- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

Squeeze a Liberty, get a Nitro.

Getting the most out of a given basic design is one of the worst-kept secrets in the vehicle industry. Almost everybody does it and there’s no shame in it.

The idea is to save money and spread the appeal among buyers with varying tastes and needs. Among the premier practitioners is the Chrysler Division of DaimlerChrysler.

Its similar siblings include:

• Dodge Grand Caravan/ Chrysler Town and Country.

• Chrysler Aspen/Dodge Durango.

• Jeep Patriot/Jeep Compass/Dodge Caliber.

• Chrysler 300/ Dodge Magnum/Dodge Charger.

The subject here is the 2007 Dodge Nitro, which at heart is a Jeep Liberty. Despite that, it likely will appeal to a far broader range of buyers because of designed distinctions that make it a Dodge and not a Jeep.

The Nitro certainly looks different, with its big crosshair grille, broad stance and muscular styling cues all around, based on Dodge’s M80 Power Wagon concept vehicle of five years ago. One Dodge representative described it as “a little bit of badass with a touch of class.”

From a specifications standpoint, there’s little difference between the two except for the overall length and wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles). The Liberty is five inches shorter than the Nitro, with a wheelbase 4.5 inches shorter. That’s because Jeep owners take their vehicles off-road. Shorter works better out in the boondocks.

Moreover, the Dodge people are convinced that Liberty buyers have a completely different mind-set than the expected Nitro customers.

The two vehicles have almost the same passenger and cargo space. The Nitro has 103 cubic feet for passengers, about as much as a midsize sedan, and 32 cubic feet for cargo behind the rear seat. The Liberty has 104 and 31 cubic feet.

Dodge doesn’t even list the Liberty as a Nitro competitor. That likely has more to do with marketing than reality, but the Nitro’s target competitors are the Ford Escape, Chevrolet Equinox and Nissan Xterra. That’s an odd lineup because the Escape and Equinox are car-based sport utility vehicles, while the Xterra is a truck with off-road capabilities like the Liberty and Nitro.

But the argument is that most of the potential customers in the midsize SUV firmament do not make distinctions between car and truck underpinnings.

The Nitro comes in three models, each of which can be ordered with rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive. The two-wheel-drive SXT starts at $19,885, with the 4X4 model at $21,395. The two-wheel-drive SLT has a sticker of $23,295, with the 4X4 at $24,805. At the top of the line is the R/T, with a $25,970 sticker for two-wheel drive and $27,630 for the 4X4. With options, it’s not difficult to bump the R/T north of $30,000.

The tested SXT was anything but a stripper. Standard equipment included antilock brakes, electronic stability control with rollover mitigation, side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning, AM/FM/ CD/MP3 audio system, power folding outside mirrors, reclining rear seat, fold-flat front passenger seat, roof rack side rails and a reversible cargo floor.

With a few extras, the test SXT had a suggested price of $25,190. Options included a motorized sunroof, an audio system with a six-disc DVD changer, and a four-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard.

Both the SXT and SLT models are powered by a 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V-6 engine linked to either the six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The R/T comes with a five-speed automatic and a 260-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6.

The tested automatic SXT is a solid vehicle, with comfortable, heavily bolstered front seats upholstered in a durable cloth. It lacked a few amenities, including a dead pedal for the left foot, and grab handles for the front-seat passengers.

On the road, it handled decently, albeit requiring some steering corrections in straight-line driving, and the V-6 engine with the four-speed automatic transmission provided enough power to avoid any embarrassment in passing or accelerating from a stop sign. The downside was engine and tire noise that intruded into the passenger pod.

The top-line R/T model, with the 4.0-liter engine and five-speed automatic transmission, is noticeably quieter, as well as more nimble on the road because of a performance-oriented suspension system.

Some buyers attracted to the base SXT likely will opt for the upgraded SLT, which has two notable features. One is the YES Essentials cloth upholstery, which cleans up easily and amazingly resists almost any stain you can dump on it, including red wine. The other is the “Load ‘n’ Go” cargo floor, which slides out for ease of loading and tailgate partying.

The SLT also comes with 17-inch aluminum wheels, a six-way power driver’s seat, heated outside mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated outside mirrors and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with remote audio controls. It also offers options that include leather upholstery, Sirius satellite radio, a DVD-based navigation system and a rear-seat entertainment system.

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