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The Dodge Avenger replaces all models of the old Dodge Stratus cab-forward front-drive sedan with an all-new chassis, body, suspension and powertrain lineup. It comes with a host of new standard equipment items never before seen in this segment and a wide range of options. It will compete at the heart of the American market with the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Pontiac G6, among others.
The Avenger shares all of its major mechanical systems and components with the Chrysler Sebring, although it is by no means just a clone. The Avenger chassis shared with the Sebring was designed from the beginning for a convertible as well as a sedan, and that means that it is extraordinarily stiff and strong compared to the old Stratus sedans, 1.7 times stiffer in twisting and 1.6 times stronger in bending. It's also designed to meet all of the coming crash regulations aimed at pedestrian safety and get multiple five-start crash ratings, too.
The sibling entry, the Chrysler Sebring, although it starts at about the same price, is a rounder, more traditional design for a different customer. The Dodge Avenger will reach out to those buyers looking for something different in a huge part of the market that offers a lot of sameness: front-wheel drive, four-cylinder or V6 engines, around 100 cubic feet of interior space, navigation, satellite radio and lots of interior storage spaces. Almost 2 million cars are sold each year in this, the largest single passenger-car market segment, and very few of them have the combination of style, features and options that the new Avenger will be offering.
Those features include a drink cooler in the dashboard, an optional beverage cooling/heating system in the center console, an optional rear-seat entertainment system in a sedan body (most are found in minivans and SUVs), and a 20-gigabyte hard-drive option for navigation, audio and photo storage.
The proposition here is a simple one: a scaled-down Charger four-door coupe for those family sedan buyers who would really like to have a car that looks like a big Charger, but operate their lives on a four-cylinder or V6 budget and sensibility, not a 5.7-liter Hemi budget.
The SE and SXT come with the 2.4-liter VVT inline four-cylinder engine. The SXT's performance can be boosted considerably with the optional 2.7-liter V6 engine that will also run on E85 ethanol fuel. Both engines come with a four-speed automatic transmissions. The R/T comes with the 3.5-liter V6 engine and a new six-speed overdrive automatic transaxle. The Avenger is front-wheel drive. All-wheel drive will also be available.
The Dodge Avenger comes in three models the base SE model, the middle SXT version, and the high-performance R/T.
Later in the model year, Avenger will become the first Dodge-brand front-drive car to offer an optional all-wheel-drive system. The AWD, which uses a simple power-takeoff from the six-speed automatic, will be fully computerized and capable of delivering up to 95 percent of drive torque to either front or rear wheels. It will be offered only on R/T versions with the 3.5-liter V6 engine.
You can tell them apart by their grilles. The SE versions have body-colored grilles, while SXT and R/T models have black-and-chrome grilles. But if you want your SE or SXT to look like an R/T, you can order a package that includes 18-inch wheels and tires, and the R/T rear spoiler.
The Dodge Avenger replaces the Stratus with a package that is 1.2 inches wider and four inches longer. It is the first car in a long time to bring some real style to the middle of the American car market, competing directly against a host of cars that are shaped like half-dissolved lozenges.
The Avenger unashamedly takes all of its design licks directly from Dodge's first four-door coupe, the Charger, and just downsizes everything a little bit here and there to become a stylish midsize family sedan.
The bodies of all the trim levels are the same, front, side and rear, but the R/T version adds a rear decklid spoiler just to let you know it's an R/T, even if you're not close enough to read the decklid badge. The grille, the bumpers, the taillights, and that familiar body kick-up at the trailing edge of the rear doors tell you that this is not like the rest of them in the midsize pack. That's how they made a Dodge out of a Chrysler platform.
Because of the redesign, the interior package of the Charger is substantially better than that of the outgoing Stratus. The driver sits 2.5 inches higher than before. There's 2.5 inches more headroom, 1.2 inches more shoulder room, and one inch more hip room in the front seat, and the cabin in total measures almost 101 cubic feet by EPA method.
