With the demise of Hummer, Dodge Nitro could be the highwayís new macho man, especially with the revised model lineup that hit showrooms for the 2010 model year.
But while the Nitro sits high enough and can be had with four-wheel drive to plow through some back roads, it is built as a crossover with single-unit construction rather than the tougher body-on-frame set up of true off-roaders.
That said, Nitro lacks the carlike ride and handling of crossovers such as Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. It also will tow a hefty 5,000 pounds.
And if the design wasnít enough to make the Nitroís personality clear, Dodge renamed its models Heat, Detonator and Shock, the latter two complete with racing stripes.
Kin to the Jeep Liberty, Nitro has seating for up to five with lots of storage room in back. Iíd give it a B for comfort and C for legroom, up front or in back, but then it doesnít get high marks for much in the way of passenger comfort.
Seats are flat but somewhat soft, helping to offset the rideís bouncy nature. Rear seats split 65/35 to expand cargo room and can be reclined. The cargo floor flips over to reveal a plastic surface with handy storage bins.
There are two power choices. The Heat comes with a 3.7-liter V-6 engine rated at 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. Thatís matched to a four-speed automatic transmission. Detonator and Shock crank things with a 4.0-liter V-6 rated at 260 horsepower and 265 pound-feet. The transmission upgrades to a five-speed auto. New for 2011 is a Heat 4.0 Lifestyle package, which combines the larger engine, along with a phone link and eight-speaker sound system.
While the larger engine has some spunk, the 3.7 requires you to tromp of the gas at times to make a quick maneuver and complains with a roar.
Neither plant is particularly thrifty at the gas pump for the 4,000-pound Nitro. Mileage tops out at 22 on the highway for the smaller engine. Consider that the RAV4 and Honda CR-V boast up to 28 miles per gallon.
All models come with big 20-inch wheels that match the macho look. That image extends to the interior with big geometric shapes. Some of those controls look and feel kind of cheap, made from hard plastic materials, and the radio display is too small and low for easy viewing.
Heat models start at $22,995 for the new model, up from $22,540 for 2010. Thatís comparable to the Honda and Toyota, and includes a nice lineup of standards (absent cruise control): fog lamps, power heated side mirrors, air conditioning, sound system with satellite and MP3 hookups, and CD player, power windows, tire-pressure monitor, and remote locking.
Antilock brakes, stability and traction control, tire-pressure warning, side airbag curtains make for a decent safety package along with top crash test scores.
Navigation, parking sensors and a hard-drive system for music storage are among extras.
Personally, Iím not a big fan of the Nitro. Itís just too rough for me without the return of true off-road prowess like Toyota 4-Runner or FJ Cruiser. But todayís car market is all about choices, and I like the fact that Dodge didnít just jump on the bandwagon with all the me-too crossovers.
* Compact sport utility
* Base price: $22,995
* Mpg range: 15/21 to 16/22
* National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 5 of 5 stars for front impact, 5 for side impact, 3 for rollover resistance; Home | Safercar -- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
* Web site: Official Dodge Site - New Autos, Trucks, Minivans, SUVs, Cars, Wagons
* Competitors: Jeep Liberty, Honda CR-V and Element, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan
* Bottom line: Macho looks match its rugged take on typically more civilized crossovers