We liked the Dodge Avenger when it first showed up four years ago, but noted poor gas mileage with the big V6; generally, though, our complaints were minor. For 2011, engineers were charged with remaking the Avenger's interior, banishing anything that could allow critics to use the word "cheap;" and they installed a more powerful V6 engine, along with letting buyers specify the six-speed automatic with the 2.4 liter four-cylinder, making that engine much more responsive around town. The suspension was also retuned, the entire car was lowered for better handling, and the trim levels were changed, with much more "free stuff" thrown in, in lieu of rebates. The result is a much better value, with reasonable gas mileage and swifter acceleration from the V6, without losing of the 2010's advantages.
The biggest new feature of the 2011 Dodge Avenger is the Pentastar V6. New and buzzword-compliant, it raises gas mileage from 16/27 to 19/29, while adding 33 horsepower and 10 lb-ft of torque. What's more, the engine was designed with numerous durability and easy-maintenance features, including a cartridge-free oil filter on top of the engine, a timing chain, and enhanced cooling. If it has the reliability and durability of the old 3.5, and odds are it will be even better, this should be a true winner of an engine.
The exhaust is no longer somewhat gruff; driven gently you barely hear the engine's low muscle-car growl, and it's docile and responsive. Push the pedal down, and the lion growls, then screams as it passes 4,500 rpm. It feels like driving a turbocharged sports car — you get pretty good response around town, without the loose "rubber band transmission" feeling one gets from an engine without sufficient low-end torque coupled to a slow transmission — but at around 3,000 rpm, horsepower shoots up and almost before you know it, you're at redline and shifting up again. There's enough torque to allow for driving on the freeway at 65 mph without having to break 2,000 rpm; you can go all day without breaking 2,500 rpm, or feeling the need to — which is how those high gas mileage ratings were earned.
When you do want to let the stops out, the Avenger V6 definitely satisfies. It also drinks like [insert colorful analog here]. If you want that 19/29 rating to be true, you'd better stay in the under-2,500 zone. If you're heavy on the pedal, the powertrain will reward your efforts, but your gas mileage will sink by a few miles per gallon, and you're going to spin the front tires at just about any intersection until the traction control kicks in. There's also a little torque steer, though not enough to cause trouble or be a nuisance.
The six-speed automatic is a good, underrated transmission. Quick-shifting, responsive, and intelligent, the transmission seems to have been more sport-tuned for this Avenger, and hitting the accelerator results in a very fast downshift, sometimes two; the engine is never left along to handle the load at the wrong speed. GM could certainly use a transmission this responsive; yet, driven normally, the Mopar six-speed is as smooth as any, with shifting noticeable only by the slight reduction in power and sound.
The four-cylinder model should benefit even more; its extra-low first gear should make the 173 horsepower four more eager on launches.
In the end, you have a car that does 0-60 in around 6.5 seconds (faster than many of the old muscle cars), gets good mileage, and can be driven quietly and without fuss, like a basic economy car. It's hard to argue with that.
The car I drove had the cloth seats, and I loved it. Not slick velvet, but a slightly coarse cloth that made you stay right wherever you sit yourself. It feels fine and the seats are very comfortable for me, a 300lb big guy. I wished for slightly more headroom at the doorway, but it's better than say, a Neon, in that regard.
I pulled off a city street at an underpass onto an uphill 5-7% grade on-ramp to a 4-lane, with 3 big people in the car, and without my foot anywhere near the floor, I had 75 dialed up well before the end of the on-ramp. In fact, letting off let me coast down to 65 before I got to the end of the uphill onramp.
No matter what, this thing never sounds strained or buzzy. Nor does it feel strained. In fact, the car's forward thrust is so pronounced without winding the motor, you sort of feel disappointed that you don't get to hear the Pentastar growl. Instead, at low speeds and light throttle, there's barely a faint rumble.
Very docile for parking lots, maneuvering, etc. For you who are used to the old turbo 4s and the 2.5 and 3.3, and their instant throttle response, the first 1/4 of the throttle is very gentle "on" and then smooth, and the rest is highly linear.
The car is absolute rock solid, we ran over some bad rail crossings, which did little more than create slight "thumps" you barely could hear and little wiggles in the car. The steering is probably faster than the fast ratio Neon steering, but since I had a salesman with us, I can't tell you how would carve cones at autocross, but the feel is, that it would be an incredibly sticky handler. Firm ride, but not harsh, and it responds to steering with absolutely NO "wallow" or sway. Quick twitches with the steering wheel get you... quick small direction changes. Nothing else.
