The Dodge Nitro's design polarized us almost as much as the FJ Cruiser's did, but with a decidedly more favorable result. This is Dodge's first mid-sized SUV, and it's based on the Jeep Liberty chassis. While the Nitro is a latecomer, it hardly slinks into the market so much as it powerslides-visually, anyway. Our R/T tester's 4.0L V-6 did propel it down the quarter-mile faster than the other SUVs in our test. But, while it is the Nitro line's performance model, it's no rabble-rouser. The R/T does sound like one, however, with its assertive exhaust note. It dresses like one, too, by sporting 20-inch wheels, body-color grille shell, fenders, etc.-all cut along the lines of its cousin, the Ram pickup truck.
Not all of the models look so good, though. The entry-level SXT bears a chrome grille and gray plastic fenders, bumpers and fascias, and sideboards that leave something to be desired. The only way to justify them is to remember the fact that the SXT starts at only $20,110 and maxes out at around $23K. The SLT thankfully swaps the gray plastics for body colors and retains the chrome grille, and starts at $23,295 and ranges up to about $32,500.
Our R/T tester, priced at $30,065, begins at $27,630 and ramps up to $33K. The SXT and SLT use a 3.7L V-6, while the R/T is powered by one that has been modified to 4.0L. Additionally, four- and five-speed auto, and six-speed manual trannies are available. Other available features vary depending on trim level, but notables include: stain- and dirt-resistant cloth buckets to leather seats; reclining and fold-almost-flat rear seats; rear-seat video; six-speaker to eight-speaker Infinity audio system; iPod interface; UConnect Bluetooth hands-free phone system; and a tow package (up to a respectable 5,000-pound capability). Dodge is definitely pushing the envelope with its MyGIG AM/FM/DVD/Sirius/Navigation/MP3 system that also packs audio and photos on a 29GB hard drive (unit unavailable at press time). The Load-and-Go slide-out cargo floor enables easier access to the Nitro's cargo area.
The Nitro's look is intended to run counter to the smooth, feminized lines common to many other SUVs on the market, but it's visual appeal crossed gender lines among most of the staffers who saw it, although one staffer (older than the predicted customer) didn't appreciate what he thought was an uncoordinated design.
Despite its targeted demographic of 25- to 45-year-olds earning up to $60,000 per year, the staffers on the younger and poorer end of that range were the ones that leaped for the keys first. They were lured by its exterior design, but their enthusiasm cooled a bit after spending a couple days in one. Its smallish interior cramped those of grand stature, however, and discouraged some others of average size-one staffer characterized it as sitting with his shoulder and face planted against a wall. The cloth seats were decidedly unimpressive. Luckily, the 20-inch wheels didn't ride poorly as we feared they might; and the R/T is relatively nimble and exhibits decent pep (although we would have expected more for 260 hp/265 lb-ft torque). That and the interior dimensions make for an adequate around-towner but a less-than-enticing road-tripper. Forget the 4x4 in its moniker. It may be based on a Jeep, but it doesn't try to be one. It offers a part-time 4WD, and full-time AWD (like our tester), that certainly give it some confidence in tough weather or an unimproved road, perhaps, but its low body components and the AWD didn't encourage anyone to drive multiple loops on our off-road course.
This vehicle does not offer the general-purpose utility of some of our other testers. Recent college grads will like it, but it might be a tougher sell to practical-minded 40-somethings. It's an interesting-looking SUV with an entry-level vibe.
Design polarizes. You wouldn't think that would be the case among folks like Truckin' editors. After all, we track all kinds of custom trends that swing automotive design between ecstatic heights and dismal depths without batting an eye, right? But all you need is a vehicle like the FJ Cruiser to prove that we're hardly sanguine about the aesthetic choices other people make. Some of us think that Toyota's re-imaging of the 1960 FJ40 looks like a turtle. One staffer suggested that the FJ Cruiser sport an urban camo paint scheme and dark tinted windows so he wouldn't be noticed while driving it. Other staffers appreciated what they saw as the FJ Cruiser's daring and retro design.
We can imagine the notoriously conservative execs in Toyota's global HQ white-knuckling their shots of sake on the day the FJ Cruiser hit dealerships. So far, however, the company claims it has sold 39,583 FJs as of October '06, which tracks with its expectations of 46,000 units in 2006. There have been surprises, such as the age of the buyers-many of whom are older than Toyota's target of outdoor adventurers aged 30 years and younger.
Based on the 4Runner's platform, the FJ is attempting to reclaim the off-road cachet of its predecessors-currently held by the likes of Jeep and relative newcomer Hummer. We don't know yet if it's successful there, but FJs are crowding the off-road scene right now (and the streets of trendy neighborhoods, at least in our home turf of Southern California). Whether that's a testimony to its off-road prowess or its stand-out styling, we can't say.
