The 2011 Dodge Nitro returns this year with few changes to the lineup. The Heat continues to represent the base trim for this midsize SUV, offering an appealing MSRP of $22,245. Now riding on standard 20-inch wheels at all trim levels, the Heat carries over its standard 3.7-liter V6. Paired with a 4-speed automatic, the 3.7-liter produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The Heat’s engine has taken some, well, heat for its lack of power and responsiveness, particularly noticeable during acceleration at highway speeds and merging. The rear-wheel-drive Heat makes unimpressive fuel economy numbers compared to competitors, with an estimated 16 mpg city/22 highway. Using a short and long arm front suspension with a trailing arm rear suspension, the Heat offers a ride that receives mixed reviews, with some admiring the way the suspension smoothes out the bumps, while others find it too jarring. The hydraulic, power-assisted steering is not a strong suit for the Nitro, either, with handling and steering described as vague and unresponsive.
The interior of the Heat, although quiet, comes under fire for substandard materials, cheap-looking hard plastics, and big blind spots in the rear (due to the large roof pillars). Standard features inside the Heat include manual air conditioning, power doorlocks with remote keyless entry, power windows and a tilt steering wheel. Seating five, the Heat offers manual four-way adjustment for the driver’s and front passenger’s seat, and a rear seat that reclines as well as folding forward for huge cargo space in the rear (75.6 cubic feet). The seats in the Nitro are generally described as nicely cushioned and comfortable, but the rear seat has been criticized for being too low to the ground, reducing support.
Standard technology in the Heat is limited, with Sirius AM/FM satellite radio (provided with a 1-year trial subscription), a single-CD player and MP3 capability with an audio jack and 6 speakers. A sound system upgrade is available, supplying a 6.5-inch touchscreen that can operate audio and DVD playback as well as a 30GB hard drive that can save approximately 6,700 songs with album artwork.
Outside, the Heat offers foglamps and tinted sunscreen glass as standard features, in addition to power-heated mirrors. The unique exterior styling of the Nitro offers the crosshair design of the front grille, as well as strongly flared fenders that reflect the aggressive stance of the SUV. The Chrome Accents group of options adds Mopar chrome door sills, fuel door, tubular side steps, and a front fascia detail. A power sunroof is also available for the Heat. The most discussed options package, however, is the Trailer Tow Group. Adding a Class III hitch, full-size spare tire, heavy-duty engine and power steering cooler and trailer sway damping technology, the combination of optional features allows the Nitro to tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Safety features in the Heat mirror upper-end trims, with advanced, multistage front airbags and supplemental side-curtain front and rear airbags, as well as an occupant classification system to turn off the front passenger side airbag if no one is sitting in that seat or to release the airbag based on passenger weight. Antilock disc brakes are standard in the front and rear, and work with electronic stability control, traction control and electronic roll mitigation to enhance stability and control while driving. Crash test results by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety were mixed. The NHTSA has not tested the 2011 Nitro (using more rigorous criteria), but the 2010 earned a perfect score for front and side crashes, but only three (out of five) stars for rollover tests (with a 22.8% chance of a rollover for the rear-wheel-drive version). The IIHS awarded a Good rating for 2007-2011 Nitros for front-offset and roof strength tests, but the side impact test scored only Marginal.
Although the Heat has returned relatively unchanged for 2011, it does now offer an upgraded version of the trim—a lifestyle package (as Dodge calls it) named Heat 4.0. This version of the base ups the engine to match that of the Detonator and Shock trims: a 4.0-liter V6 SOHC engine with 260 hp at 6,000 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Paired with a 5-speed transmission, the cost is almost $2,000 more, and the fuel economy virtually identical (16 mpg city/21 highway). The upgraded package adds 8 Infinity speakers with a subwoofer, as well as the Uconnect system for hands-free phone use and Bluetooth for streaming audio.
If the Heat’s style appeals, the cargo room, comfort and sticker price only serve to sweeten the deal. The true test will be to sit behind the wheel and see whether the performance, handling and acceleration measure up to your standards.