I didn’t want this any more than you did, but it’s time for us to face our demons. Despite the Dodge Nitro having aesthetics on par with Lord Voldemort’s, we need to stop referring to it as “That which must not be named,” and just be open about where we failed as a species.
The Dodge Nitro is another recession-era Chrysler product, much like the diabolical first-gen Jeep Compass that my therapist told me to stop talking about. And though I’ve done well in the past few weeks, managing a new personal record of only three daily Compass-related “incidents,” I’ve now got a new nemesis haunting my fragile mind, and that’s a picture of it up top.
The Nitro had the same problem lots of Chrysler products had in 2007: terrible interior quality, an underwhelming powertrain, and styling that makes that “look back” owners do when walking away from their new cars a painful event every damn time.
Under the hood was a 3.7-liter V6 that made 210 horsepower, which, especially when mated to a “What Is This, 1970?” four-speed auto isn’t enough to get this two-ton monster out of its own way.
To be fair, that 3.7-liter could be mated to the same excellent six-speed manual that’s found in the Jeep Wrangler. Plus, if you were feeling like a big baller, you could get the R/T model, which made 260 horsepower and could get the 4,100 pound box to 60 in about seven seconds. But not too many people bought those, so what you mostly see on the streets are the weak-sauce 3.7-liter, four-speed models desperately wheezing their ways down the freeway against that huge slug of air fighting with the upright, boxy profile.
Take to YouTube and watch the Nitro’s commercials, and you’ll see Chrysler struggling to come up with something to advertise on a vehicle whose only positive attribute was that it was a mid-size SUV in a 2006 American market that just couldn’t get enough of the things.
Well, actually there was that “Load ’N Go” sliding tray in the cargo area (see the picture above), and then there was the fact that apparently you could blow up sedans by jump-starting them:
The Nitro was built in Toledo on the same bones as the Jeep Liberty KK, the spiritual successor to the off-road brute, the Jeep Cherokee XJ. While the KK, too, was a fairly ho-hum, heavy, poor-handling vehicle, it at least had low range and fascias that gave it legitimate off-road chops. So there was at least one place where the Liberty performed well.
The Dodge, despite actually entering the market before the KK, felt like an afterthought: a way to sell more cars by slapping “sportier,” more “macho” looks on the big Box On Wheels Liberty platform.
Speaking of wheels, the Nitro could be had with enormous 20-inchers, and the arches surrounding them were enormous, almost VW Beetle-esque, but more “muscular.” All of this, of course, was meant to give the Nitro a “tough” look (remember, this was Dodge’s “That Thing Got A HEMI?” era), as was that big chrome crosshair billet grille and the gaudy fake air vent.
So in the end the Nitro was a lethargic, hideous car with “meh” fuel economy, terrible interior quality, very few off-road skills, very few on-road skills, and, frankly, very few skills in general. But the public, at least initially, didn’t mind the looks, and in the first full year on sale, Dodge managed to move over 70,000 of the things.
But sales dropped quickly thereafter to only about 20,000 to 30,000 cars a year, and now the Nitro is remembered as another one of DaimlerChrysler’s ugly mistakes.
But we shouldn’t be too ashamed of the Nitro. It was at least different in the styling department, even if perhaps that uniqueness made it hideous in some people’s eyes. Conservative styling would have been the easy way to design a mid-size SUV, but Dodge swung for the fences with something a bit “out there,” and you could even argue that it worked for a bit, early on. Sadly, that wasn’t enough, and—primarily because of its styling, which hasn’t aged well—the Nitro will go down as a dark part of America’s rich automotive timeline.