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This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Mon, Apr 7, 2008

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

BIG BANG THEORY By Zoran Segina We hang out together. We played jazz together. We shared clothes. We vacationed together. We skied together. We chased girls together. We were young, more than occasionally stupid, but always full of life. In a country far away, Damir was one of the my best friends - the brother I never had. Then, with time, a "wind that scatters young men through the world, to seek their fortunes farther than at home," took me to America. Damir stayed in Zagreb, our home town. We got married, then came children, and the youthful physiques gave way to expanded waistline (on my part) and receding hairlines (on both parts). Wild parties at the dancing club into the wee hours have readily been replaced with a good dinner, glass of wine, and good night of sleep. But under the burden of mortgages and scholarships, there still continue to beat in our chests those youthful hearts from decades ago - especially when we get together. The distances, finances and commitments make this a rare occurrence, but that much sweeter and more intense. The phone rings at dawn - Damir's trademark. His eagerness to share the news with me right away will not be impeded by the pesky geographical fact that we are separated by two continents, one ocean and (very important) a nine-hour time difference. It's nice to hear from Damir. "We are coming to California, Marty and I," he blurts. "You have to find us the top hotel in town, and get us a transportation, and we need to see the Westside, Beverly Hills, and of course, Hollywood - you must show us the sign, than we want to see Los Angeles, and go sailing on the Santa Monica Bay, and visit a nightclub with the best music, and you absolutely have to take us to the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, you know it has been my favorite since the filming of 'Some Like it Hot.' And Marty and I need to go shopping." He gives me the date - they arrive on Super Tuesday.

So there I am. Given the frenetic schedule, I need suitable transportation for my friends. Definitely an American make, something with character, room for luggage, and enough power and space to haul us around, but not overly big, so that we can sneak through the narrow streets, alleys, and parking lots of all of Southern California. The first glance at the 2008 Dodge Nitro, our workhorse for the trip, confirms that this is the right choice. It's a sport utility vehicle, based on a lengthened Jeep Liberty platform, which from the front fascia to the exhaust pipe oozes masculinity. We are traveling in the top-of-the-line R/T, with a four-liter V-6, and a five speed automatic that can, owing to the optional package, distribute its 260 horses to all four wheels (should we get stuck in the wilderness of Beverly Hills). Despite the Nitro's bold monochromatic paint and modern styling, the boys will find something nostalgic about its looks. It takes me a while to figure it out, until I realize that, with the front fender flares and narrowly positioned headlights, the Nitro harkens to the trucks of the past, the 40s or 50s perhaps (the Chevy HHR is in a similar category). The young urbanites may not realize the historic similarity, but the three aging connoisseurs would find it appealing. Tuesday morn found me heading into Los Angeles International Airport to pick up my guys. At least we had an early start. It's not easy to figure all the features on the Nitro's dashboard at five in the morning - there are so many of them. This R/T comes loaded with so many options it could be traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The center console contains the large screen, which supports regular and satellite radios, navigation package with the GPS control system, MP3 player, and a bevy of other features which could be only brought to life by a deft hand of a teenager, as opposed to fumbling fingers of a cybernetically challenged middle-aged guy, en route to pick up two other similarly challenged partners. I am unsuccessfully trying to find the button to dim the center panel (it shines too brightly). This may have been the result of either a design flaw, or this aging driver's need for new eyeglasses. The Nitro's ride is stiff because it carries a body-on-frame - a reminder of the time when SUVs rode on truck chassis. Nevertheless, my back does not complain as it was firmly supported by a two-tone black seat with bright red inserts.

