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Our 3.5 liter powered Avenger reminded us of the Chrysler 300M in many ways, and we mean that as a compliment. Indeed, in some ways it was what the 300M should have been, being quieter, quicker, and smoother than that lovable huge Eagle-turned-Chrysler. Like the 300M, the Avenger feels small and light; it likes to be thrown around corners, and the R/T sticks to the road with a strong grip; and it accelerates quickly, and without fuss. The Avenger's engine is quieter than that of the 300M - it's essentially the same engine, with a different air path and about 15 horsepower less - and the exhaust tuning produces a more luxury than performance sound. The firm, quick transmission of the 300M would actually feel more at home in the Avenger, and vice versa.
The Avenger's six-speed automatic (with an extra-low first gear) makes up for the 15 horsepower that disappeared from the 3.5 engine, and 0-60 times are about 7 seconds flat; but gas mileage is low, with 2007-standard EPA estimates of 19 city, 28 highway on the similar Sebring, and more realistic 2008-standard estimates of 16 city, 26 highway. On our test car, with an engine not yet broken in, we got around 15 city, 24 highway, so you can probably expect 16/26 in real life. That's not far above the monstrous SRT-8, despite having an extra gear, nearly a thousand pounds less of weight, 200 fewer horsepower, and a much smaller engine. What's more, the 300M - albeit without the five-star safety ratings of the Avenger - was much bigger and only a few pounds heavier.
Around town, the low first gear helped the Avenger to be gratifying in its takeoff from full stops; it felt as though it was ready and eager to go. Launches were quick but smooth and quiet.
The Avenger is tuned for greater comfort through gentler shifting, so shifts take longer and have torque management built in (not as much as in some recent vehicles, due to variable line pressures in the automatic). On the highway, the Avenger easily shot forward on demand, dropping (sometimes slowly) one or two gears to get the 3.5 liter engine into its sweet spot on the right-hand side of the tachometer. No slouch in the lower revs, the 3.5 screams at the high end, and the result can be exciting, albeit not in SRT territory. Acceleration was quick from any speed, but not harsh, and not as exciting as, say, the somewhat-slower 300M, with its more sudden shifts and louder engine.
The 3.5 liter engine seemed quiet most of the time; the exhaust wasn't tuned for a performance sound, so the deep vroom of most new cars with top-end engines was absent. The transmission shifted smoothly, without the quirks we experienced in our prototype Sebring.
Ride and quietness were better than most cars in this class, with road feel passed through but all bumps and imperfections nicely damped down. The addition of greater suspension travel means that the Avenger can take potholes in stride, and it was quite nice to drive along nasty roads without undue jiggling and commotion; but the low-profile tires still pass along many "road details." At high speeds, the Avenger remained surprisingly quiet and felt perfectly stable, and in general we felt the ride was very well balanced.
Cornering was quite good on all surfaces, including rain, snow, and slush; the front wheel drive no doubt helped, but we've driven front-drivers with poor snow crossing. The Avenger was quite good on snow, and stuck well to wet roads, with the stability control rarely coming into play.
Avengers without the 3.5 liter come with a four-speed automatic, and a softer, more comfortable suspension. The overall balance of the 2.7 liter V6 is probably best for most buyers, with better gas mileage (EPA 19/27) and a less firm ride. The six-speed automatic is only available with the 3.5 — though it would really be most useful on the 2.4 liter four-cylinder (EPA 21/30 mpg), which needs to rev to make real power.
As with most Chrysler vehicles, the Avenger lets you get any stored fault codes from the computer; turn the ignition switch to RUN, and then, not too quickly and not too slowly, go to Accessory and back to Run three times. The codes (or a set of hyphens) will appear in the odometer space, followed by the word “done.” Code lists are available in all sorts of places, including allpar.com – the codes are standardized across makers now.
Though many journalists will no doubt play this angle down - what, an American car feeling more refined than Japanese competitors? - the Avenger does feel tighter than the Camry, and is smoother than the Accord. The Accord does have an edge in the curves and the Camry a big edge (like nearly a full second quicker 0-60 acceleration!) in straight-line performance and gas mileage, but there's comfort to give up in both cases, not to mention the satisfaction of buying a car that was not only built in America, but largely engineered here as well.
