The Dodge Avenger holds an unenviable distinction here at The Garage, as it was named 2009’s Worst Car of the Year. Naturally, when after booking a winter getaway to the most opulent region of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, I cringed a bit when I found the Avenger would be the car I would be reviewing that week. The good news was Dodge had improved the Avenger for 2011 with revised sheetmetal, an improved interior, suspension, and a brand new engine. While my fears were somewhat assuaged by the improvements, the nagging fear of the Avenger’s reputation as nothing but a “rental car” persisted. The greater question is if Dodge has managed to bridge the canyon that separated its mid-size sedan to the white-hot competition it faces. Read on to find out!
The Dodge Avenger is the corporate sibling to the Chrysler 200 (nee Sebring). With Dodge’s emphasis on muscle over Chrysler’s elegance, the Avenger attempts to recall the larger Charger with its rear haunches. While Dodge has managed to add some freshness with the new sheetmetal, it is still easily recognizable with familiar features like the aforementioned rear haunches, and signature cross-hair grill. Dodge has managed to add some more design detail to the headlamp/taillight housings, but even in top-spec Lux trim, the Avenger remains a clean, uncluttered design. If anything, the Avenger does make a slightly stronger visual statement than the Camry or Accord.
One of the most glaring problems of the Avenger was the execution of its interior. Cut-rate plastics and lackluster design did the car no favors, but the improved interior goes a long way in making for a more hospitable environment. The Avenger proved to be a comfortable place to spend a few hours. The black and tan interior made for a bright and pleasant atmosphere, but apart from from silver trim around the dash vents, there was little to break up the black dashboard. The new steering wheel was a pleasure to hold, gauges were easy to read, and the overall layout was easy to understand. While the audio/navigation interface was a bit basic in appearance, it was fairly straightforward and intuitive to use, which is always a plus.
While the seats were on the flat side with not much in the way of bolstering, they were comfortable for extended periods. Fitted with the optional Boston Acoustics stereo, the Avenger acquitted itself better than expected for an out of state trip. Headroom was plentiful. If I had any complaints about the Avenger’s traveling capabilities, it was the rather small trunk.
When the Avenger was awarded its ugly crown of Worst Car of the Year, the test car was powered by the unloved 2.4L four cylinder, rated at 173hp. While that engine carries over for 2011, our Avenger was equipped with Chrysler’s brand-new 3.6L V-6. Rated at 283hp, it is the most powerful engine in its class. Paired to a six-speed automatic, the V-6 Avenger has EPA ratings of 19/29MPG city/highway. Cruising up I-95 through Providence at a steady 80mph, the Avenger’s trip computer was reading a solid 28mpg, not too bad. The automatic clearly favors maximizing fuel economy, as it is always inclined to grab a higher gear. So while this may be the most powerful V-6 in its class, my overall impression was the tranny seemed to take the fun out of that. That said, the new V-6 was smooth, quiet, reasonably efficient and delivered all the power needed when called upon.
The Avenger is available in five trim levels: Express, Mainstreet, Heat, R/T, and Lux. While I suspect the nomenclature is a response of critics complaints about alphanumeric model designations, the names do give a vague sense of what to expect. Still, five trim levels seems like overkill, and to confuse things further the V-6 is the only engine on the Heat and R/T, but the four cylinder is the standard engine on the top-spec Lux. Avenger buyers with a sporting bent will want the R/T with its performance tuned steering, sport suspension and rear spoiler.
Our top-line Lux test car has a starting MSRP of $23,545 and comes standard with 18″ chrome alloys, leather interior, power driver’s seat, heated seats, auto climate control, 30GB hard drive for your tunes, Bluetooth and LED lighting. With the optional V-6, Boston Acoustics audio, and GPS navigation, the price as tested came in at a respectable $27,255, including destination. For the equipment you get, this represents a decent price compared to the competition.
But the competition is cutthroat. The Honda Accord, and Nissan Altima boast even more silken V-6’s, more trunk space, and more upscale interiors-but yes, you will pay more for a similarly equipped car from the Japanese. On a price-competitive level, even greater worry for Dodge should be the new Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima, cars whose appearance make the Avenger look dowdy in comparison.
In fairness, I think the people at Dodge were aware from the start they did not have an Accord-killer on their hands. From Daimler’s takeover and Cerberus’ lack of development, Dodge has been unable to field a top-level mid-size car through no fault of their own. In a very short period of time, Dodge was able to vastly improve the Avenger. As I saw the Avenger being driven away, I could offer no major, deal-breaking criticism of the car. Were those improvements enough to put it on the level of Accord, Camry, or Altima? No, and that won’t happen until Dodge is given a clean sheet of paper.
I applaud Dodge for the progress made on the Avenger, but it will take more than a refresh to dispel the car buying public’s perception of the Avenger as a fleet car. Ã‚Â On the flip side, would I ridicule anyone who bought an Avenger? Not at all. The Avenger whisked me and my family in perfect comfort to one of our favorite places in the world in quiet and comfort, and never once skipped a beat or let us down. The heated leather seats kept us warm on cooler Cape nights, and the jazz music emanating from the Boston Acoustic stereo was crystal clear-hardly the stuff ‘rental cars’ are made of.