets a four-speed auto transmission, with a six-speed manual or five-speed auto for the diesel.

Both autos work well, with the manual's sixth a cruise-mode, using fifth for easy overtaking. This diesel sounds a tad coarse when working hard, but that rumble suits the Nitro's larger-than-life persona.

This isn't a hard-core off-roader despite its looks, and its relationship to Jeep. It's a soft-roader with a part-time 4WD system to suit. Driving only the rear wheels most of the time - for better fuel economy - it can be switched to four at any speed, splitting torque 50-50 front to rear.

It'll tackle light off-road tracks, such as lake and ski access roads, and dispatched our hill course with ease, but isn't designed to do much more. What it is designed to do is to take the active family anywhere, hence the 3500kg braked trailer capacity.

Given the Nitro's blunt-fist design, and those huge mirrors, we expected a fair amount of wind buffet but there's very little.

Where Avenger feels as if the different design and build departments weren't working to the same set of standards, look and feel is far better matched for the SUV, and so Nitro feels more cohesive.

Shame it doesn't get some of Avenger's final details, then - like the chilled cupholders. It does get a slide-out boot floor, which offsets the boot height by easing loading (and revealing a hidden cubby for valuables).

Yep, there's ABS, ESP, traction control and electronic rollover mitigation, plus four airbags and a tyre-pressure monitoring system.

The Avenger looks like a muscle car, sounds as if it should be a muscle car - but it isn't.

It's a comfy mile-eater, a relaxing drive, but it's not a muscle machine, and a poor choice of materials, plus shoddy fit and finish, will spoil the ownership experience for many, despite the clever touches.

The Nitro, in comparison, makes no promises it can't fulfil. Sure, we're unlikely to get the big, bad 4-litre petrol version, but that diesel's 460Nm of torque will more than make amends.

Nitro is easy to drive, easy to use, capable of about as much as most people expect to use from an SUV, if not as much as the looks suggest - and there are enough thoughtful touches to please.

Will it sell? That still depends on price. You might pay over the odds for a Nitro, because you like its macho appeal. But that won't work for Avenger, and Dodge's parent company Chrysler must be negotiating hard as the countdown to the New Zealand launch begins.


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