Inside, the driver faces the familiar three large pods, each containing a dark area underneath the sweep of the gauges – PRNDL and odometer on the right, trip computer/EVIC on the left – with the speedometer in center, a full-sized tachometer on the right, and the gas and temp gauges on the left. Backlighting is electroluminescient blueish-green at night, and white during the day. Other backlights are green.
Our khaki interior (gray is also available) featured shiny chrome highlights on the gearshift, around the gearshift bezel, around the climate control knobs, and in other strategic locations; dull silver was used for other trim parts and the center stack bezel. The overall result is nicely upscale (it would be even more so with bright silver on the instrument panel), an impression reinforced by the two-toned leather seats (with ventilated inserts). Unfortunately, the stiff seats looked better than they felt, reminding us of a joke on the allpar forums: “Scientists have discovered a new material harder than diamond. Chrysler is using it to make their seat cushions.”
Controls generally looked and felt good; the cruise control is on a Toyota-style stalk, and headlight controls are on the left-hand stalk. You can choose between automatic headlights or manual, but you can't shut off the daytime running lights, which are obnoxious in their design – they run the bright lights at nearly full strength. GM just moved away from that design, and it's a shame Chrysler picked it up, since the DRL studies showed that the same effectiveness is reached at much lower brightness.
Climate controls felt good, were easy to learn, and were functional. The temperature dial works like a standard thermostat, instead of putting you through digital perambulations; and dial doubled as a pushbutton for a different function, apparently randomly assigned. A row of buttons above the dials controlled the heated seats, ESP, and trip computer. Overall, everything looked fairly well planned out. The fan is generally quiet except on the highest setting; it also had an automatic level function (the vents had an automatic setting as well). The new Dodge climate control knobs are both attractive and easy to use, with chrome outer workings and the markings in a center pushbutton. They are just as functional if you wear gloves.
Visibility is good, with just the one usual blind spot in the rear quarter; the mirrors are nicely sized and the headlights brighter than in past models. Sun visors slide along their supports for greater coverage and flexibility. The only real issue with visibility is the usual auto-dimming rear-view mirror; these things never really do an adequate job, compared with a manual day/night mirror.
Both front windows have auto power up and down – in other words, a single press of the switch sends them all the way in either direction, a nice time saver for tollbooths and the like. The sunroof has the same feature, saving the driver from distraction as the glass slides open (or closed).
The trip computer takes some getting used to, but provides average gas mileage, distance to empty, and a timer; allows the driver to easily change various locking, lighting, and other settings; shows the tire pressure in each individual tire; and provides the compass, temperature, and radio station in the window with a press of a button. Putting the controls underneath the radio was a nice usability feature, as was putting the ignition switch on the dashboard. Speaking of usability, the AutoStick automatic gearshift is gated well; you can slide down to Drive with nary a care, but are prevented from going that extra step into AutoStick, a setting rarely used except to sell cars.
The stereo is the new corporate unit, with built in Uconnect buttons (whether your car came with Uconnect or not). If you get the rear seat video, you can control it with some practice from the front stereo, by pressing Setup and then using the right-hand knob (turn and press) to start and stop the rear video and such. An auto-start feature is built in. You can put the rear video over all speakers, or use the two sets of supplied wireless headphones; rear seaters also get their own remote. Sirius satellite radio, with over a hundred largely commercial-free stations, is also available, and well integrated into the stereo. There is an auxiliary jack on the face for iPods and other such devices. If you get the navigation system as well, there's now an automatic traffic rerouting system.
Our test car's stereo quality was poor with satellite and broadcast radio, with thudding bass and below average sound quality in general; however, it played CDs remarkably well, with better than average fidelity. Vinny told us that the sound problems we experienced have been fixed (by or before 2008), and that current owners can have them fixed by the dealer. He added, “My Avenger was built in July 2008, and the speakers sound terrific. Also note that I do NOT have the Boston Acoustics system.”
