Dodge is on the rebound. Sales are brisk, with some dealers reporting their best month in January of this year since the economic crisis started, according to a report at CNN. New models, including a beefy Jeep Grand Cherokee that lets you raise the vehicle for ground clearance with the push of a button, have helped the troubled automaker find their footing. Many of Dodge and Chryslers best models are either getting a refresh or design tweaks, and the 2011 Dodge Avenger is no different.
Interestingly, Dodge chose to emphasize certain features on the car while postponing a few other innovations, possibly until the next model year. In the Avenger, there are two rather startling specs to note. One is that the engine is no slouch. After driving the 2012 Ford Focus, with its 4-cyclinder engine, up and down the hills of Southern California a while back, we welcomed a more powerful sedan.
We tested the Avenger Heat version, which costs about $23,000 and has fog lights, heated seats, 18-inch wheels, a V6 engine, and a more sporty design. The new Avenger has a close-cousin, the new Chrysler 200, with a similarly-sized engine and styling, although that vehicle is a bit more sleek and elegant.
Muscular outside, mediocre inside
Styling on the Avenger is fairly similar to the 2010 model with a pronounced rounded rear and a muscular, boxy design. Our all black model has a rear spoiler and looks a bit like a classic muscle car and not a business sedan.
The interior is a slight improvement over the last model year, which made excessive use of plastic, and is now laden with some extra cloth-like material that adds some color and style. The Avenger doesn’t really scream high-style inside or out, but is good enough for this price point and unexpected engine size.
That said, are a few surprises that annoyed us. One is that, when you slip into the car, there is a sliding arm rest that slides too easily. In fact, if you use the arm rest to brace yourself for a moment as you slide your feet in, you might actually slip as you get in.
Rear seating on the Avenger is also just passable, not roomy. In this class, you also won’t find any extra conveniences – the trunk doesn’t pop open, it just unlatches. There are seat warmers, but they only work in two modes: barely heating and almost too hot.
New engine, old-school power
The Avenger’s 3.6-liter 283-horsepower Pentastar V6 engine has quite a growl – the duel exhaust and wider stance make the new Avenger more like a real muscle car. In fact, the design has stood up over time, with Dodge being one of the few automakers who still insists on putting the automatic shift on the floor between the seats, and the ignition on the dash instead of the steering column. Revving the engine doesn’t exactly make your ears bleed, but it does make you think of a bygone era. The engine is one of the best features on this model, and also one of the main reasons the car will probably do fairly well for Dodge, since people like a stocky, beefy engine.
In our tests, the Avenger sounded great from the starting line but actually doesn’t really blow you away in a 0-60 test, clocking in at about 8 seconds. The power comes in handy in the upper gears for merging into traffic and holding the road around tight corners. The Avenger is fun to drive in that classic Dodge sense of feeling like the car hugs the road, unlike some foreign-market sedans.
The other really important spec on the Avenger is that the fuel economy, even with a bigger engine, is now right around 30 for highway driving. That’s an impressive accomplishment. The 2010 model had a 3.5-liter 235-hp V6 engine, but 27 MPG on the highway. After a week of testing, our 22MPG average was about the same as the 2011 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. If you stick to city driving, expect about 16 MPG.
Gizmos and gadgets
Unfortunately, other than the smooth ride, bigger-than-expected engine, and good fuel economy (all obvious areas of focus for this model), the Avenger is far from a tech marvel and even has some minor annoyances that make the overall experience less than spectacular. Note that some drivers actually prefer simple knobs for adjusting heat or defrosting the rear window. The round knobs on the Avenger work almost exactly like they do on a Chevy Impala. Confusingly, there are no few knobs or buttons on the dash itself around the steering wheel, even for adjusting the interior ambient lighting (most controls are on the steering column).
The Avenger has no advanced tech features – no blind spot detection, no adaptive cruise control, and no back-up camera to help you out of the driveway. (We expect the next model year version to have a back-up camera, since this is quickly becoming a standard feature.) These amenities are not necessarily expected on a vehicle that costs right around $19,000 for the base model, which is just $6K more than the entry-level Ford Fiesta, but they would push the car into a slightly higher category. Oddly, the Avenger we tested also didn’t have GPS navigation, but the Bluetooth controls for phone and streaming audio, USB port for iPhone or iPod, and other stereo console controls were easy to find and use. The stereo system sounded a bit fuzzy and indistinct, especially for the classic rock we tested, but plenty loud.
One other unexpected feature is that the Avenger we tested had a built-in hard disk for importing CDs and storing them. Both Chrysler and Dodge cars have some issues with music playback though, especially from the iPhone 4, and we found the Avenger would sometimes pause the music or take way too long to categorize artists. The touchscreen is handy for finding artists, but tends to run too slow.
A practical choice
Overall, the Avenger has the power and fuel economy to place it in contention against other full-size sporty sedans, such as the Impala. There’s no reason to just dismiss the car, even though some of the early reports on the Web claimed the vehicle had no chance against the competition. There are a few annoyances, even things like finding the right switch to adjust interior lighting or the fact that the seat warmers work a little too thoroughly. Yet, the vehicle, for its class and price, has a rock-solid engine with plenty of power, and is easy on fuel. We even ended up liking the styling, even if it is a throwback to the muscle car era. Whether Dodge makes up for the past two years of economic turmoil is one lingering question.