By the time I arrive at the terminal, Damir and Marty are eagerly awaiting me. Throwing the luggage in the back, without throwing out our respective backs, was helped by a Load 'n Go floor that slides out, allowing the suitcases to be loaded. The whole floor then slides back into the cargo area. We drop the luggage at the hotel and headed for breakfast. Imagine our surprise when, at six in the morning, in front of Rae's in Santa Monica, we park next to another Dodge Nitro. Good sign. So the adventure starts. Let's see - going to vote on Super Tuesday, then onto the Westside, Westwood and UCLA campus, visiting Century City, and Beverly Hills with Rodeo Drive (of course), checking the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel with a Rolls Royce Phantom in front of the main entrance, then to La Cienega, all the way up to Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, brief photo-op at Yamashiro for the view of the Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records building, back to the Roosevelt Hotel, and Kodak Theater, then heading downtown, stopping at Olvera Street, visiting Avila Adobe (when you come from Europe an 1816 building is not considered that old), a brief glance at the Union Station, experiencing a miracle when we found an empty parking spot in the center of the Fashion District. So far, my one-man-tour-operator-business is on schedule. Throughout this feat, the Nitro holds well. The Sirius satellite station is tuned to the Seriously Sinatra channel, and remains there for the next two days. The SUV, despite its increased size, is nimble in the city traffic and easy to maneuver. The body-on-frame chassis handles the pockmarks of Los Angeles streets with ease, and the engine provide enough oomph to get the Nitro out of any sticky situation. A sunroof offered an added view of the billboards on the Sunset Boulevard, and the height of the SUV allowed the guys to get an overview of the city. One of the more serious problems is the side view mirrors. The stylish design leaves the shoulder line exceptionally high, so it is nearly impossible to notice smaller cars in the adjacent lanes. The side view mirror angle is too small to adequately cover this area, and as I navigated the Nitro around town, on two occasions it was only Damir's yelling that prevented a fender-bender. We have lunch at Catch 21 - an out-of-the-way hole in downtown Los Angeles, which harbors a fantastic fish restaurant (and where a catch of the day may include a broiled snapper for six bucks, and on the worn plastic benches, a Los Angeles County Supervisors as a luncheon companion). The guys loved it, and Marty wondered how to take the whole operation back home. I then take Damir, an accomplished jazz guitarist, to McCabe's Guitar shop, followed by an afternoon of sailing on the Santa Monica Bay with the obligatory sea lion viewing. Despite the sunny weather, a Pacific in February proves to be a cold venue and Damir and Marty thoroughly freeze. By the time we reach dinner, it's obvious that the nightclub visit will have to be dropped from the schedule. At our youthful age, and given the full day ahead (there was still San Diego on the schedule) discretion is always a better part of valor. Wednesday is the day for the big road, hopefully a welcome respite from the 13 miles per gallon average fuel consumption of yesterday. Our itinerary includes the coastal route to San Diego, and the freeway home, in time for dinner with the Tall Girl. After leaving the Pacific Coast Highway where we loaded, and discharged, pertinent liquids, Marty pointed to the two large cup holders between the front seats berating Damir: "It will be a hot day. You should have bought some beer, so we can sip along the way." I promptly explain to my European passengers the consequences of carrying an open alcoholic beverage container in the car. As I went through the draconian measures awaiting the offenders, Damir's eyes keep on growing. "Is that the law everywhere?," he inquires. It turns out that in their first leg of the trip, my fellows rented a car, and, owing to hot weather, bought lager. They proceeded to drive around the state for several days cooling themselves as needed, with two large cans sitting in plain view between the front seats. Now that you guys are safely out of jurisdiction, I can assure you that this may have ended up having the most memorable vacation ever. In California, people pay money to spend a night in Alcatraz. But this is for the tourists. You, friends, would have had the real thing, bookings, fingerprints, jail cells, arraignments, criminal judges and all. Like in the movies.

We continue on a non-alcoholic basis through Palos Verdes toward Long Beach. It's impossible not to visit the Queen Mary, since she is large and already there. By the time we finish with the ship and lunch, a good portion of the day is spent. We need the fastest route to the Hotel Del Coronado and the Nitro's satellite navigation proves invaluable. The central screen provides not only the simplest and fastest route, but the GPS module calculates the estimated time of arrival. In addition, a driver can review a traffic report which provides road conditions along the way. As the Nitro's twenty-inch wheels keep devouring the hundred-or-so miles to our destination, Marty's lower back (ravaged by years of professional sports and overly good life) starts protesting. He spreads his six-foot-two frame across the back bench and announces that he'll doze off for ten minutes or so. He promptly falls asleep and wakes up refreshed in front of the Del Coronado Hotel, an hour-and-a-half later. Note to Dodge: when conditions are right, the body-on-frame chassis is neither stiff nor uncomfortable. We wander around the hotel, onto the beach, and through the ballrooms. Damir is in heaven. "There are no pictures of the movie 'Some Like it Hot,'" he complains. "They should advertise it more." He disregards the swarms of tourists milling about every area, inside and out. This place does not need any more advertising. "Look at this creep," Damir continues. "How can he come into a hotel like this in shorts and flip-flops?" A lively discussion ensues. My guys conclude that, if they owned the Hotel Del Coronado, the entrance would me manned by a team of bouncers with instructions to strictly enforce a semi-formal dress code, Southern California casual culture be damned. A quick glance around the reception indicated that, were Damir and Marty in charge, the venerable hotel would suddenly become a very lonely and empty place. We head back under starry skies. By now I figure how to dim the dashboard, and the automatic rear view mirror keeps the headlights glare of the traffic behind us firmly under control. The Nitro moves along at a lively pace, its six cylinders providing enough torque to keep us at a steady freeway speed through all the hills and canyons of the Orange County toll road and beyond. On the open road, the Nitro is an exceptionally competent vehicle, and the overall fuel consumption rises to an acceptable 15.8 miles per gallon. We reached Marina Del Ray in time for late dinner, keeping the Tall Girl content. She, very wisely, decides to skip most of the ordeal, and join us only for the more serene moments. The next morning, Damir and Marty demand to be taken to Rae's for breakfast, proclaiming that given the quality of the food and reasonable prices, this is the only place they will ever eat breakfast in Los Angeles. This is followed by seemingly interminable shopping on the Third Street promenade, and an express visit to the Santa Monica Pier, because the guys had to be on the four-o'clock flight back home. The parking attendant at the Pier likes the Nitro. "Is this made in America?," he asks, and seemed pleased when reassured that this is, indeed, a genuine USA machine. Five minutes later, a woman in the next lane motions to Damir to roll the window down. We immediately assume that this is because of his good looks, but Sonia has a different objective. "This is the size SUV I need," she proclaims. Sonia is piloting a big black Suburban, and compared to her fuel consumption, the Nitro is a miser.

