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CarGurus Expert ReviewThe Good
The 2011 Dodge Nitro offers an aggressively styled SUV at a reasonable price, with a comfortable ride, room for lots of cargo and the option to tow up to 5,000 pounds.The Bad
Despite its hulking, bulky exterior and smoldering, dark gray interior, the 2011 Nitro doesn’t quite deliver on its promise of machismo, with poor interior build quality, cheap hard plastics and disappointing handling, gas mileage and power under the hood.
The CarGurus View
The 2011 Dodge Nitro looks like it has been working out—with flared fenders, an aggressive stance and even the addition of some ink to the front hood and fenders of the upper-level trims. Despite its posturing, however, the Nitro is not without its weaknesses, with handling and power that fail to impress, mediocre fuel economy and interior materials that pale in comparison to competitors. What the Nitro can do, however, is deliver a comfortable ride in a spacious interior, with copious cargo room and impressive towing ability at a cost-conscious price.
At a Glance
Essentially a carryover from 2010, the 2011 Dodge Nitro does introduce a few new features to the lineup. This year’s model comes in several trim levels, returning last year’s Heat, Detonator and Shock, as well as introducing a Heat 4.0 Lifestyle Package, which upgrades the engine, transmission, stereo and Uconnect phone system for the base Heat trim. This year, all Nitros ride on standard 20-inch wheels, and the Shock and Detonator trims have also added Dodge racing stripes across the hood and fender.
If the names Nitro, Heat, Detonator and Shock aren’t enough of a clue, the rhetoric used by Dodge to describe the car gives no illusions about its masculinity. With in-your-face styling, called “unapologetically Dodge” by the manufacturer, the front-billeted grille is described as having an “aggressive crosshair” design combined with distinctly pumped-up, flared fenders. Dodge explains that the stereo system can let you "rock out with or without your dock out," and there is even an available Smoker's Group of options, which includes a cigar lighter for your stogie.
However, despite the fact that Dodge has tried to create a buff-looking and sounding SUV that can haul “whatever” (according to Dodge), it has also delivered poor gas mileage, lackluster handling, a cheap, hard-feeling plastic interior and a distinct lack of driving testosterone.
All of the 2011 Dodge Nitro trims come with standard rear-wheel drive or an available part-time, four-wheel-drive system. Reviewers are quick to point out that, although the Nitro shares a platform with the Jeep Liberty, the Nitro is for on-road driving, even with the available part-time 4WD. Part of the issue, reviews note, is that the Nitro’s 4WD system does not offer a low range for true off-roading capabilities, nor is it meant to remain engaged on dry road conditions.
Two engines are again available for the 2011 Nitro. The base Heat trim comes with a standard 3.7-liter V6 delivering 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Paired with a 4-speed automatic transmission, the smaller engine offers fuel economy estimates of 16 mpg city/22 highway (15/21 in the four-wheel drive version). The Heat 4.0 derives its name from its upgraded engine—a 4.0-liter V6 SOHC with a higher power output: 260 hp at 6,000 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm, accompanied by a 5-speed automatic transmission. The larger engine, shared by the Shock and Detonator trims, delivers similar fuel economy numbers: an estimated 16/21.
Ride & Handling
The Nitro's new standard 20-inch wheels come in chrome-clad aluminum for the Heat and Heat 4.0, with an available upgrade to a painted aluminum wheel. The Detonator and Shock ride on standard painted and polished aluminum wheels. Dodge claims to have revamped its performance-tuned suspension for greater on-road performance, with a standard short and long arm independent front suspension combined with a solid-axle five-link rear suspension. The suspension receives mixed reviews, with some finding that it nicely absorbs road imperfections, while others find it too jarring and bumpy. Most reviews concur, however, that despite its tough-guy exterior, the engines are surprisingly disappointing. One road test of a similar Jeep Liberty 4x4 found a tortoise-like 0-60 mph time of 9.5 seconds, while a performance test of the rear-drive Nitro had a more respectable 7.7 second 0-60 mph time. However, the Nitro still can’t measure up to competitors, with one road test finding that even the Nitro with the 4.0-liter V6 was slower than the Toyota RAV4 (whose 3.5-liter V6 DOHC make 269 hp and 246 lb-ft of torque and a 0-60 time of under 7 seconds). Although the Nitro’s acceleration is lackluster, the 4.0-liter surpassed the 3.7-liter’s performance (described as laborious when pushed in highway passing or merging situations). For some, the ride was further marred by vague and unresponsive steering in the SUV (although others found it agile). On the upside, however, the ride itself is comfortable and quiet, even at highway speeds.
Cabin & Comfort
The 2011 Dodge Nitro seats five, with standard dark gray cloth seats in the Heat and Heat 4.0. The Detonator gets an accent color inset in its dark-gray cloth, while the Shock comes with standard leather in (you guessed it) dark gray (although brightly colored contrast stitching is available). Both the Detonator and Shock come with standard 6-way power adjustment for the driver’s seat, and the Shock also provides heated front seats. All trims also come with a Dodge class-exclusive standard fold-flat front passenger seat, whose molded plastic back can double as a tray-table. The upright seating position of the front seats gives an excellent view out the front windshield, but the rear view is limited by thick roof pillars and small windows.
Seating in the front and rear make liberal use of cushioning for an easy ride, with ample head- and legroom. The rear seats (which split 60/40) recline for comfort, although they are set low to the ground, making it easy to enter or exit the vehicle but reducing support. While designed to seat three in the rear, the Nitro’s narrow cabin may make this a tight fit for adults during long road trips.
Rear cargo space in the Nitro is one of its best features. When the rear seats are folded flat, the SUV offers a spacious 75.6 cubic feet of storage (32.1 cubic feet with the rear seats upright). Rear storage is easily accessed with a sizeable hatch opening and squared shape. The rest of the interior storage, however, is limited, with only a small center console and glovebox.
