HEBER CITY, Utah -- Silted soil and loose gravel clot a narrow trail cut into mile-high slopes of the Wasatch Range during off-road tests steering a four-wheeling issue of Nitro, that boxy-square SUV which wears the ram-horn badge of Dodge.
Measuring up to the mid-size segment with cabin space for five passengers, Nitro possesses the smooth-riding traits of a car-based crossover wagon as well as the tough characteristics of a rugged sport-ute capable of taking a hard tack over rough terrain.
That unusual combination of attributes -- easy to drive on pavement but also nimble on dirt -- makes Nitro a rare vehicle of multiple personalities.
For 2009 editions Dodge casts Nitro in three different trim editions, each with traction choices of rear two-wheel-drive (2WD) or a part-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) system that works when driving on pavement or trekking across dirt trails.
We challenge Nitro in different venues which unfold while driving each trim versions on a course leading eastward from the freeway sprawl of Salt Lake City into the lofty Rocky Mountains of Utah.
On the mountain trail near Heber City we're steering a Nitro SE with sport suspension tuning and the electronically controlled 4WD system. It operates in rear-wheel 2WD for pavement runs or 4WD for off-road work with engine torque distributed evenly between front and rear wheels.
At one point a fallen boulder blocks the hillside trail, prompting a driver to veer around the barricade in a maneuver that pitches the wagon precariously at a canted angle, left wheels hiking high on the hill and right ones in a rut between slope and stone.
Despite the slippery grade and tricky maneuvers, our Nitro trudges forward without tipping, rolling or foundering in what becomes a keen demonstration of its wily off-road manners.
In another venue, we guide a chrome-clad 2WD Nitro R/T through congested traffic on multi-lane boulevards in Salt Lake City.
The concise size of this CUV allows it to move easily in the traffic lanes or slip into tight confines of a parking spot.
Nitro's wheelbase length of nine feet sets up a curt turning diameter around 36 feet so it seems easy to maneuver, unlike larger wagons.
Four side doors for the cabin provide a separate entry for all riders, and the tall structure carves out ample room for heads and legs of the human cargo.
The cabin plan consists of two bucket seats in front of a fold-up bench for three and a bay in back for gear.
At the tail a top-hinged liftgate brings access to the flat-floored cargo compartment, which houses a clever "Load 'n Go" slide-out floor panel. The panel moves rearward for 18 inches and holds up to 400 pounds of stuff.
A unit-body structure forges a tight and stable platform on Nitro for mounting the suspension elements and handling mechanisms which make this SUV act like an easy-driving car.
To feel the smooth ride quality, we run a 2WD Nitro SLT on freeways and tackle a twisty two-lane road -- route 189 threading through the Wasatch Range.
Nitro is nimble on the curvy course. It moves quickly, cutting to the right or left as commanded, and seems sure-footed.
Different suspension systems apply to different trims on the 2009 Nitro.
Base gear consists of a coil-spring independent front suspension with upper and lower arms and a live axle in back with upper and lower trailing arms and track bar. The solid five-link rear suspension brings strong lateral stiffness for vehicle responsiveness and crisp handling.
Nitro SE features taut suspension tuning for a sporty ride quality.
Nitro SLT and R/T issues may be outfitted with a performance suspension that has revised rates for sway bar, springs, shocks and bushings plus 20-inch wheels and tires.
A disc brake at every wheel is standard for all three of Nitro's trims. Also on every Nitro are electronic safety devices like an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake assist (EBA), all-speed traction control (ASTC) and a non-skid device called electronic stability program (ESP).
In the cabin there are frontal air bags for front seats plus curtain-style air bags tucked into roof rails above side windows for front and back seats and these bags are keyed to rollover sensors.
For motivation, Nitro packs a V6 engine but the size of the plant varies by trim edition.
Nitro SE and SLT employ a single-cam V6 which displaces 3.7 liters and runs up to 210 hp at 5200 rpm with torque numbers as high as 235 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
The 3.7-liter V6 ties to a four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission.
Fuel economy scores for the 3.7-liter powertrain amount to 16/22 mpg (city/highway) with 2WD traction and 15/21 mpg with the 4WD system.
Nitro R/T scores more zip from a torque-heavy 4.0-liter V6 tied to a five-speed electronic automatic.
The 4.0-liter plant produces 260 hp at 6000 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm.
EPA fuel economy numbers for the 4.0-liter V6 come in at 16/21 mpg (city/highway) for 2WD and 15/20 mpg with 4WD.
Nitro in any trim looks cool in a taut package dressed with square-corner shapes in the traditional two-box format of a wagon.
The fat-lipped flat face is bold and unmistakably a Dodge due to the big crosshair grille with flanking horizontal clusters housing headlamps and foglamps.
Side panels are virtually vertical, interrupted only by oversized fender flares which amount to the only curvy parts in the design scheme.
The wheels pin at extreme corners of the platform to set up a stable platform as front and rear overhangs crimp to make transitions easy on steep slopes for off-road treks.
For 2009 Dodge restructures MSRP figures on Nitro.
The lowest point of $22,240 applies to Nitro SE 2WD or $23,900 for Nitro SE 4WD. Mid-level Nitro SLT lists for $24,560 (2WD) and $26,220 (4WD), while Nitro R/T goes for $27,735 (2WD) or $29,511 (4WD).