More stories related to Chicago Auto Show CHICAGO – The Dodge Nitro concept SUV unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show here could come out in production form as early as 2006 for the '07 model year.

"Nitro was inspired by another concept, the Dodge M80," says Dave McKinnon, vice president of design for Chrysler Group. (See related story: Dodge Thinks Small With Nitro SUV Concept)

Based on the midsize Dodge Dakota, the M80 pickup concept was shown on the 2002 auto-show circuit as a highly stylized, but low-priced vehicle to attract youth.

The target for the M80 was a base price of $15,000 with a 4-cyl. engine and rear-wheel drive and $17,500 with a V-6 and 4-wheel drive. But plans for a production vehicle were given the axe last year.

Dodge Nitro SUV concept

The Nitro is based on the Jeep liberty platform and was developed alongside the M80. "It takes a year from the time we get an idea until we create a concept for the auto-show circuit," McKinnon says.

"While developing the M80, we decided we needed at the same time to answer the question, ‘What if the M80 is built and we need to do a derivative of it?’ We felt an SUV would be a natural, so we created a small-scale model SUV off the M80.

"We actually finished the small-scale model of the SUV before we were done with the fullsize M80 clay model, and everyone got excited about it," he adds.

Enter the Nitro.

"Tell people you're going to build a vehicle at a certain price point, and they say do it. Tell them you have to come out at a higher price point and suddenly things change," McKinnon says.

But the SUV made business sense because it never had a specific price target. Plus, Dodge dealers were asking for an SUV smaller than the Durango.

So Dodge took Nitro to the fullsize clay model stage to see whether it merited production.

"We looked at which platform would make sense to develop it on. We decided on the Jeep Liberty because consumers are looking for smaller, more city friendly SUVs," McKinnon says.

For Nitro, the Liberty platform got a stretch and a new body, or what the industry calls a top hat, as a quick and inexpensive change.

Nitro is built on a 108.3-in. (275-cm) wheelbase and is 178.8 ins. (454 cm) long overall, which makes it slightly larger than the Liberty at 104.3 ins. (265 cm) and 174.4 ins. (443 cm), respectively.

That also makes Nitro slightly smaller than a Durango, which has a 119.2-in. (302.7-cm) wheelbase and 200.8-in. (510-cm) overall length. And to make the project even quicker and less expensive, Nitro also is getting the interior from the popular M80.

The concept went from virtual reality to clay model early last summer, when the sons and daughters of Dodge dealers were brought to Chrysler's Auburn Hills, MI, headquarters for a look.

"They were 18 to 40 years old in order to get a wide sampling of both ages and genders, and they unanimously loved the vehicle," McKinnon says.

That earned Nitro a spot on the show circuit to determine whether the public was as enamored with it as the dealers' kids.

"We want to use the auto show to create some excitement in the vehicle to learn if the reaction by the public is the same…and if consumers really want one," he says

While Chrysler Group will conduct some consumer surveys at and after the show, McKinnon says he'll also use a less scientific approach to determine whether people like Nitro.

"Dealers who work the show are very observant and will report back what they hear,” he says. “But I'm also going to the show to stand by the vehicle and listen to what people say, because you can learn by listening.”