The Dodge Avenger is an honest, straightforward sedan at a good price. In certain respects it's less sophisticated than some competitors, but it's powerful, comfortable and reasonably economical to operate. It's also quiet and pleasant to drive.
A thorough update for the 2011 model year made the Avenger much more competitive in key areas. For 2012, the Avenger model line-up has been revised, replacing super-hero sounding names with five simple alpha-numeric designations, and making prices even more attractive.
Dodge calls Avenger America's most affordable mid-size sedan, and based on current retail prices, we can't disagree. Yet the Avenger isn't just selling price. Both the base four-cylinder engine and the upgrade V6 deliver excellent power and competitive mileage ratings. We might call it a mid-size package with compact value.
Avenger has been styled as a smaller version of Dodge's hot-selling, full-size Charger. It's clean, tightly creased and not bad looking, but it doesn't stand out in any particular way, and certainly not like the Charger. Its basic visual impact is retrograde, and that could appeal to some mid-size buyers.
The Dodge Avenger cabin contributes to a relaxing, pleasant driving experience. The quality of the interior materials isn't the best in the class, but the Avenger is comfortable and the controls are intuitive and easy to use.
The Avenger SE retails for hundreds of dollars less than the next competitive mid-size sedan, and it comes well equipped. Its 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder is strong and smooth, with acceleration performance that's better than adequate. With the 4-speed automatic transmission, the Avenger SE is EPA-rated at 21/30 mpg City/Highway. Avenger SXT models come with more equipment and the 6-speed automatic with the four-cylinder, increasing the EPA Highway rating to 31, for mileage ratings of 20/31 mpg.
New for 2012, Avenger SE V6 upgrades with a 283-hp, 3.6-liter V6 and a 6-speed automatic. It's thousands less than other mid-size V6s, yet it's the most powerful V6 in its class. EPA ratings are 19/29 mpg.
Avenger R/T comes with the V6, a sports suspension and racy stripes and interior treatment. We might call it a contemporary muscle car. Loaded with navigation and the Boston Acoustics audio upgrade, an Avenger R/T we tested barely cracked $27,000.
The Avenger chassis is shared with the Chrysler Sebring, which was designed to be a convertible as well as a sedan, so the chassis is stiff and strong. You'll feel the tightness in both the cabin and handling. Dodge aced the suspension, and both ride quality and cornering response are excellent, benefits of that rigid chassis. The fine balance of comfort and handling contribute significantly to Avenger's appeal.
This mid-size has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick award. Avenger comes standard with six airbags, electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes.
The Dodge Avenger isn't bad looking. It's smooth and clean with sharp creases, but it just seems to gets lost among all the mid-size vanilla sedans. It misses an opportunity to be eye-catching, like Dodge's full-size Charger.
The Avenger was significantly updated for 2011, with a slightly wider track and wider standard tires. The changes create the impression of a lower, wider stance and a better planted car, and we certainly like it better than the original 2008-2010 Avenger.
Avenger's shape suggests the Charger, especially at the hips and roofline, but doesn't inspire like its larger sibling. Its clean look is emphasized by the lack of cladding or ding strips on the sides and body-colored door handles and mirrors (except on the base SE). The bumpers, front and rear, are smooth. They need to be sculpted more, or something.
The crosshair grille is a Dodge trademark, but it doesn't work for us on the Avenger, partly because it's plated-chrome plastic. And it doesn't seem as if much work went into making the dual headlights sleek. There are twin character lines on the hood, deep enough that you can see they're V-shaped, but they don't do much to accentuate the long hood.
The Avenger R/T, new for 2012, is most likely to stand out from the pack. It's easy to spot for its monochrome paint scheme, black headlight background and go-fast slash stripes on the front fenders. Yet the distinctions are mostly in-your-face graphics, rather than an inherently racy shape or look. The body-colored crosshair on the R/T grille helps some, and the black egg-crate in the grille and below the bumper is an improvement.
Most cars in the mid-size class are trying to look like sleek luxury sedans, with varying degrees of success. The Avenger says retro, period.
The prevailing impression inside the Dodge Avenger is driven by its to-the-point layout and easy, comfortable space. It's not particularly exciting, but neither is it annoying, frustrating, or inconvenient, as are many cars with interiors and controls that try to do too much or be cool. The Avenger is simple: everything in its correct place, and not too much of it. That alone makes driving more relaxing.
