12/07/2010 Updated: 04/20/2010
What's New for 2011
For 2011, the Dodge Nitro gets a few new standard and optional features. Among the former are upgraded seat materials, deeply tinted glass and even (on the Detonator and Shock trims) racing stripes. There's also a newly available Heat 4.0 package, which includes the 4.0-liter V6 as well as an upgraded audio system and Bluetooth connectivity.
When you've got the nerve to call yourself Nitro, you'd best be able to back it up. Though it shares its model name with a star from American Gladiators -- that TV show of the 1990s -- the 2011 Dodge Nitro sadly doesn't have what it takes to beat down its rivals among compact/midsize crossovers. Sure, the macho Nitro looks the part with its muscled-up styling, and it can be had with a powerful V6. But when put to the test, it falls short in several key areas.
Underneath the buff bod, the Nitro shares its platform with the Jeep Liberty. The Dodge is tuned more for on-road use and also offers a larger available V6 engine, but otherwise it differs little under the skin. The upsides of this shared DNA are a rugged part-time four-wheel-drive system and a hefty towing capacity. But the downsides are likely more significant for consumers shopping this segment, as they include poor fuel mileage, an unwelcoming interior and unimpressive handling dynamics. Although cargo space is generous and the controls are simple to operate, the cabin's subpar materials and build quality can't hold a pugil stick to what's seen in rivals such as the GMC Terrain, Mazda CX-7 and Subaru Forester. Furthermore, the Nitro's backseat is located very low, which makes for easy ingress and egress but negates the comfort otherwise provided by the ample legroom and reclining seatback.
If the 2011 Dodge Nitro were to compete in the Eliminator obstacle course from American Gladiators, it would probably get caught up in the cargo net and fall off the spinning cylinder. The competition actually provides the sort of performance that the Nitro's styling promises. And should serious off-road prowess be your priority, other macho SUVs such as the Nissan Xterra and Toyota FJ Cruiser are worth serious consideration. Despite its name, the Nitro fails to blow us away in any significant way.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Dodge Nitro is a five-passenger SUV available in Heat, Detonator and Shock trim levels.
The Heat includes 20-inch chrome-clad wheels, foglamps, roof rails, deep tinted windows, keyless entry, full power accessories, heated mirrors, air-conditioning, a tilt steering wheel, a 60/40-split-folding and reclining rear seat and a six-speaker stereo with a CD player, satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack. The Popular Equipment Group adds cruise control, an outside-temperature gauge and a compass. A sunroof is a stand-alone option. There is also the available Heat 4.0 package that includes a bigger V6 engine, an upgraded nine-speaker audio system and Bluetooth connectivity.
The Detonator includes the stuff from the Popular Equipment Group and also has the more powerful engine, different 20-inch wheels, rear parking sensors, remote ignition, flashier exterior trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel (includes audio controls), a six-way power driver seat, an upgraded instrument panel, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth and a nine-speaker stereo (with a subwoofer and a six-CD/DVD changer). The Nitro Shock trim adds different 20-inch wheels, a sunroof, leather upholstery and heated seats.
The Media Center upgrade package adds to the Detonator and Shock trim levels navigation, real-time traffic, a touchscreen interface and digital music storage. There is a Towing package available on all trims.
Powertrains and Performance
The Dodge Nitro Heat comes with a 3.7-liter V6 engine that produces 210 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard. Rear-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are available, with the latter being a part-time system with high- and low-range gearing. EPA estimates are an underwhelming 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 16/20/17 with four-wheel drive. In performance testing, the virtually identical Jeep Liberty 4x4 went from zero to 60 mph in a lazy 9.5 seconds.
The Heat 4.0, Nitro Detonator and Shock come with a 4.0-liter V6 good for 260 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic is standard and, again, one may choose between rear- and four-wheel drive. EPA estimates are a similarly poor 16/21/18 with rear-wheel drive and 15/21/17 with 4WD. In performance testing, a rear-drive Nitro with the 4.0-liter engine went from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds while a 4x4 model hit the target speed in 8.2 seconds.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control and side curtain airbags. The stability control includes a trailer sway control feature. Rear parking sensors are standard on the Detonator and Shock.
The 2011 Dodge Nitro has not been rated using the government's new, more strenuous 2011 crash-testing procedures. Its 2010 ratings (which aren't comparable to new 2011 tests) were a top five-star rating in all frontal and side crash categories. Testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Nitro its top score of "Good" in the frontal-offset test and a second-worst "Marginal" in the side test.
In Edmunds brake testing, a Nitro with the optional 20-inch wheels came to a stop from 60 mph in 122 feet -- good performance for this type of vehicle.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, the Nitro has a somewhat industrial feel, though faux aluminum accents brighten the place up a bit. Materials quality is below average for this class, with several plastics standing out as unacceptably low-grade. An upright seating position provides a good view out the front, and liberal use of soft cushioning makes it easy to get comfortable. Legroom is ample for adults in the reclining backseat, though the bench is mounted too low for optimal comfort.
There are 32 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat, but the lift-over height is high for a compact/midsize SUV. With the rear seats folded, there are 65 cubic feet of cargo space available, about average for this class. The front passenger seat can also fold forward to aid in carrying long items.
With its aggressive styling and macho name, you'd think that the 2011 Dodge Nitro offered vigorous power and acceleration. Alas, even with the 4.0-liter V6, the Nitro is slower than a Toyota RAV4 V6. At highway speeds, the cabin is surprisingly quiet and the ride is comfortable for the most part, too. Handling has never been a Nitro strong suit compared to other small SUVs, and the steering is notably vague. Most competitors are better to drive and instill more confidence.