Full 2009 Dodge Nitro Review
What's New for 2009
A retuned suspension and revised brakes are some of the major changes for the 2009 Dodge Nitro. The six-speed manual transmission has been dropped, and all trims now come standard with an automatic transmission (a four-speed for SE and SLT trims; a five-speed for R/T models).
Nothing screams "get out of my way" quite like a gargantuan square grille, blocky front bumper and insanely flared front fenders. Like other Dodge models, this is the approach the 2009 Dodge Nitro takes in hopes of attracting testosterone-filled shoppers looking for a midsize SUV that costs less than $30,000.
Although we wouldn't accuse it of being all bark and no bite, the 2009 Dodge Nitro is definitely more suited to the pavement than it is to the mud. Underneath the Nitro's mean-looking exterior and optional shiny chrome wheels is a unibody construction based on (but slightly larger than) the platform used by the Jeep Liberty. And just like on the Liberty, there's a live-axle rear suspension, standard rear-wheel drive and optional dual-range four-wheel drive. It's not exactly an ideal setup for a vehicle meant for pure on-road duty.
As a result, the Nitro has suffered from below-average ride and handling in years past. For 2009, however, Dodge has ushered in a bevy of changes, including a completely retuned suspension that promises more responsive handling. It helps, but even so, we still don't expect the Nitro to be able to keep up with more agile car-based crossovers such as the Mazda CX-7, Mitsubishi Outlander, Saturn Vue and Toyota RAV4. Nor can the Nitro's V6 engines match the smoothness or efficiency of competitors' smaller engines.
If your primary concern is to find an aggressive-looking five-passenger midsize SUV, the 2009 Dodge Nitro will do the trick -- and it will provide decent interior room and a quiet ride, too. But considering the wide variety of choices in this segment, we recommend that someone looking for all-around versatility, quality and efficiency consider any of the aforementioned vehicles.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Dodge Nitro is a five-passenger midsize SUV available in two trim levels: SE and SLT. Although the Nitro can also come with an "R/T" designation, Dodge treats this as a package option for the SLT rather than a separate trim level.
Standard equipment on the base Nitro SE includes 16-inch steel wheels, a roof rack, air-conditioning, full power accessories, reclining rear seats and a six-speaker CD stereo with an auxiliary audio jack and satellite radio. Step up to the Nitro SLT and you'll get 17-inch alloy wheels, body-color exterior trim, privacy glass, heated side mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a power driver seat, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, a compass/outside-temperature gauge and a slide-out cargo floor with tie-down points. The available R/T package for the SLT provides a larger engine, 20-inch chrome wheels, firmer suspension tuning and upgraded exterior trim.
Major packages on the Nitro include the Convenience Group, which adds an upgraded audio system, rear park assist, remote engine start, Bluetooth and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. An entertainment package for the SLT adds the features from the Convenience Group plus a hard-drive-based navigation system with real-time traffic, a USB port and digital music storage/playback capability. A Sun and Wheels package adds a sunroof, performance suspension and aluminum chrome-clad wheels. Class III towing preparation and leather seating are also available.
Powertrains and Performance
Standard on the Nitro SE and SLT is a 3.7-liter V6 rated for 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. A four-speed automatic transmission is standard. The Dodge Nitro R/T comes with a 4.0-liter V6 engine good for 260 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque; it's paired with a five-speed automatic transmission. In our testing, we found the Nitro R/T was able to go from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds.
All versions of the Nitro are available with either rear-wheel drive (2WD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). Nitro 4x4s have a part-time system with high- and low-range gearing, though this model's suspension tuning and tire options are both heavily street-oriented. Properly equipped, the Nitro can tow up to 5,000 pounds regardless of drivetrain.
Fuel economy is not a strong point for the 2009 Dodge Nitro. On 2WD models, the 3.7-liter engine achieves 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway and 18 mpg combined; the 4.0-liter V6 gets 16/21/18 mpg. On 4WD versions, ratings dip slightly.
Antilock disc brakes, traction control, stability control and full-length side curtain airbags are standard on the 2009 Dodge Nitro. The stability control system includes a trailer sway control feature. Rear parking sensors are optional. In crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Nitro earned a perfect five stars for all frontal- and side-impact categories. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Nitro its highest rating of "Good" in frontal offset crash testing; however, the Nitro's side-impact performance was deemed "Marginal," the second-worst score.
Interior Design and Special Features
Inside, the Nitro has a somewhat industrial feel, though faux aluminum accents brighten the place up a bit. Materials quality is average for this class, though a few plastics stand out as unacceptably low-grade. An upright seating position provides a good view out the front, and liberal use of soft cushioning makes it easy to get comfortable. Legroom is ample for adults in the backseat, though the bench is mounted too low for optimal comfort. There are 32 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat. The lift-over height is high for a midsize SUV, but the slide-out cargo tray in SLT and R/T models provides easier access when unloading groceries and luggage. With the rear seats folded, there are 65 cubic feet of cargo space available, about average for this class. The front passenger seat can also fold forward to aid in carrying long items. A 115-volt outlet is standard on the SLT and R/T, thereby enhancing the Nitro's usefulness at the campsite.
Acceleration is adequate with the 3.7-liter V6, but the 2009 Dodge Nitro only feels quick with the upgraded 4.0-liter engine. At highway speeds, the cabin is surprisingly quiet, and the ride is comfortable for the most part, too. Among our biggest complaints on previous versions of the Nitro were issues related to ride quality and handling: Soft suspension damping got the Nitro out of sorts over bumps, steering was slow, cornering was unimpressive and the SUV exhibited considerable body roll -- even on the sporty R/T model. In addition, the brake pedal suffered from long travel and a somewhat vague feel (although the stopping distance was surprisingly impressive). For 2009, the Nitro's revised suspension tuning has helped, though true car-based crossovers still possess better overall road manners and agility.