COAL: 2008 Dodge Nitro R/T – Our Little Hot Rod SUV


Not wanting to push our luck with the reliability of our 2001 Range Rover (COAL), my partner James started looking at possible replacement vehicle.  As I had done with the 2007 Ford Fusion (COAL), there was a bit more rational thought that went into this purchase.  But, we still ended up getting something with some flair and curb appeal.  It wasn’t long until our driveway was brightened by the addition of a 2008 Dodge Nitro R/T in Sunburst Orange.


[Ralph after 6 years, 115K miles, and 3 accidents.]

Several factors led us to Carl Burger Dodge in El Cajon to pick out our new vehicle.  First , we had a familiarity with Mopar through several former cars (Apsen station wagon, my parents ’98 Ram, his former Neon and Lebaron GTS).  Second, this was the time that Dodge was offering their limited lifetime powertrain warranty on all new cars.  Next, the double whammy of Chrysler under new ownership of Cerebus and the economy starting to tank, sales of Chrysler and Dodge cars were in the toilet.   Finally, with gas prices through the roof we knew that everyone was flocking to small cars and trucks and SUVs were just sitting.  We figured with all of that in our favor, a Dodge dealership would be hungry to move an anything, especially an SUV.

[Comical commercial when the Nitro came out.]

We did a lot of online research prior to walking into the dealership.  The Nitro had been out for about a year, and James really liked the look of it.  A bonus was that you could also get it in his favorite color, orange.  The initial plan was to go for the top spec R/T, but a mid-level SLT wasn’t out of the question.  An exhaustive online dealer search found that the closest Sunburst Orange R/T was in Pasadena, CA.  The next closest one was in Phoenix, AZ.  It was turning out that this was a pretty rare combination.  Armed with this information, we headed off to the dealership for a test drive.


First up was an orange SLT that was on the lot.  The SLT was equipped with the 3.7L V6, 4-speed automatic, and a tan cloth interior.  It was clear within a couple of blocks that we were not getting this Nitro.  It felt underpowered, the engine roared without much forward momentum, it lumbered around corners, and the interior was a big let down.  The plastic were a mish-mash of shades of tan, and the cloth material on the seats just felt cheap.  After being in that truck, I understood why Chrysler was taking a beating for their low-rent interiors.  The interiors in my Tempo and Topaz were a better place to be.


Since we were there, we decided to take a look at a black R/T that was on the lot.  Woah, what a difference!  It was amazing change in character between the two trim levels.  The 4.0L V6/5-speed auto combination was a little rocket.  It launched with authority, and got up to speed nicely.  It handled much better with the upgraded suspension and 20” rolling stock.  The interior was a much nicer place to be.  It was a bit somber being almost all black, but the aluminum trim and light colored headliner helped to brighten things up a bit.  The black leather seats were much more comfortable, and the interior was a much nicer place to be.  Knowing what we knew about where the orange R/Ts were and all of the factors listed above, James was able to negotiate a great deal on it.  A dealer trade was arranged, and two days later we were the new owners of the Sunburst Orange R/T that was located in Pasadena.  Even though the voice guided navigation had a female voice, the Nitro got the name Ralph.


The Nitro wasn’t like the previous SUVs that we had owned.  The 4.0L V6 was rated at 260 HP, and definitely moved it along quickly.  Car & Driver had a stated 0-60 time of 6.9 seconds, and it definitely felt that quick.  Putting the pedal to the metal, and the exhaust note that came out had a very nice sound to it.  Contemporary reviewers found that the R/Ts firmer suspension tuning was borderline harsh.  We disagreed and loved how well the R/T handled.  Definitely not like an SUV, it was really tuned for on-road behavior.   It was surprising how well it handled curvy roads or rounding the corners at intersections.  The power and handling really meshed well with how it looked overall.  The bulging fender flares front and rear were practically stretched over the big chrome wheels.  The greenhouse also had a little bit of a chopped-top look to it.  Finally, covering it all in orange metallic paint made it stand out here in San Diego.  It was bold, it was in your face, it really was a little hot-rod SUV.


[Ralph after 6 years, 115K miles, and 3 accidents.]

From the inside, it was just as nice as on the outside.  The black leather interior was comfortable, even on long road trips.  A nice touch were the red R/T logos embroidered into the seat backs.  The ride was supple enough on highway stretches, and not what I would consider punishing.  It had all the power conveniences (windows, locks, etc) including a remote start feature.  The stereo was the top of the line Chrysler MyGIG system, featuring Bluetooth connection, XM Satellite radio, Navigation, and hard drive storage for music.  This system was very user friendly, and didn’t take long at all to figure out.  There was also a factory installed rear seat DVD system.  In our entire time owning it, I think it was used once just to test to see if it actually worked.  The wireless headphones that came with it were still in the plastic wrap when we sold it.  Another unique feature to the Nitro was the Load ‘n Go floor in the back.  The floor of the cargo area slid out about a foot and a half to help facilitate loading cargo.  It was an interesting idea, but we never really found much use for it.


