All-new for 2007, the Nitro is Dodge’s first mid-size SUV.

Although it’s built alongside the Jeep Liberty and its overall shape is the same, the Nitro shares only a version of that vehicle’s front suspension, with its own wheelbase and rear suspension.

Engine choices are a 3.7-litre V6 in the SE, SXT and SLT trim lines, while the R/T uses a 4.0-litre V6. The SE and SXT are available in two- or four-wheel drive, while the SLT and R/T drive all four wheels exclusively. The SE and SXT come with a six-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission; the SLT comes exclusively with a four-speed automatic, while the R/T uses a five-speed automatic.

Interesting features available on the Nitro are a new Load ‘n Go cargo floor, a pull-out cargo bed that extends 46 cm (18 inches) and holds up to 181 kg (400 lbs) for easy loading; and YES Essentials fabric, currently exclusive to DaimlerChrysler, which repels stains, controls odours and reduces static electricity. Even ketchup and mustard clean off, and the fabric will not retain smells such as from spilled milk.

Available later in the model year on SXT and R/T is MyGIG, a new dash-mounted “infotainment centre” with 20-gigabyte hard drive that can store music, photos and voice messages, along with satellite radio, navigation and a screen that plays movies while the vehicle’s parked. It can hold about 100 hours of music and photos can be downloaded directly into it and turned into a photo-and-music display.

Features on the SE include 16-inch steel wheels, anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control with electronic roll mitigation and all-speed traction control, sport suspension, air conditioning, power locks and windows, tilt steering column, tire pressure monitor, side roof rails, low-back two-tone cloth seats, CD/MP3 stereo, air conditioning, fold-flat front passenger seat, reclining rear seat, power-folding mirrors and reversible cargo floor tray.

The SXT adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, floor mats, overhead console with courtesy lamps, garage door opener, cruise control, fog lamps, and deep-tinted side and rear glass.

The SLT adds 17-inch aluminum wheels, body-colour fender flares and fascias, Load ’n Go cargo floor, auto-dimming rearview mirror, two-tone seats with YES Essentials fabric, six-way power driver’s seat, vehicle information centre, heated folding mirrors, and leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls.

The R/T adds 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels, performance suspension, full-time four-wheel drive, body-colour grille and air dam, and R/T logo on the two-tone front seats.

Sized under the Durango, the Nitro is a well-designed package, offering aggressive yet attractive styling, a range of powertrain configurations and good performance. Its firm ride on the street translates into more off-road capability than is normally offered in vehicles this size, and while the 3.7-litre can be a bit growly when mated to the automatic, the 4.0-litre R/T is a fun drive. The sliding cargo floor is a great idea – not only can you load without breaking your back, but it keeps your pant legs off the rear bumper, and there’s room under it to hide items like a laptop from prying eyes – and the YES Essentials fabric provides all the easy-clean features of leather, without the price. On the down side, the Nitro is a relatively narrow vehicle with a wide console, and larger front-seat passengers will feel a bit hemmed in, as will the rear-seat passenger who draws the middle position.

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