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The Dodge Nitro rolls on down California State Highway 74 from San Diego to Palm Springs turning heads and looking macho with its imposing grille and boxy Hummer-like body.
It’s not until you pull up at the lights beside a Ford F250 pick-up truck that you realise, it is not as big as it seems.
Chrysler Group Australia will import the Nitro in the second quarter of 2007 and sees it sitting in the mid-sized SUV category.
Dimensions may put it up against mid-sized SUVs, and certainly on looks it is much more imposing, but inside it feels no bigger than a compact SUV, so its competitors are many and varied.
Chrysler Group Australia spokesman Simon Johnson said it was too early to announce a price or even trim levels, however he says we will get a 3.7litre V6 with 157kW of power and 319Nm of torque plus a new four-cylinder 2.8litre diesel (134kW/460Nm) nicknamed "the panther" and built by Detroit Diesel.
There is also a 4L V6 with 260hp and 359Nm, but it will not be available in right-hand drive.
Transmissions are a four-speed auto in the petrol and five-speed auto and six-speed manual in the diesel.
It is built in two-wheel drive, full-time high-range four-wheel drive and electronically selectable 4WD, but Australia will only take the latter.
Our Nitro will run in rear-wheel drive until the driver selects 4WD which is biased 2 per cent to the rear wheels.
"If you are making an estimate, I would say around the $40,000 mark for starting price, however pricing and volumes won’t be confirmed until local launch," Johnson said.
However, Chrysler Group international sales and marketing executive director Thomas Hausch says pricing will be "aggressive".
"It will compete with similar entry level vehicles from Korea."
While Australian SUV sales have softened under the burden of high fuel prices and adverse media scrutiny, they are still going strong in the mid and compact classes.
The Nitro will join this crowded and controversial segment sometime after production of right-hand-drive models begins in Toledo, Ohio in March.
Only now released in the States, it has already been nominated for a Truck of the Year award to be announced in January at the Detroit Motor Show.
Nitro designer Tim Anness, the "father of the Nitro", said the "M80" project began life in January 2001 as a drawing of a pick-up for a show concept vehicle.
"We then also looked at an SUV and it was popular," he said.
"Research came back that the front end looked too much like a Jeep with its rounded headlights, so we changed to the square ones."
It features the iconic Dodge "crosshair" grille with the Dodge ram’s head in the centre. The chrome grille has been stretched from corner to corner, including squared-off lights, with fat fenders extending further and a clamshell "hood" or bonnet on top. The effect is all macho.
Anness said they pushed the wheels out as far to the corners as they would go for an aggressive road stance and made the wheel arches wide enough for 20-inch wheels. They look like they could squeeze in 22s.
While Australian trim is yet to be decided, we can expect a choice of 16, 17 and 20-inch wheels.
The 20s look "fully sic" and the 17s don’t look too bad with a higher profile tyre to fill out the arches, especially with white lettering on the rubber. The 16s weren’t supplied with any of the test vehicles.
The base model has black matte plastic guards and rockers, while the top model has colour-coded arches and rockers. Window sills are high and the B pillar blacked out to give a "hot rod" look to the profile.
At the back, the design intent is simplicity with even the tailpipe out of sight.
Hausch said the hidden tailpipe caused nightmares in reaching drive-by noise standards as it tended to resonate within the body.
Inside, the Dodge is very similar to the Caliber and to many other Chrysler products.
It has Jeep’s flat truck-style dashboard that doesn’t protrude into the cabin much further than the windscreen. This gives an airy feel to the interior, despite acres of hard black and grey plastic trim.
The cheap-looking trim is offset by tasteful amounts of aluminium highlights around the doors, centre console and sound system.
The front passengers get a narrow footwell because of a wide and intrusive transmission. There is no room beside the pedals for a footrest.
Triple-pod instruments, inspired by sports motorcycles, supply a racy feel together with the smallish leather-bound contoured steering wheel.
Johnson says Bluetooth capability will be available, but cannot confirm if it will be optional or part of a trim package.
The sound system has an auxiliary jack for plugging in an iPod and a rear seat DVD system will be offered as an option.
There are handy storage units in the front and the back, and the front passenger and rear seats fold flat.
The cloth seats feature stain-resistant fabric with contrast-coloured inserts and are soft and spongy, especially in the bolsters. The smart leather seats have much better contour and support.
A highlight feature is a "Load 'n Go" tray in the rear cargo area. It is not yet known whether this will be a standard feature on Australian models or available as an option.
The tray pulls out for easy loading and will support 181kg. Unfortunately, the rear tailgate doesn’t lift high enough, so tall people have to stoop to access the cargo area.
A full-size spare tyre is underneath the car and needs to be winched down.
Dodge claims 25 safety features including anti-lock brakes with brake assist, electronic stability control, electronic rollover mitigation, rear park assist, tyre pressure monitoring and multi-stage air bags.
You will buy the Dodge Nitro for its looks, its size and its versatility, not necessarily for the way it drives.
Although it was difficult to tell on the recent world media sneak preview in Palm Springs, California, the Nitro doesn’t appear to be as aggressive a drive as it looks.
And it certainly is an aggressive-looking mother.
Someone forgot to tell the people of California _ the SUV capital of the US _ that SUV sales are down. Here, SUVs like the BMW X5 look small next to the behemoths from GMC, Dodge, Chevrolet and Ford.
Then along comes the agro Nitro.
It’s an optical illusion. Not big, but big enough to illicit a "Damn, that thing looks good" from the porter at the hotel.
While it is definitely imposing on the streetscape in the States and will be more so in Australia, it is difficult to tell how it drives. The problem is that we only had the 3.7litre and 4litre V6 models on test with soft "American-tuned" suspension and no diesel yet available.
We won’t be getting the spirited 4-litre V6 which fires a fluttering exhaust crackle when lit up and responds to the right foot with a kick like a desert mule.
Instead, we get the rather insipid and raucous 3.7litre V6 which lacks sparkle in the launch, feels flat through the important mid-range and has an unremarkable top end.
If the 2-litre diesel in the Caliber is anything to go by, the new 2.8-litre Detroit Diesel unit should be the best bet.
Americans like soft suspension to soak up the concrete joins on their big straight highways, so the standard set-up felt like a three-day-old junket.
It lurched, pitched and rolled around on the dangerous, but spectacular windy Highway 74 which descends the desert mountains into Palm Springs. For those who remember, it is the road in the opening scene of "It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World".
Next day, we tried the same road with the 4litre model with the American-standard sports-tuned suspension with stiffer springs, shocks and sway bars.
Chrysler Group Australia spokesman Simon Johnson assured us that the Australian standard suspension would be stiffer still. Just as well, because the more powerful Nitro also wallowed in the corners with the five-link rear end half a phase behind the independent front wheels.
Steering in both was rubbery with plenty of play, just as the Americans like it.
A highly interventionist electronic stability program kept us from plummeting over the much-leaned-on guard rails into the desert ravines below.
Switch it off and you can chuck the steering wheel around with wild abandon in high-speed sweepers to provoke plenty of attitude and drift.
Road, wind, transmission and tyre noise are intrusive but not bad for a vehicle which seems to have the drag coefficient of a brick.
I’ll wait for the diesel and the Australian-tuned suspension before passing further judgment.
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