[Loaded up and heading to Burning Man 2013.]

The Nitro was the go-to vehicle for any long trips that we took, and we sure took a lot of them.  Countless trips to Phoenix to visit friends, a few trips to Albuquerque to visit family, Sedona, Mt. Whitney, Death Valley, Burning Man… the miles piled on quickly.  Gas mileage wasn’t anything spectacular, on these long trips 20 mpg was achievable.  We weren’t expecting stellar gas mileage, the performance trade off was worth it.  The Nitro was rated to tow up to 5,000 lbs.  We only used it to tow once, and that was on one of our trips to Burning Man.  The Nitro had 4 people in it, cargo area full, and was towing a 6’x12’ U-Haul trailer behind it weighing about 4,000 lbs.  Over 95% of the trip, it performed flawlessly.  It was able to keep up with traffic on the freeway and didn’t really feel stressed at all.  However, on the 395 highway in eastern California there is a very long slow uphill grade of about 8 miles.  About ¾ of the way up the grade, the transmission overheating light came on.  We pulled off and let it sit for a little while to cool down.  After a little bit of a cool down, we continued on up the grade and finished out the trip with no further issues.

DSC00913[Loaded up for a trip to Sedona, AZ.]

The Nitro did experience a string of bad luck when it comes to accidents.  At this point you’ve read through 12 COAL entries from me.  The total number of accidents in those cars:  0.  The number of accidents in the Nitro:  6!  The first occurred during rush hour traffic.  James rear ended a Mazda 3 at about 20 mph.  The Mazda was totaled.  It crumpled like a beer can, but that’s what those crumple zones are designed to do.  The Nitro had to have the front fenders, bumper cover, hood, headlights, and radiator replaced.  Thankfully it was at a low enough speed that there was no frame damage or airbag deployment.  The second occurred on a cycling trip to Phoenix.  We had 4 bikes on a hitch mounted bike rack.  We were rear ended by a PT Cruiser, thankfully at low speed.  The bike rack punched a hole in the PTs bumper, and the bikes dug some deep gouges into the hood.  Thanks to the rack, there was no damage to the Nitro.  Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the bikes.  3 of the 4 were totaled.  The third accident of real significance happened when a delivery truck pulled out from a stop sign right in front of James.  He swerved to miss it, but the back of the truck caught the left front fender flare and ripped it off.  That was easily replaced.  The final three “accidents” consisted of a slight tap to the rear bumper of a Camry at a stop sign (broken license plate frame on Nitro, puncture in the Camry bumper) and twice the rear bumper was scraped by some careless parker.


After all of these accidents (and all of the miles we put on it), you would think that it would rattle down the road.  On the contrary, this was a very well built and solid SUV.  After all those accidents, it was still very solid and almost squeak free.  The dashboard did develop an annoying squeak around the passenger side airbag.  The squeak was ultimately cured by wedging 35 cents in the gap between the airbag and the dash.


[6 hours prior to being rear ended.  The bike rack and bikes took the brunt of the impact.]

When it comes to maintenance and reliability, the Nitro was a lot of firsts for us.  This was our first vehicle with an oil life monitor on it.  The Nitro would tell us when it was time to change the oil, no more every ‘x’ miles or ‘x’ months.  Most oil changes occurred between 5K and 7K miles.  Around 25K miles, it started to experience the tell-tale sign of worn brake pads.  Our xTerra (COAL) ate through brake pads every 10K miles, so it was something that didn’t surprise us.  James ordered a set of front brake pads and prepared to swap them out one weekend.   What did surprise us was when the front wheels came off, the front pads looked practically brand new and still thick with lining material.  It was the rear pads that had worn through.  The first set of rears were replaced at 25K miles, and the second set were replaced at 60K miles.  The fronts were finally replaced at 80K miles.  I’ve never had a set of pads last so long, and especially on a front-heavy SUV.  Also lasting that long, at 80K miles, were the original set of Goodyear Eagle RSA tires.  These tires were rated for 60K miles, and lasted a good 20K more.  Probably the best set of tires I’ve ever encountered on a vehicle.  The only hiccup the Nitro had was a leak in the A/C system.  It was repaired twice under warranty.  No other problems, at all, in the entire time of ownership.


After a bit over 5 years of ownership, James was really hearing the call of the clatter.   While we knew what we were getting into with gas mileage on the Nitro, the benefits of better mileage and longevity of a diesel engine were always in the back of his mind.  Periodically he would look around for diesel SUVs, even once test driving a certified Audi Q7 TDI.  He finally found the car that made him bite the bullet and purchase, and it was quite a departure from the Nitro.  We held onto the Nitro for about 6 more months.  There wasn’t much swapping around between the two, and so it just sat.   Another car purchase netted us cargo capacity for Home Depot runs, and that sealed the fate for the Nitro.  We took it into Carmax and got an offer on it.  It was easier than going through the hassle of selling it ourselves, so we took the offer and said a final farewell to Ralph.