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Since its brush with bankruptcy in 2009, Chrysler has been scrambling to get back in the game, and its 2011 models do just that (especially the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee and Compass, and Dodge Durango). The new Dodge Avenger isn't a total redesign, but it's a big improvement over the previous Avenger so now it's a contender, offering midsize size at compact value.
The 2011 Dodge Avenger is a family sedan with size and safety that gets a combined 26 mpg.
The cabin has been totally redesigned for 2011, with the emphasis on silence. Noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) were reduced using 45 new sound-deadening treatments, including an acoustic glass windshield, laminated side glass, new sound absorption materials, and a new three-point engine mount system.
On the outside, the lines are cleaner and more aggressive. There's a new front fascia with the Dodge crosshair grille, and lower fascia with honeycomb opening and new projector beam foglamps. The rear fascia is more sculpted, and there are LED taillamps.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that comes standard has been recalibrated for 2011 for improved efficiency, allowing it to earn a 31 mpg Highway rating from the government, while producing the same 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque available previously. Standard transmission is a 4-speed automatic, but for 2011 there's a new 6-speed automatic transmission in most models.
Chrysler's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 is also available in the 2011 Avenger, boosting performance to a best-in-class 283 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The V6 rates 19 City and 29 Highway miles per gallon, only 2 mpg less than the four-cylinder; gaining 110 horsepower and losing only 2 mpg is excellent. The V6 costs $2500 more, adding touch-screen Media Center, foglamps, spoiler, and 18-inch wheels.
Styling-wise, the Avenger isn't bad looking, but it blends invisibly onto the highway with the vanilla sedans, unless you're a MoPar fan with your eye out for them. It misses an opportunity to be eye-catching, like its big brother the Charger. It competes in a tough midsize field, against cars with distinctive looks, for example the Ford Fusion, plus the more vanilla Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
The Avenger chassis is shared with the Chrysler Sebring, which was designed to be a convertible as well as a sedan, so it's stiff and strong, and you can feel the tightness in both the cabin and handling. It earns five-star crash ratings from the government's NHTSA.
Dodge engineers aced the suspension, upgrading 26 of 30 bushings and improving other things. When we drove the Avenger, we found ride quality and cornering response excellent. For 2011, the track is 1 inch wider, tires widened from 215 to 225 mm, and body lowered by 12 mm in front and 6 mm rear. Tighter, wider, lower, smoother, faster, it's all good.
The Avenger was supposed to be a baby Charger all along, and for 2011 it almost is, especially the Avenger R/T. A Charger-like mouth and manual transmission would clinch it.
Avenger model names sound like a family of Superheroes: Avenger Express, Avenger Mainstreet, Avenger Heat, Avenger Lux and Avenger R/T.
Dodge Avenger Express ($19,245) is well equipped with power windows and mirrors, keyless entry, 60/40-split rear seat, rear defroster, cruise control, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, tire-pressure monitor, and air conditioning. It uses the 2.4-liter engine with a 4-speed automatic transmission.
Dodge Avenger Mainstreet ($21,245) features the 6-speed automatic transmission plus six speakers instead of four, leather-wrapped steering wheel, power driver's seat, satellite radio, trip computer, and more options.
Dodge Avenger Heat ($23,745) brings it on with the new 283-horsepower V6 mated to the 6-speed automatic. Also: a touch screen, foglamps, spoiler, and 18-inch wheels.
Dodge Avenger Lux ($23,545) comes with the 2.4-liter engine (V6 optional) but more comfort and upscale looks, including leather upholstery, handsfree phone hookup, chrome wheels, no spoiler.
Dodge Avenger R/T was introduced in April 2011 as a 2012 model. Same powertrain as the Heat, but with R/T attitude: black grille and trim, and sportier interior, including a unique gauge cluster with big tach in the center. But it's the sports suspension, stiffer at every angle and roll, that makes the R/T unique. If you bought a Heat and added the R/T suspension kit, you'd have a sleeper. It wouldn't look as cool, but sometimes that's the definition of sleeper.
Safety equipment standard on all models includes electronic stability and traction control, ABS, six airbags, active head restraints, front airbags, front side airbargs, airbag curtains, tire pressure warning, and a LATCH child-seat system.
The Dodge Avenger might be smoother and cleaner for 2011, but the overall lines aren't dynamic. You can sure tell it isn't European. It doesn't even try to be sleek, unlike one competitor, the Hyundai Sonata, at least trying. The Avenger says retro, period.
Its shape suggests the Charger, especially at the hips and roofline, but doesn't inspire like it. But it's still clean, so give Dodge stylists some stars. There's no cladding or ding strips on the sides. Body-colored door handles and mirrors (except on the Express), nice. The fascia/bumpers, front and rear, are smooth but need to be sculpted more, or something.
For 2011, the stance is lower and wider, and it shows. The track is an inch wider, tires 10 mm wider, nose 12 mm lower, and rear bumper 6 mm lower. Way better than before.
The crosshair in the grille, the Dodge symbol, doesn't work for us on the Avenger, partly because it's plated-chrome plastic. Even the body-colored crosshair on the R/T doesn't help much, although it might work if it were black like the eggcrate background. That black eggrcrate works best in the horizontal openings on the lower fascia, three of them separated by small vertical struts. It doesn't seem as if much work went into making the dual headlamps sleek. There are twin character lines on the hood, deep enough that you can see they're V-shaped, that should accentuate the long hood but don't.
