Dodge Avenger, a bit macho and different in a tough segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2008 Dodge Avenger brings a bold attitude to the popular mid-sized sedan segment dominated by the mainstream Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

While the best-selling Camry is the quintessential mom and pop family hauler, the new Avenger, which replaces the Stratus in the Dodge lineup, is the John Wayne flag waving all-American addition to a rather conservative and staid segment. It might be considered by some a little rough around the edges, but it has an outgoing personality that may appeal to the buyer who is ready to step away from the neighborhood sameness of the Japanese brands.

We say that if you are intrigued after taking a test drive don’t be afraid to take the leap into a true Detroit sedan.

It has styling that definitely sets it apart, it offers a rewarding driving experience, it comes with excellent fit and finish, it features a quiet interior and it’s roomy enough to comfortably transport four adults and luggage.

We like the combination of macho styling — it looks like a four-fifths scale Dodge Charger — and large array of comfort and safety features at reasonable prices.

As your eyes gaze on the sedan for the first time, they will take in the requisite in-your-face Dodge grille, large quad headlamps and a dramatic roofline. And then they’ll wander toward the rear and stop at the muscular rear haunches. Is this a Charger, your mind will ask. “Too small,” you say, “but, wow, it looks good.”

Add on 18-inch chrome-clad wheels as found on our test car and you have a sedan that will upstage your neighbor’s Camry in the driveway wars.

We think styling sells cars and this is the most adventurously penned mid-sized sedan in recent times. Its Charger profile hits the mid-sized nail on the head.

Never mind that the muscular looks aren’t backed up by a Hemi. This is a smart sedan that offers choices — a 173-horsepower 4-cylinder, a 2.7-liter V-6 generating 189 horsepower and a 3.5-liter V-6 making a satisfying 235 horsepower.

We haven’t been wowed by the 2.4-liter 4-banger, which is noisy and not particularly energetic. We have driven versions of the engine in the Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass and we weren’t enthralled.

We recommend test driving the smaller V-6, which starts at $21,145 in mid-level SXT trim, and best of all the bigger engine mated to a six-speed automatic starting at $23,545 in R/T trim.

Granted, the 235-horsepower V-6 is not a Hemi. And it doesn’t match Toyota, Nissan and Honda in power numbers. But it feels good, hustling off the line with a throaty growl reminiscent of the more famous V-8.

And it leaps from the stoplight with virtually no evidence of front-wheel-drive torque steer.

Once underway, the R/T has cat-like reflexes, quick and responsive to throttle imputes. The suspension has been tuned for aggressive driving, and while we won’t proclaim the R/T a sports sedan, we give it high marks for making the twists and turns of back road America an entertaining weekend experience.

The problem with the Avenger is that its two cars in one. One is the aggressive and pleasing R/T. The other is the more dowdy and mediocre base SE and mid-level SXT. Both of those trim levels are saddled with a four-speed automatic and softer suspension.
If you need maximum fuel economy and the best price possible to obtain the aggressive Charger look, fine. The 4-cylinder edition starts at $18,895 with a reasonable package of standard equipment. The upgraded SXT with the V-6, a $1,350 option, may be the best compromise at $21,145 including destination charge.

The SXT will give you adequate performance from its 189-horsepower V-6. And it has flex-fuel capability, meaning it can burn E85 fuel (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline). Unfortunately E85 is near impossible to find in California and almost anywhere outside the mid-west.

But don’t expect the bang-for-the-buck R/T package we’ve described above. The R/T can be had for just a couple grand more than the SXT at a base of $23,545. By all means opt for the R/T if you can find a way to stretch the budget. Our R/T test car loaded up with a half dozen options, stickered for $28,970.

A note here, especially for people living in cold-weather climates — all-wheel drive will be available in all trim levels later in the model year. The system works on demand, driving only the front wheels until power to the rear wheels is needed. All-wheel drive also comes into play on dry pavement between speeds of 25 and 65 mph to enhance handling during performance driving. No price has been listed for the option.

The Avenger has the Dodge Charger interior look as well, with a simplified gauge layout and comfortable seats. Even though our test car was a pre-production unit, seams fit snugly and all elements were aligned correctly.

That being said, we wonder why Dodge continues to use a lot of hard plastics and switchgear that does not feel soft to the touch. That falls into the “rough around the edges” category. It’s disappointing, but something that we could probably live with in a sedan that is good in so many other ways.

Rear-seat passengers will enjoy decent legroom and comfortable seats with individual reading lights.

Dodge has been criticized for its smallish trunk that will accommodate only 13 cubic feet of cargo. But trunk size is deceiving. As a test we regularly place two sets of golf clubs in a trunk and there have been more than a handful of trunks bigger than the one found on the Avenger that have come up short because of their configuration. So we were delighted to find that the new Dodge swallowed up the golf sticks without complaint.

The Avenger has some unique touches: •A cooled storage compartment in the top of the instrument panel that holds up to four standing 12-ounce beverage cans. •A heated/cooled front cupholder that keeps cold beverages cool and hot beverages warm. The system heats to 140 degrees or cools to 35 degrees. It works. It kept a 20-ounce plastic bottle of Coke chilled for 45 minutes until we took the last gulp. •Heated cloth seats, a neat feature for people who don't like leather. •A DVD rear-seat entertainment system that includes stereo radio with MP3 capable CD/DVD player, six-disc CD/DVD changer and SIRIUS Satellite radio. The DVD screen folds out of the center bin instead of hanging from the ceiling so as not to block the driver’s view from the rearview mirror. •Light-emitting Diode (LED) interior lighting with high-focus white lights that provide directional lighting in both the front and rear seats.

Dodge has given high priority to safety with standard front and side airbags, full-length side-curtain airbags and tire pressure monitoring system. Antilock brakes are standard on all but the base SE model.

The Avenger competes in the toughest segment in the industry against strong competition that has grown even stronger in recent years with new, highly rated models from Ford, Hyundai and others.

But we think there is a place for the Avenger, especially outfitted in R/T trim. It marches (drives) to a slightly different beat. And we like the tune.


Base price: $18,895; as driven, $28,970
Engine: 3-5 liter V-6
Horsepower: 235 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 232 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 108.9 inches
Length: 190.9 inches
Curb weight: 3,568 pounds
Turning circle: 36.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 13 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 16.9 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 26 highway, 16 city (2008 standards)
0-60: 7 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima

The Good
• Aggressive styling
• Solid performance
• All-wheel drive is coming

The Bad
• Base models get four-speed transmission, soft suspension

The Ugly
• Avenger jumps into the most competitive segment in America