The Avenger's dashboard is big and slabby, perhaps described as monolithic. The doors are well designed, with comfortable armrests, a good grab handle, door pockets, and small levers that make opening easy. The best part of the interior might be the expensive feel of the perforated leather on the steering wheel, standard on all but the base SE. The worst part might be some cheap looking chrome and faux aluminum trim. An interior overhaul for 2011 improved fit and finish substantially, but the Avenger's interior materials are still not best in class.
In front, the Avenger feels a little more enclosed than the roomiest cars in its class, partly for the massive impact of the dash, but it doesn't feel confining. The fabric on the base seats is good and rugged, though a bit boring in light colors and better in black. The front seats are comfortable for cruising and long hauls, but not as supportive as they might be in corners. Those in the sporty R/T have leather bolsters, red stitching and unique, Z-striped fabric inserts. The bolstering improves a bit, but the sport seats are still a bit too much like heavy, cushy Barcaloungers for truly aggressive driving.
The instrument package is a nicely lit cluster of three gauges, with the largest in the center and one on either inside. All models have a tach, and a fuel/temperature package on the left, with a digital display on the bottom that allows the driver to scroll various options. Still, our biggest single gripe inside the Avenger applies to the gauges, because the one on the right is very hard to see.
On the R/T, the tach gets the big spot in the center. The speedo is on the right, blocked by the wheel rim depending on where you set it, and there is no digital readout. Besides being blocked, the script on the speedometer is small and hard to read, so it's hard to note what speed you're traveling without staring at the speedo for a second. That isn't good. On other models, the speedo stays in the center, and the problem reading the right gauge (the tach) becomes a little less crucial.
The Avenger has thumb-wheel controls for cruise and audio on the steering-wheel spokes. The lights, wipers etc. on the column stalks are easy to find and operate, but the stalks themselves feel a bit more shaky or wobbly than those in some competitors. There are three big, solid, perfectly placed knobs for climate control at the bottom of the center stack. They're as good as any car gets.
Avengers equipped with navigation or the Boston Acoustics audio upgrade have a 6.5-touch screen in the middle of the center stack, flanked by four menu buttons and a rotary knob for volume. It makes for one of the easiest systems to use in any car. However, the screen graphics are thick and hard to read.
There's plenty of space for front passengers to put things, with two cupholders in the center console, behind a power point and audio jack. The console has a sliding armrest and a big storage box, and the glovebox holds a lot more than the owner's manual. The bins molded at the bottom of the front door panels are a bit narrow and noisy, but they work.
Some of the Avenger's rear-seat dimensions are smaller than the competition's, but we found no shortage of space. With the driver's seat set for a five-foot, eight-inch driver, there was enough legroom behind for a five-foot, eight-inch passenger to fully extend legs under the front seat, and at least five inches of headroom to spare.
The outside rear seats are contoured and comfortable, with adequate amenities. Rear passengers get the same, bright, aim-able LED map lights as those in front, two cupholders in the folding center armrest and molded bottle holders in the door bins. There's a map pocket on the back of the driver's seat, but not on the front passenger's.
The Avenger's trunk is deep, top to bottom, though the floor length going forward toward the seatback in shorter than in some competitors. The opening is large, and the lid swings high, managed by gas struts. Overall, the Avenger delivers 13.5 cubic feet of trunk space, or less than competitors like the Ford Fusion (16.5), Hyundai Sonata (16.4), Chevy Malibu (15.1) or Honda Accord (14.7).
The trunk is lined with surprisingly rich carpet, almost as good as what's inside the cabin. Our test cars had no cargo net. There's a small pass-through for long objects such as a couple of two-by-fours or fishing poles. The rear seat also splits and folds, expanding available cargo space. Still, the bulkhead behind the Avenger's rear seat limits the size of the objects the can fit from trunk to cabin, compared to some cars. And worse: There is no release on the trunk lid, so you'll have to open it with key-fob button, or the release inside the car. Trunk lid releases located on the back of the car are a handy thing to have.
The value built into the Dodge Avenger jumps out in the driving, because the car is more enjoyable to drive than some of the more expensive mid-size sedans. Both the base four-cylinder engine and the upgrade V6 are strong, with good fuel economy ratings. Handling is light and responsive around town. The ride is smooth, even over bad pavement, and the Avenger is generally quiet.
