Just when you think you’ve seen it all, another SUV makes it to our shores. Dodge launched the brand new Nitro in Cape Town last week and, believe me, if attention’s what you want, a Nitro is what you need!

In terms of styling there is simply nothing on the market that can compete with the Nitro. Pictures do not truly convey just how striking the car really is although they do make it look bigger. Its dimensions are similar to the Jeep Cherokee but with its bold grille, bigger wheels and blackened window treatment, Nitro makes the Cherokee look fairly meek and mild. Sure, Cherokee in some trims paint a much more rugged, off-road picture but to me Nitro has an in-your-face attitude, making you believe you really can go wherever you want. Visually I cannot fault it – it’s bold, masculine and thoroughly up-to-date.

I’m happy to say that the things I did find fault with in terms of styling, fit and finish were relatively minor, both on the interior and exterior. For one, Nitro’s front bumper looks like a snow-plough but has no parking distance control sensors. Apparently it’s not needed. The back bumper is also quite big, but smaller than the front and fitted with PDC sensors. Yes, I’m also baffled. I would also have preferred the tailgate to open up a bit higher. While I fit comfortably, I could feel my hair brushing against it, meaning that anyone taller would have to bend. Luckily the ‘Load & Go’ tray makes up for it: it slides out and over the bumper to not only protect it but to ease loading and offloading. It can take up to 180kg and has some storage space underneath. Nifty indeed.

I was also not fond of the door handles on the inside or outside. Those on the inside were made of a cheap-looking silver plastic and moulded into a strange round design that visually did nothing for me. On the outside, they look remarkably similar to those found on the Jeep Wrangler. Lastly, the cargo cover’s odd positioning bothered me: It’s just too far from the rear seatbacks – I see no reasonable reason for the gap of almost 15cm between them!

The dashboard plastics may look cheap and silver but the design is elegant and smooth, with most buttons and controls within reach. The seats are exceptionally comfortable although some of the taller drivers complained that the driver’s seat doesn’t go down low enough, especially with the relatively smaller glasshouse of the Nitro. There’s also no left foot rest which could be annoying over long distances. Rear legroom is very impressive: I was behind a 6’2” driver for quite a while and had a space of about 5cm between my knees and his seatback. Rear cup holders are placed low in the footwell but are very practical in general.

The first part of our journey to Kalk Bay (via Chapman’s peak and Cape Point) was spent in the 2.8 CRD SXT, fitted with the Chrysler group’s well-know turbodiesel unit fitted to a four-speed automatic gearbox. The CRD is definitely not made for speed and at times – especially on slight uphills – seemed exceptionally lazy. It is a big vehicle but there was fairly little body roll and the steering, albeit on the vague side, seemed to be very accurate. It is however advisable to switch into 4X4-mode on the twisty roads, just to increase the Nitro’s road-holding capabilities. With winter in the Cape equalling wind and rain, we were very surprised at how little wind noise or tyre roar we could hear in the cabin.

After lunch and a clever vehicle swap, I got to drive the top of the range R/T version back to Cape Town. Fitted with the Chrysler group’s familiar 3.7 V6 – unfortunately also mated to a four-speed autobox – the R/T features a chromed grille and massive 20-inch chrome-clad aluminium wheels, making it look even more ominous and aggressive.

The V6 has a cute little growl to it, but push it too hard and the cute growl turns into a nasty howl as Nitro gets stuck in fourth gear. Not fun at all. The power is there, but the sound really is very off-putting. In R/T guise Nitro has lots of grunt, making overtaking a treat – that is, if the car in front hasn’t already pulled over out of fearful curiosity. If I had to pick one model it would definitely be the R/T version…but I would have preferred the six-speed manual gearbox.

Initially four models are available, two diesels and two petrols. At the bottom of the range is the 3.7 SXT (with four-speed autobox) for R319 900, followed by the two 2.8 CRD SXT‘s at R339 900 (six-speed manual) and R349 900 (five-speed auto). Top of the list is the gorgeous 3.7 R/T, also for R349 900.

Only four optional extras are available across the board, namely metallic paint (R1 200), electric sunroof (R10 000), leather seats (standard on the R/T, otherwise R10 000) and the MyGig Entertainment System (also R10 000). Nitro is available in seven colours which include old faithfulls like Black, Stone White and Bright Silver as well as the fairly eye-catching Sunburst Orange, Inferno Red, Electric Blue and gorgeous Light Khaki.

The cool R&B and hip-hop playing at the welcoming function aimed the Nitro squarely at the highly mobile, trendy crowd trying to survive the urban jungle. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but to me the Nitro (even with its decisive urban positioning) still has a lot of rock ‘n roll at its core, harnessing the emotive appeal of the American muscle cars of old. Nitro certainly manages to capture the essence of the Dodge brand in its design: it has a look that nudges you to take that next step, to live a little, to grab life by the horns. A muscle car, however, it is not.

Sure, there’s a lot of silver plastic inside, but I couldn’t find major faults with build quality. Although I would have preferred a manual gearbox, Nitro displayed decent performance on the route when not pushed to the limits. Best of all though, it has a very good standard specification list at a price that won’t break the bank. In my mind, the Nitro would undoubtedly be the first choice in SUV for trendy non-conformists, the image-conscious crowd willing to compromise on certain things. But it is also this quality that might just deter the mainstream market from driving it. Would I spend my own money on it? As soon as the SRT8 version of Nitro arrives, I might just feel like new wheels…

DaimlerChrysler paid for all flights, accommodation and meals in Cape Town.

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