Disclaimer: Truckin' is not an off-road magazine and its staff are not experts at tackling very technical off-road courses. This is why we picked what we thought was terrain that wouldn't unnecessarily challenge anyone who was driving with forethought and hard-earned car-guy experience (relatively hard-packed sandy dunes and flatlands in this case). We toured the terrain a few times in the FJ, but its V-6 and ATRAC 4WD system didn't keep us from getting desperately stuck once where other vehicles were able to power through thanks to bigger engines and better tires. It was obvious to us that the FJ demanded greater knowledge of its, and our, limitations. Thankfully, the aftermarket is ramping up to provide plenty of upgrades that will likely make the FJ function better in the dirt.
On the road, all of us were put off by its blind spots. Form certainly trumped function in that the shape of the second-row and rear windows spiced the driving experience with a lack of side and rear visibility that forced us to rely less on our own driving prowess and more on the kindness of strangers driving around us on the highway. Accordingly, the backseats are claustrophobic and the back door handles are located in an awkward location that requires unnecessary feeling around. Overall, the interior feels larger than our smallish Dodge Nitro tester and, in some ways, is configured to appeal to similar customers. Cloth seats, iPod interface jacks, body-color dash and door panels, industrial-looking air vents and subwoofer enclosure are examples of the FJ's trendy, near-entry-level vibe, as is the less-than-$30K price.
Overall fit and finish is tight. And, the FJ rides as solidly as a vault, but its exterior style and some interior ergos somewhat compromise its drivability. So, while our staff concurs that you can't ignore the FJ Cruiser, not all of us agree that that is a good thing.
Ford built the Expedition EL to be the perfect family truckster, and that's exactly what it is. The fullsize SUV market is slipping, but those who still buy them feel that they need them to haul a gang of kids and their cargo. Redesigned and built on the F-150 chassis, this SUV is designed to do just that. It can tow up to 9,000-pounds-worth of toys to the lake and still manage to bring a few kids along (to help unload the boat, right?). That's the max for both versions of the Expedition, according to specs. Our 4WD tester pulls 8,750 pounds. Granted, the 5.4L barely stacks up to the Chrysler Group and GM mills that powered other testers, but the six-speed transmission, the only one in the bunch, helps. When you consider that the Suburban offers the 6.0L, Ford is really going to have to step up soon to stay in the game. As such, the 5.4L worked out just OK for the Expedition.
We liked the Expedition's sculpted body styling. It differentiates mightily from the Tahoe's and Aspen's comparatively plain vanilla-looking front ends and body lines, managing to look bold without going as far afield as the Nitro or the FJ Cruiser.
Our staff took to the plush and comfortable interior almost immediately, creating a constant psychic tug of war between the Expedition and Tahoe that the Expedition markedly won. The Aspen's interior was nice, too, but it never resonated like the Expedition's. And the FJ Cruiser and Nitro invested maybe too much of their mojo into attitude, and not enough on comfort (granted, 'tude may be enough for their target markets). The Expedition's angular shapes and odd textures of the plush interior differ from the smoother, swoopier approach in most of the other vehicles.
Taking a family on a road trip in this would almost be like putting wheels on a McMansion: You'd never have to leave the comforts of home. The air-conditioned seats can't be beat, but, the third row sacrifices cushion for fold-flat capability. The Expedition got points for extra attention to detail: Its cupholders accommodated any size of drink you might want; an iPod jack added more flexibility to the AM/FM/6-CD/Satellite/Navigation head unit; and power liftgate and power folding seats make loading cargo in the back a breeze. Automatic load leveling is an interesting feature for towers. The seating plan of the Expedition made it possible to seat a maximum of either 7 or 9 people. Of course the EL offers a lot more cargo space behind that third row.
The base Expedition starts at around $30K. The EL begins at $35K and prices up to around $52K (our tester was almost maxed out). Its closest contender in our match-up was the Tahoe, on the market and as the top two SUVs in our evaluation. Both vehicles quickly pulled ahead of the pack during the two weeks that we had these vehicles. Yes, the Expedition EL is larger than the Tahoe, but surprisingly that didn't make a difference. Both vehicles were similarly equipped and very closely priced, and whatever comparisons were made between the vehicles in evaluators' minds orbited around those factors. Once it became clear that the Expedition was the front runner, we stepped back and considered that the larger Expedition EL's price tag was actually lower than the Tahoe's. Maxing out all features on the build-and-price function of each vehicle's website still nets a slightly larger price for the Tahoe as compared to the EL. Even if we granted th Tahoe the lower price, we believe that the Expedition EL would still have the edge. Ford's Expedition EL is the Truckin' SUV of the Year.