The Heat presents entry-level basics in the interior, with standard air conditioning, speed-sensitive power locks with remote keyless entry, a tilt steering column, reversible waterproof cargo storage and tinted sunscreen glass. The Heat 4.0 not only adds the more powerful engine and a 5-speed transmission, but also upgrades the standard stereo, adding additional Infinity speakers with a subwoofer, in addition to Uconnect with voice command function for hands-free phone use and Bluetooth technology for audio streaming. The Detonator adds a vehicle information center, as well as individual tire pressure monitoring, remote start and an overhead console with universal remote. At the high end of the trim levels, the Shock provides standard leather heated front seats, as well as a standard power sunroof (an available option for the other trim levels).
Although reviews note that gauges and controls are simple to use, easy to read, and sensibly placed in the cabin, other cabin features are less admired, with the quality of the interior materials receiving low marks, not only for their hard and unwelcoming plastic appearance, but also for inferior build quality that pales in comparison to competitors.
Other features are available through packages of options, including the Popular Equipment Group (for the Heat, Heat 4.0 and Detonator) which adds a security alarm, speed control, and illuminated vanity mirrors to the sun visors, as well as a temperature and compass gauge. Several packages are available at all trim levels. The Chrome Accents Group brightens the door sills and fuel filler door with chrome, as well as adding a chrome front fascia detail and tubular side steps. The Smoker’s Group provides a cigar lighter and removable ashtray. The Trailer Tow Group boosts the Nitro’s towing capacity to 5,000 pounds, with a Class III receiver hitch, a full-size spare tire, heavy duty engine cooling, power steering cooler, trailer sway damping and trailer tow wiring.
While all trims come with a standard 6-speaker Media Center with CD/MP3 radio with an audio jack and a 1-year subscription to Sirius satellite radio, several options are available to boost technology in the Nitro. The Heat 4.0, Detonator and Shock all provide a 9-speaker Infinity Premium Sound System with subwoofer, while the Detonator and Shock add steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio. One stereo upgrade option is currently available for all trims, adding the ability to play DVDs on a 6.5-inch touchscreen as well as a 30GB hard drive to store about 6,700 songs. The Detonator and Shock have an additional option for their multimedia center, adding Garmin GPS navigation and a 30GB hard drive that Dodge claims can store approximately 4,250 songs with album artwork.
All 2011 Dodge Nitro trims come equipped with a number of standard safety features, including 4-wheel antilock disc brakes with electronic stability and traction control, as well as advanced, multistage airbags (which inflate with varying force depending on the severity of the crash) combined with supplemental side curtain airbags. A standard occupant classification system automatically turns off the front passenger airbag if no passenger is detected and adjusts the force of deployment based on passenger weight when there is an additional occupant in the front of the car. Tire pressure monitoring comes standard at all trim levels, although the Detonator and Shock display individual tire pressure in the electronic vehicle information center, while the Heat and Heat 4.0 display only a warning light when a problem is sensed. Given the noticeable rear blind spots in the Nitro, the ParkSense parking assistance system may be a welcome standard addition to the Detonator and Shock trim levels, and it can be purchased as an available option for the Heat and Heat 4.0. When in reverse, ParkSense uses sound waves to detect objects near the rear of the vehicle and sounds auditory and visual alerts if an object is sensed within 59 inches of the rear of the Nitro. Integrated standard foglamps and heated foldable exterior mirrors also help with exterior vision.
While the NHTSA has not tested the 2011 Dodge Nitro according to its new, more rigorous standards, the almost identical 2010 Nitro fared well in the government’s crash tests, scoring five stars (out of a possible five) on front driver and passenger crashes, five stars for front driver and rear passenger side crash tests. The Nitro was weaker in rollover tests, with only three stars for both rear-wheel- and four-wheel-drive versions of the vehicle. The rear-wheel-drive Nitro demonstrated a 22.8% chance of rollover, and the four-wheel-drive version had a slightly lower chance (21.9%). The IIHS rated the 2007-2011 Dodge Nitro Good (it’s highest rating) for roof strength tests and frontal offset tests, but only Marginal for side impact crash tests (only Poor is lower in the IIHS's scale).
What Owners Think
Owners seem to find fault with many of the same features of the 2011 Dodge Nitro. Owners warn of significant blind spots in both the front and rear because of the large pillars and tiny windows. Several owners note that the odd structure of the door and windshield required them to duck when getting in or out or risk hitting their heads on the doorframe. Fuel efficiency is another common complaint among owners (although they are quick to admit that they knew they were purchasing an SUV, and often a 4WD one at that). Others wish the vehicle had better off-roading abilities, suggesting that more ground clearance and a low-range option would improve the Nitro’s performance off the beaten track. Finally, those who have buyer’s remorse often cite fit and finish issues (with early-in-ownership rattles, check engine lights and flimsy grille materials) and a cheap-feeling interior one owner referred to as noisy and drafty.
That said, owners who love their Nitros, LOVE their Nitros. Given its reasonable sticker price, owners feel they got a lot for their money. From the aggressive and unique styling to the spacious interior and Infinity stereo, owners admire the comfortable ride and solid, truck-like feel that makes them feel safe and secure. Owners who use the SUV as a working vehicle praise its cargo space and ability to carry and tow heavy loads (including horse feed and track cars, among others). They even contradict expert reviews, which criticize the power and handling of the Nitro, complimenting the power and performance of this highly stylized vehicle.
by Jessica McCombe
Talk about the 2011 Dodge Nitro
Looking for a Used Nitro in your area?CarGurus has 4,049 nationwide Nitro listings starting at $6,995.