It idles so quietly you must watch the tach to see if its running. There is simply no audible or tactile notice the motor's running. There's nothing to dislike about the car, unless you object to the overall shape. Or, the somewhat poor rearward visibility, though I found the mirrors gave me good enough view I didn't notice any significant blind spots. I'm sure there are some, but the view is excellent in the mirrors.
The Avenger is well cushioned, damping bumps and jolts, pushing bad pavement to the background; but it is still easy to throw around corners, and sticks to the road with a strong grip.
The cabin feel is like that of a luxury car, whether it's on concrete, bumpy patched/potholed roads; yet the Avenger sticks to the road like glue, even on quick launches.
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 Avenger can take potholes in stride, and it was quite nice to drive along nasty roads without undue jiggling and commotion. 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 Avenger was quite good on snow, and stuck well to wet roads, with the stability control rarely coming into play. The stability control itself was fairly subtle, and acted immediately but without seeming intrusive. Of course if you want to hear your tires squeal, you can turn it to "emergency only" mode.
Though many 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 an edge in 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.
The front seats are far more comfortable than with the prior model; but even on our Lux model, the passenger seat was not powered, but had "cheap feeling" controls. The driver's seat had a manual lumbar support that was somewhat hard to adjust, with power up/down and fore/aft controls; we could not get the seat down far enough to avoid having our hat touch to the roof. Rear seats look far better than in the 2010 model but are still fairly firm and not likely to be comfortable in long rides. Interior space is similar to the Camry; 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 generous for the class, and unintrusive hinges help usability.
The instrument panel is more subtle than in the past model, without the emphasis on the three pod shapes — a matter of changing the bezel and color scheme. The more conventional white-on-black gauges are functionally identical to the older ones, but seem more refined, if a little less sporty. Each circle has 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. The electroluminescient backlighting, attractive as it was, has been dropped in favor of conventional backlights.
The black interior on our test car had shiny chrome highlights on the gearshift, around the cupholders (lit at night), around the climate control knobs and vents, and in other strategic locations. The overall result is nicely upscale. All surfaces are soft-touch now, with no sharp edges. Unlike the Grand Caravan we were recently in, the entire interior is black: roof, pillars, doors, everything. White stitching on the leater seats and armrests helps to relieve the blackness and reduce the "acres of plastic" look that could otherwise draw criticism, both in front and in back. Our only serious criticisms, and both are fairly minor, are the plastic pieces in the rear that draw the sill line up to meet the falling roofline — which both impedes visibility and looks fairly cheap — and the way the "soda can cooler" on the passenger side was replaced by a large mass of blank plastic, removing a potential storage space and replacing it with ... acres of blank plastic. This is easy to forget about from the driver's seat.
Headlights seem unchanged from the prior model, good but not as good as the new ones used on the minivans; sun visors are well sized and slide on their supports to cover a large area. The optional (depending on trim level) garage door opener is part of the driver's visor. The auto-dimming rear-view mirror is ineffective at dimming; these things never really do an adequate job, compared with a manual day/night mirror (in other words, this complaint applies to every car we've had with an autodimming mirror).
At night, an "oo" features is the use of LEDs instead of traditional bulbs for interior lighting. 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. The result is a brilliantly illuminated cabin with that distinctive pure-white cast. This was standard on our Lux (note: the photo is from 2008; the 2011 is similar.)
Controls generally looked and felt good; while we preferred the old stalk-based cruise control, using the new one on the steering wheel, using four identical buttons, can become a matter of habit. Headlight controls are on the left-hand stalk. You can choose between automatic headlights or manual, and unlike the GM choice, it sticks when you start the car again — unfortunately, being on a stalk, the headlight control isn't backlit.
Climate controls felt good, were easy to learn, and were functional; the three-dial system was introduced during the Daimler era, and was apparently the invention of a Chrysler engineer. We fervently hope this system continues at Chrysler, though we aren't optimistic; it's our favorite climate control system in all the cars we've tested. They are just as functional if you wear gloves.
The temperature dial works like a standard thermostat, instead of putting you through digital perambulations; and each dial doubled as a pushbutton for a different function (recirculation, air conditioner compressor, and rear defroster), each to press and easy to figure out.
A row of buttons above the dials controlled the heated seats, ESP, and trip computer. Overall, everything looked fairly well planned out. The fan was generally quiet except on the highest setting; fan, vents, and temperature all had independent automatic functions, allowing the owner to customize just one of the three.
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 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.