Avenger's standard 2.4-liter, 173-horspepower four-cylinder is EPA-rated at 20 mpg City and 31 Highway with the 6-speed automatic transmission. It feels athletic, like it's working hard but could work forever. Noise and vibration are well isolated from the cabin, and the harder you run it, the smoother the four-cylinder gets. It pushes the Avenger briskly, more than fast enough to keep up. There are some turbocharged four-cylinders in midsize cars that are faster, but those are turbos. They cost more to build, and that's reflected in the price of the car.
New for 2012, the Avenger SE V6 is powered by Dodge's 3.6-liter overhead cam V6, which is used in a range of vehicles. The company claims it is both the least expensive and most powerful V6 in the class, and we've found nothing to refute that. And the V6 still delivers a respectable 19 mpg City, 29 Highway EPA rating.
The 6-speed automatic transmission, standard on all but the base Avenger SE, is fine for everyday driving. In Drive, around town, the upshifts are quick enough, and smooth. This transmission isn't too slow to drop down a gear, either, and most of the time the Avenger chooses the gear you expect it to. On the highway with your foot on the floor, the upshifts feel a bit slower, but they come at the four-cylinder's 6500 rpm redline.
Operated in manual mode, we liked the 6-speed automatic a lot less. We'd hoped the buttons on the back of the steering-wheel spokes allowed manual shifting, but they turned out to be audio adjustments. The only way to shift manually is with the plus-minus slot on the shift lever. Doing so, the 6-speed was all over the place, only rarely keeping the gear we selected. Run up toward the redline and it will shift itself up. Keep the engine revving too slowly for the chosen gear, and the transmission will automatically kick down. Ironically, Dodge more or less invented manual-automatic shifting in 1995, and back then it was much truer to the driver's commands. Now the computer brain too frequently overrules the driver's desires and intent. In short, it's best to just put it in Drive and leave it there or use the manual feature to help it along.
This all makes us wonder if maybe the 4-speed automatic in the low-dollar SE four-cylinder model is actually a disadvantage after all, especially for those committed to four-cylinder fuel economy. At the very least, the four-speed will shift less frequently. And while it drops one mpg Highway in the EPA ratings (to 30), the four-speed Avenger increases one mpg City (to 21).
We really like Avenger's ride-handling balance, because it has a big impact on making it a pleasant car to drive. Dodge retuned or redesigned virtually every part of the suspension for 2011, and they aced it. There's very little body roll or undulation, better isolation of road shock, better steering precision and increased grip, thanks to wider tires.
We ran the four-cylinder Avenger at a spirited pace through a long, climbing section of curves, and were impressed by how nicely it responded to steering input, even when we pushed it. On smooth curves it dove in with accuracy, and on choppy ones it stayed stable. Bumps don't upset the Avenger. It fends them off well. There's a point where the suspension could be firmer, but that point is beyond where most people ever drive. If you want to drive like that, the Avenger R/T is for you, but it isn't required. The everyday suspension works fine, and the Avenger SE V6 may be the Avenger for closet hot-rodders on a budget.
The R/T is definitely more firmly sprung than the other Avengers are, but there isn't a serious degradation in ride quality. Its suspension tuning gives it a heavier, muscular feel, more so than we'd expect in the typical mainstream mid-size. Then there's that 283-horsepower V6, with 260 pound-feet of torque, delivering serious acceleration and a nice growl when it's floored: strong, solid but not obnoxious.
The R/T is generally quiet otherwise, notable mostly for some tire slap, and it still delivers that 29 mpg Highway rating. Too bad there's no manual transmission. That might make the Avenger R/T a truly affordable muscle car for the 2010s.
Brakes might be the weakest point in the dynamic package of the Avenger. Pedal feel is fine, and you'll notice nothing untoward around town. But when we came back down our curvy mountain and used them hard, the brakes didn't feel strong enough to encourage us to really push them. No fade, but the feel didn't inspire confidence.
Recent improvements make the Dodge Avenger a contender, delivering more bang for the buck than most competitors. Its interior still isn't the richest or most sophisticated in this class, but it's roomy, quiet, straightforward and effective, like the car in general. The ride/handling balance is excellent. With a choice of engines, a range of models and good mileage ratings, the Avenger mates value and features with prices that are hard to beat.
Sam Moses reported from Portland, Oregon. With J.P. Vettraino reporting from Detroit.