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The Dodge Avenger shares all of its major mechanical systems and components with the Chrysler Sebring, although it is by no means just a clone. The front-drive 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. It's also designed to meet all of the 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. This is the largest single passenger-car market segment, and very few of the competitors have the combination of style, features and options that the Avenger offers. Those features include a drink cooler in the dashboard, an optional beverage cooling/heating system in the center console, and an optional rear-seat entertainment system in a sedan body (most are found in minivans and SUVs).
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.
There are two trim levels, the SXT and performance-oriented R/T. The standard engine for each is a 2.4-liter flex-fuel four-cylinder with variable valve timing; it is rated at 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque, it can operate on gasoline or E85, which is the blend of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline, and it is matched with a four-speed automatic transmission. Optional on the R/T is a 3.5-liter V6 that makes 235 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque; it uses a six-speed automatic.
There are few changes for 2009. Some trim and interior items have received enhancements, 18-inch chrome-clad wheels are available on the R/T, there's a new color, and there have been changes to the options.
The two trim levels for the Dodge Avenger, the SXT and R/T, are differentiated by appearance and features. Standard on both models are power mirrors, keyless entry, 60/40-split rear seat, rear defroster, cruise control, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, tire-pressure monitor, and air conditioning.
You can tell them apart by their grilles. The SXT has a body-colored grille, while the R/T has black-and-chrome, and the R/T has a rear decklid spoiler and fog lamps. The R/T also has standard anti-lock brakes, power heated mirrors, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, an upscale sound system with six speakers instead of four, 17-inch tires and alloy wheels instead of the 16-inch tires and steel wheels of the SXT, and a higher level of interior trim. The R/T is also available with a wider range of options.
There are few options for the SXT, but several for the R/T, including Electronic Stability Program ($425), a sunroof ($795), uconnect ($360), and uconnect gps, which includes navigation and entertainment capabilities ($1,285). There are also a couple of options groups available with the R/T. The Navigation and Sound Group includes uconnect gps, navigation, six Boston Acoustics speakers, and other features ($1,695), and the Premium Convenience Group includes automatic climate control, auto headlamps, heated and cooled cupholder, one-touch front power windows, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, remote start, and a garage-door opener ($1,185).
The Dodge Avenger 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 both trim levels are the same, front, side and rear, but the R/T version adds a rear decklid spoiler, black-and-chrome grille, and fog lamps 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.
One of the interesting features of the Avenger 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 both the 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. 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 13.5 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, 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, and is equipped with a drive-by-wire electronic throttle that enhances smoothness. 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. Its fuel economy is EPA-rated at 16 mpg City and 27 mpg Highway.
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. It rides smoothly, it's quiet over the road, and it has 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 with ABS, and they worked extremely well, with a nice, progressive action and pedal feel. Anti-lock brakes are not available with the SXT.
A three-quarter-scale replica of the Charger in many ways, the Dodge Avenger has style, guts, and verve. We really like the way the 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), 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.