Black seams run along the roofline from the A pillars back to the top corners of the rear glass. Was it the Dodge Caliber that started this regrettable craze?
The Avenger isn't bad looking, it just gets lost with the vanilla sedans. It misses an opportunity to be eye-catching, like the Charger.
Inside, the 2011 Dodge Avenger is a total makeover. It's not particularly exciting, but neither is it annoying, frustrating, or inconvenient, as 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. The controls are all easy to operate, in the standard right places. That alone makes the driving more relaxing. User friendly because it doesn't confuse you.
The prevailing impression inside the Avenger is that there's a lot of room to maneuver and stretch. It feels big inside, yet not too big outside.
Rear-seat legroom is adequate at 36.2 inches, although that's nearly 2 inches less than the Volkswagen Jetta, with a wheelbase that's shorter by 4.5 inches. The Avenger has nearly an inch less rear legroom than the same-sized Ford Fusion, a midsize class leader.
The doors are designed well, with comfortable leather armrests (in our Avenger Mainstreet), a good grab handle, door pockets, and small levers that make opening the doors easy. Besides the simple and roomy layout, the best part of the interior might be the expensive feel of the leather used on the steering wheel, on Mainstreet and up models. The worst part might be the cheap looking trim, some chrome and some faux aluminum.
The numbering on the gauges misses, not ugly, cluttered or hard to read but no style; we wonder why carmakers keep playing with this, especially since Dodge has done it right before (2009 Ram, for example). Actually, the tachometer is hard to read, too small and out of the way (except on the R/T).
The fabric on our seats was boring in beige; since the fabric itself is good and rugged, we think it would look great in black. The seats are comfortable for cruising and long hauls; they're not as supportive as they might be in corners, but not every Avenger buyer wants a Charger.
For 2011, there's new ambient interior lighting, and steering wheel controls. Our Mainstreet had the optional Media Center with SIRIUS satellite radio, a 30 gb hard drive, iPod connectivity, streaming music capability and a navigation system with SIRIUS Travel Link for real-time information, all controlled on a relatively simple 6.5-inch touch screen. It also had the power sunroof.
Wonderful suspension, cornering and ride. This is the area on the new Dodge Avenger where the engineers aced it. They retuned or redesigned virtually every part of the suspension for 2011. There's very little body roll, reduced vehicle motion, improved isolation, better steering precision and increased grip, thanks to wider tires.
The handling is light and responsive around town, making the Avenger a pleasure to drive. The ride is smooth, even over bad pavement.
We ran our 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 firm suspension could be firmer, but that point is beyond where most people ever drive. If you want to drive like that, the R/T is for you. But the R/T suspension isn't required for merely spirited driving, the everyday suspension works fine for that.
We haven't tested an R/T yet, so we can't say whether or not the suspension is too firm for a comfortable everyday ride over patchy freeways. Specifically, the R/T suspension increases roll stiffness by 18 percent, spring rates by 17 percent in front and 12 percent in rear, front strut damping rates by 15 percent, rear strut damping rates by 20 percent, and the rear stabilizer bar diameter from 19 mm to 21 mm. With its 283-horsepower V6, and its 260 pound-feet of torque, the R/T is something, especially with 19/29 mpg. Too bad there's no manual transmission, to make it feel like a muscle car for today's times.
The new 6-speed automatic is okay for everyday driving in Drive, but in manual mode on those uphill curves, it didn't respond like we had hoped. If the suspension makes the Avenger fun to drive, the programming in the new 6-speed automatic spoils some fun.
Shifting side-to-side with the lever, the 6-speed was all over the place, kicking down when we didn't want it to, not downshifting when we wanted it to. Ironically, Dodge invented manual automatic shifting in the 1995 Dodge Stratus, and back then it was totally true to the driver's commands. Now there are computer brains overruling the driver's desires and intent.
Around town, stay in Drive. In manual mode the computer seems to get confused, and starts snatching the transmission if you're not going fast enough, in 4th gear at least.
Around town, the upshifts are sharp. On the highway with your foot on the floor, the upshifts feel too slow, at 6500 rpm redline.
This all makes us wonder if maybe the 4-speed automatic in the low-dollar Express model might not be so much of a disadvantage after all. There would be fewer shifts to be bothered by, at least.
Our Avenger used the 2.4-liter four-cylinder PZEV engine, rated 20 city and 31 highway miles per gallon. The 2.4-liter engine feels athletic, like it's working hard but could work forever. Noise and vibration is well isolated from the cabin, as Dodge boasts, and the harder you run it, the smoother it gets. It pushes the midsize car briskly, more than fast enough to keep up. There are some 2.0-liter turbos in midsize cars that are faster, but those are turbos.
But we took the $25,800 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid on a small road trip, right after the Avenger, and came back thinking the slick Sonata could do everything the Avenger could, with better acceleration and a ride that felt just as smooth and quiet: a 75-mph road trip at 32 miles per gallon (rated 35 city 40 highway).
The Avenger brakes might be a weak point. The pedal feel is fine, but when we came back down our curvy mountain and used them hard, they didn't feel strong enough to encourage us to push them. No fade, because we didn't use them that hard, but the pedal didn't inspire confidence.
Don't expect great traction in winter. We pulled away from a stop uphill on gravel, and didn't get much traction, not even with standard traction control, so snow might be a challenge.
Redesigned for 2011, the Dodge Avenger represents a substantial improvement over the previous model.
Sam Moses reported from Portland, Oregon.