The stereo has good sound, with satellite radio coming in well, and a built in 30 gigabyte hard drive that lets you record from DVDs or from USB thumb drives with MP3 files. Since it doesn't seem to transfer music from iPods, which have around a 90% market share, most people will probably either use a thumb drive or record from CDs or DVDs. This stereo takes audio commands if you press the Audio button (top right).
While the stereo in our car would not transfer music (including MP3s) from an iPod, it did control the iPod quite easily, letting us search for tracks, use playlists, and, in general, use the iPod as though it was part of the device's hard drive, after a decent interval of "reading" the device (which to be fair has 60 GB of music on it; reading an iPod Nano was, while still a bit slow, much faster). Reading USB thumb drives seemed pretty quick, and the system was smart enough to read the metadata within MP3 files so it knew the artist name, song name, album, and such. That is very helpful when importing — though there is a feature that lets you identify music the system doesn't know about yet.
There is an auxiliary jack on the face for iPods and other such devices, as well as a USB jack on the stereo face. More conveniently, both a USB port (mounted upside down in our car, not that it matters much) and a power port are available at the bottom of the center stack, with a padded area for holding iPods or generic players. As part of the new attention to detail, not only is the bin lit, but the USB port itself has a lighted border (see inset, below).
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.
The navigation system is the big news for this stereo, which otherwise is about the same as the prior units in operation. The system now uses Garmin software, and it's like moving from a tape-drive computer to a hard-drive rig (if you remember back that far). Suddenly, instead of having to wait seconds between each keypress, the system responds instantly to typing of addresses or other spots; screens pop up far more rapidly than with any system we've used before; and routes are calculated with surprising speed. The graphics are better — less cluttered, more user friendly — and everything moves faster. This is a major improvement.
That's not even including the various gee-whiz feature, like showing your current speed (in red, if you're speeding), showing the next intersection (on highways, the exit number and description) in big print, and a variety of display styles. The default is overly cartoonish on big highway clusters, but is great for around town; no longer does the driver have to squint and stare to figure out what to do. Key data is big and easy to see or read.
Our Avenger had 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); it automatically turns the heat on, but not the heated seat (the Grand Caravan does the latter), and for reasons unknown to us turns the fan to maximum instead of setting it to Auto, which would leave the fan off until the heater core is ready.
Storage compartments include map pockets on all four doors, a slight amount of space inside the glove compartment, a small center-console cubby, and the padded area under the center stack.
The Dodge Avenger is made in Sterling Heights, Michigan. 83% of the car is made in the US or Canada; the transmission is from the United States (both in engineering and manufacturing), while the engine could be made in the US or Mexico (V6 engines are sourced from both Michigan and Mexico). The Avenger is officially a dual-fuel vehicle, accepting E85 (85% ethanol), so it should run fine on E15 if it ever comes to that.
Our Avenger Lux, a well-optioned higher trim level, started at $24,290; you can get a basic Avenger for around $20,000, but you really wouldn't want to, and Dodge doesn't want you to, either. The "real" entry level is the Mainstreet, at $22,000 or so; it comes pretty well equipped, but not as well as the Lux.
For $23,545, you get the four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic, side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, active headrests, stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, voice-command audio and phone link, alarm, auto-headlights, remote start, hard-drive satellite stereo, eight-way power driver seat, heated front seats, LED lighting, auto-dim rearview mirror, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, automatic air conditioning, trip computer (EVIC), power windows, USB port, wireless audio, tire pressure monitor, tilt/telescoping steering column with audio controls, floor mats, fog lamps, LED tail lamps, power heated exterior mirrors, and 18 inch aluminum chrome clad wheels.
That's an awful lot of features. The one logical feature that's missing is a power passenger seat. Some may notice the inclusion of floor mats, to the dismay of sleazy dealers everywhere.
Our test car had three options, the most expensive of which, at around $1,800, was the V6 engine, including dual bright exhaust. The next priciest was the $845 power sunroof with express open/close, followed by around $400 to upgrade the stereo with Garmin navigation (a much lower cost than in the past). The total, then, was $27,330. The Avenger felt like it cost more.
The Dodge Avenger is not for everyone (in fairness, no car is). We loved the combination of a comfortable, shock free ride with good cornering and that V6 engine. The down sides remain the seats, the rear corner visibility, and, though fuel economy is now right where you'd expect it for the class, gas mileage could still be better. We would certainly recommend putting the Avenger onto your short list, as a good, well-balanced car that provides both practicality and excitement; we'd rather drive an Avenger than a Camry any day.
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