One of its unique items is the Chill Zone, standard in all models, which uses the car's air conditioning system to cool a bin in the passenger side upper instrument panel. The Chill Zone is designed to cool up to four 12-ounce beverage cans, or whatever else the owner can squeeze into the long, narrow space, down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. An optional center console cup holder has a two-way switch that will either heat a beverage container up to 140 degrees or cool it down to 40 degrees, a very American feature.
The interior environs of the new Dodge Avenger were quite pleasant in all three of the models we drove, the SE, SXT and R/T. The front bucket seats are widely adjustable, comfortable, and generally supportive, although the thigh support is lacking for tall drivers. A standard feature on all models is a tilting, telescoping steering wheel, not usually found in this price class, but welcome and useful.
The instruments are laid out in an orderly, good-looking array, white on black with chrome trim rings, and the brushed-metal center stack presented no challenges to understanding and use. There is even some news in the upholstery, because Dodge has used Yes Essentials fabric treatment that is anti-stain, anti-static, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, another first. Also, you can get heated seats in either leather or cloth.
Another interesting interior option is the MyGIG, a 20-gigabyte hard drive that holds all the navigation data and can be used to store up to 1600 songs taken off inserted CDs, plus photos to display on the navigation screen. The nav system features 2D or 3D display, and can display real-time traffic information when paired with Sirius satellite radio.
The rear seat area is adequate, but not more. At 6-feet, 4-inches, we would have to sit behind ourselves uncomfortably splay-legged, but perhaps more normal-sized adults would find the rear seat area more accommodating. We didn't. One thing that may make the rear seat area more inviting is the optional DVD entertainment system with a small swing-up screen mounted at the rear end of the center console.
There's plenty of cargo room inside the car with 60/40 split folding rear seats and an optional folding front seat that enables carrying eight-foot-long cargoes. The trunk, at 13.3 cubic feet, is easy to load and unload because the center of the bumper is dropped to create a lower liftover height.
Driving the Dodge Avenger is a rewarding experience, especially when you keep in mind the sticker price. It's extremely solid now after the chassis improvement, and that solidity translates into a quiet cabin, very good suspension isolation, and accurate steering inputs and response.
The 3.5-liter V6 engine in the R/T version we spent the most time in was smooth, quiet, powerful and responsive, now equipped with a drive-by-wire electronic throttle that smoothes out the bumps. At a rating of 235 horsepower, this engine is well below the state of the art in power production for 3.5-liter V6s, but the ultra-smooth six-speed transmission's ratios help the car to feel light and sprightly. Dodge officials said it would deliver 16 mpg City and 26 mpg Highway under the new and stricter EPA mileage rules, about two mpg less than it would measure under the old 2007 rules.
The Avenger offers a very good combination of ride smoothness, control of body roll in corners, straight-ahead stability, and willingness to turn when asked. Compared to the outgoing Stratus, it's in a whole different category of smoothness, quietness over the road, and relatively sporty handling.
On the twisting mountain roads north of Phoenix, the Avenger R/T was a model of good behavior, with typical-for-the-class front-drive understeer, with ride, handing and suspension toward the sporty end of the spectrum, but not far from the middle. Quiet competence personified.
The brakes on the R/T are disc/disc ABS brakes, and they worked extremely well, with a nice, progressive action and pedal feel, but be aware other models use front disc and rear drum brakes without ABS (SE), and disc/drum brakes with ABS (SXT), making disc/disc ABS brakes an optional extra, and worth the money.
A three-quarter-scale replica of the Charger in many ways, the Dodge Avenger is about twice the car the Stratus was, with more style, more guts, and more verve. We really like the way the new Avenger is styled and put together. It's got real sex appeal, good fuel economy, a nice-looking, functional interior with reasonable family room (although the fast-sloping rear roof doesn't leave a lot of head room or leg room), lots of ordering flexibility with three model lines, and a host of interesting options. We would definitely put the Avenger on our shopping list.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Scottsdale, Arizona.
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