BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. -- We're tracking across a river of sand in a wadi that winds through the California desert, all four 245/50R20 Goodyear Wrangler HP all-season tires scratching for traction in a four-wheeling edition of the Nitro, a boxy-square SUV by 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 rugged characteristics of a brutish sport-ute capable of taking a cross-country tack over off-road terrain like the sand-coated Borrego wadi.
That unusual combination of attributes -- easy to drive on pavement but also sure-footed off pavement -- makes Nitro a rare vehicle of multiple personalities.
For the 2011 editions Dodge casts Nitro in three different trim editions, each with traction choices of rear-wheel two-wheel-drive (2WD) or part-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) with a system which works when driving on pavement or trekking through dirt, gravel and sandy tracks.
The 4WD equipment operates in rear-wheel 2WD for pavement runs or in 4WD for off-road action with engine torque distributed evenly between front and rear wheels.
Each applies a load of standard content and style features, such as stock 20-inch aluminum wheels, sunscreen glass and performance suspension paint. Several models gain upgraded interior fittings such as new cloth and leather upholstery with colored stitching, and the two top trims -- Detonator and Shock -- wear racing stripes across front fenders and the up-bumped hood.
Nitro looks like a squatty shoebox on wheels with a fat-lipped prow, exaggerated round fenders ringing the front and rear wheelwells, slabs of sheetmetal lining the flanks, a long and flat roof floating over a narrow band of windows, and a blunt butt housing a tailgate.
Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the 20-inch wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and speed.
And that face with the horse-collar grille inset with shiny chrome bars looks distinctively like it comes out of the Dodge garage of performance vehicles.
The concise size of this CUV allows it to move easily in the traffic lanes or slip into tight confines of a parking spot.
Yet Nitro is generous in scale. The wheelbase is 108.8 inches long and the width between wheel sets is 61 inches. The body measures 178.9 inches long, 73.1 inches wide and 70.5 inches high at the roof.
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 bench for three, then a bay in back for gear. The front passenger seat folds down flat, as do second-row seats, to increase the wagon's cargo capacity.
At the rear a top-hinged tailgate 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.
The wagon employs an independent front suspension with upper and lower A arms, a live axle in back with upper and lower trailing arms plus track bar, and power assistance for the rack and pinion steering mechanism.
That makes Nitro nimble when heading down a curvy course. It moves quickly, cutting to the right or left as commanded, and behaves like the tires are glued to the road.
A large disc brake mounts at each wheel, and electronic safety devices fill the vehicle.
Gear includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS), electronic brake assist (EBA), all-speed traction control (ASTC), a non-skid device labeled electronic stability program (ESP), electronic roll mitigation (ERM), even a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
Each Nitro edition carries a V6 engine although Nitro Heat offers a choice of two sizes as Detonator and Shock stock solely the larger V6.
Nitro Heat employs 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, and it scores EPA fuel economy figures as high as 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway for 2WD, or 15/21 mpg city/highway for 4WD.
All three Nitro trims offer more zip from a torque-heavy 4.0-liter V6 tied to a five-speed electronic automatic transmission.
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 the same -- 16/21 mpg -- in 4WD.
New for 2011, the Nitro Heat 4.0 edition stocks the 4.0-liter V6 and five-speed automatic, 20-inch aluminum wheels painted Sparkle Silver, plus a Uconnect phone and upgraded eight-speaker audio system.
Nitro Detonator rolls on 20-inch polished aluminum wheels, houses premium audio gear with nine speakers and a subwoofer, plus a remote starter and the Parksense rear park assist system.
Nitro Shock with new 20-inch aluminum premium-painted wheels loads aboard even more equipment -- heated leather bucket seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sunroof and nine-speaker audio kit.
Nitro shows nine exterior paint shades, including new hues for 2011 like Bright White Clear Coat, Blackberry Pearl Coat, Toxic Orange Pearl Coat and Redline Two Coat Pearl.
Dodge's 2011 MSRP figures begin at $22,250 for Nitro Heat in 2WD and $23,990 for Heat 4WD.
Detonator 2WD lists for $26,250, or $27,990 with 4WD, and Shock 2WD begins at $27,250, or $28,990 for 4WD.