Dodge 4x4 looks as if it's up for a fight, but loses out to Japanese rivals anywhere but off-road

What is it?

This is the Nitro, Dodge's bluff-nosed answer to the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sorento. It's a proper, no-nonsense, all-American 'lifestyle vehicle' designed to cart you and your family to the beach or to the slopes, to tow your jet-ski, and to generally be able to take you wherever your heart desires.

Underneath that butch, square-jawed, unapologetic styling, the Nitro is a proper Yankee SUV; they've 'Yurripean-ized' it by making a diesel engine available, but otherwise it's firmly from the American school, which means it's got a heavy duty chassis that allows it to go further off-road than, say, a Honda CR-V.

However, the Nitro is also supposed to serve up more power-per-pound than any of its rivals, and specifically to offer sporty, road-biased handling qualities. The problem is going to be, we suspect, that a live rear axle and long-travel suspension aren't the ingredients of a fine-handling road-going 4x4. That's why, when Dodge refers to handling qualities, you can assume that the word 'qualities' has been applied more in hope than expectation.

What's it like?

It would have been disappointing were it not so predictable. As expected, chassis components substantial enough to moor the USS Nimitz to are a serious limiting factor to the amount of fun you can have driving the Nitro on the road. The car's 2.8-litre, 174bhp VW Motori four-pot diesel engine is willing, if noisy, but it's bolted into a car that feels closer to a 1940s Willys Jeep than a modern 4x4.

The Nitro certainly steers better than any Chrysler Group SUV we've ever tried, but it rolls disconcertingly when cornered with any kind of urgency, bucks and shimmies over lumps that shouldn't really trouble it, and generally rides with all the composure of a rudderless dingy in an Atlantic squall.

Otherwise, the Nitro offers a competitive package. There's as much room in it as you'll find in most mid-sized 4x4s, and it's reasonably well kitted-out for the money; every one gets traction control, air conditioning, a folding rear bench and a folding front passenger seat. Material cabin quality isn't nearly as good you'd find in most rivals, but if you're going to treat this car as roughly as Dodge is suggesting, that shouldn't matter too much.

Should I buy one?

If you like strong-looking, distinctive SUVs that are a bit more capable off-road than the norm, but don't cost the earth, perhaps. However, don't fall for the 'fine-handling' justification; on the road, the Nitro is miles behind more car-like machinery like the new RAV4, both in terms of outright handling and ride comfort.

Having been denied the big red sandpit truck you longed for at the age of three-and-a-bit may, in fact, be the only reason you need to buy a Nitro. It's certainly got oddly appealing straight-out-of-the-toy-box looks, and will probably take all the abuse you can dish out.

It's just a shame that it's not better on the road because, regardless of what Dodge wants you to believe, this is no sporty 4x4. What it actually demonstrates is that, if they keep building 'em like they always have, American 4x4s will never handle as well as the new breed of monocoque-bodied Japanese and European 4x4s.

Matt Saunders

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