In terms of gadgetry, the Avenger goes beyond the UConnect cell phone system, trip computer, and integrated key / fob (lock, unlock, and remote start buttons are integrated into the key). There is a built in remote start button on the key - press twice, wait a few moments, and the engine will start up (press again and it'll shut off). There is a heated/cooled cupholder - just one out of the two cupholders is so endowed, using a sensible switch. Press hot and it heats up; press hot again, or press cold, and it stops heating. Then there's the rear-seat video system, folding out from the center console, and headphones that can receive two different channels - music and DVD? - with a switch on each headphone to select the channel.
Built into the Avenger, but not the Sebring, is a four-soda-can chilled storage compartment above the glove compartment, a rather nice feature for long trips (or for people who get thirsty now and then). It's cooled in the summer by the air conditioning, and presumably has exterior cooling of some sort for winter, because the cans were always nice and cold.
Interior space is slightly better than in the previous edition, and remains similar to the Camry, with adequate space for all. People taller than six feet might run out of head room in the back, but legroom and shoulder room are both good. The trunk is smaller than the prior generation but still generous for the class.
Storage compartments include map pockets on all four doors, a slight amount of space inside the glove compartment, a small center-console cubby (that is probably much larger if you don't get the rear video), and a bit of space next to the cigarette lighter (the latter is unlit). With the rear video, it's a bit hard to get into the center console.
At night, one of the “oo” features is clearly visible: the use of LEDs instead of traditional bulbs for interior lighting (disclaimer: this was part of an optional convenience package). With practically no heat waste, these bulbs provide bright light with little power; Chrysler has them on swivels, with push-switches so you just have to find the light and push on it to turn it on and off (our preferred way of doing it). There is a map light for each passenger, as well as a bright dome light style set of lights. The result is a brilliantly illuminated cabin with that distinctive pure-white cast.
The base Avenger is nicely priced, starting at $18,895 including destination; the 2.7 liter engine adds $1,350 where available. The SXT is the true value leader, at just $18,895 but including a raft of additional features. (There are additional charges for many states, going up to $335, for regulatory compliance.) Our R/T included the six-speed automatic and 3.5 engine, as well as front seat side airbags, dual-row side curtain airbags, four-wheel antilock disk brakes, front and rear stabilizer bars, power locks, mirrors, and heated folding mirrors, alarm, cruise, rear defroster, automatic headlights, automatic air conditioning, DVD stereo with wheel-mounted controls, power driver seat, stain-resistant fabric, auto-dimming rear mirror, tilt-telescope steering column, tire pressure monitor, fog lights, dual rear exhaust, spoiler, and bright exhaust tips.
Options on our car pushed it out of “cool and well priced” turf and into “we're not sure about this any more” territory, with a total sticker of $28,470 - a neat ten grand above the base Avenger. Options included leather trimmed seats at $525; stability and traction control at $425; chrome wheels at $550; rear-seat video at $1,200; power sunroof at $775, including the LED lamps; satellite radio at $200; and convenience group at $1,150, including the LED lighting, enhanced trip computer, air filtering, temperature and compass, heated front seats, remote start, universal garage door opener, and heated/cooled cupholder. The power sunroof is quite large and not a bad deal; the stability and traction control isn't really necessary but the price is right; and the convenience group really is quite nice. As for the rest, we'd give it a miss. The stereo has an iPod jack, and plays iPod music and CDs very well, but the sound fidelity for the satellite radio was not good enough to recommend it, even at $200.
The Avenger is a really nice vehicle, even without the fancy gadgetry that made ours a gee-whiz-mobile. Strip away the chilled can holder (standard), trip computer and remote starter (options), heated/cooled cupholder (option), and fold-flat front passenger seat (standard), and you still have a nice car at a nice price, with not-so-nice gas mileage. In base and SXT trim, the Avenger is quite competitive priced, though you have to make do with a four-speed automatic instead of the new six-speed. The loaded Avenger we had was pushing it, coming in at more than the price of a Saturn Aura XR with a much classier interior, faster acceleration, tighter feel, and better gas mileage.
Will you buy it? We don't know. Will you like it? We don't know. But we do suggest you give it a shot.
We suspect your friendly Dodge dealer would be quite happy to make a deal, too.
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