We have another long lunch at the waterfront yakking the hours away. I say goodbye to Damir and Marty so close to the departure time, that I spend the rest of the afternoon half expecting to hear from my musketeers that they were left at the terminal. Only now I have the time to explore some of the Nitro's other features, such as steering wheel-mounted buttons to check individual tire pressures, personal display settings, audio modes, system status messages, and the voice-activated communication system that not only lets the driver dial a Bluetooth-compatible wireless phone with simple voice commands, but automatically mutes the radio before receiving or sending a call. There is also something called MyGIG in-dash DVD dealing presumably with videos - frankly a feature way above my technical ability. We'll have to wait for Damir's teenage kids to get it going when they visit us next time. I also for the first time figure out the programmable timing on the power door locks with remote keyless entry - throughout the trip I looked somewhat Neanderthalish when trying to turn off the interior and exterior lights which kept glowing after I locked the car. It turns out that the whole system has a programmable timer. And yes, the Nitro can be started from up to 300 feet away. Guys, you'll have to trust me on this one, it is a cool feature. We are just too busy with the memories to use it. The value of lifetime friendships and the precious little time I spent with Damir cannot be measured in dollars. The cars, alas, do not have that sentimental advantage. Their reality is a harsh world of international and domestic competition. The Nitro R/T tips the financial scales at $32,200, and in that price range there are a lot of SUVs and CUVs with more modern platforms. The Nitro's minor shortcomings suddenly become sizable annoyances. My left foot misses a rest pedal, and I find the horn in the center of the steering wheel awkward. The view to the rear is limited. However, the Nitro has a cool sensor consisting of horizontally positioned lights which turn from yellow to red as one approaches an obstacle. Power seats are a mixed bag: power and manual for the driver and all manual for the co-pilot. The phone rings at dawn. "Zoran, you remember the T-shirts Marty bought at the Santa Monica Mall? I need two, medium size for my Sasha. She is kind of upset that I spent so much time away from home." No kidding. Is there a spouse with two kids who would remain calm while the significant other went gallivanting halfway around the world. Alone. My best friend's marital happiness depended on my swift action. The shirts were bought and promptly sent. The phone again rings at dawn. "Zoran, start planning. Next year, Sasha and I are coming together. We have to go to Vegas, and see San Francisco, and visit Hollywood." I guess I better line up that Nitro again.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT Far from perfection; but in R/T guise, it is a blast for the offering. For more information about Dodge products, go to SPECIFICATIONS Name of vehicle Dodge Nitro R/T 4X4 Price: $27,840 $32,200 (as tested) Engine 4.0L SOHC 24-valve V6 Horsepower @ RPM 260 @6000 Torque (pound-feet) @ RPM 265 @ 4200 rpm EPA Fuel Economy City / Highway 15 / 20 miles per gallon Combined Fuel Economy 17 miles per gallon Standard Transmission 5-Speed Automatic Brakes: Disc (front and rear) Driveline Four Wheel Drive Part-Time Steering Rack & Pinion Suspension Front - Independent Rear - Live axle Height 69.9 Length 178.9 Curb Weight 4151

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