2008 Dodge Avenger: Stuck in the Middle With You

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We brought you coverage of the Dodge Avenger concept reveal at Paris (click here), then the production reveal in Detroit (click here). We recently had the chance to drive the Avenger around Phoenix, and now we bring you the first VehicleVoice and AutoPacific driving impressions. Avenger relies on its looks to draw buyers in and close the deal, as it settles mid-pack among its mid-size sedan competition (Ford Fusion, Pontiac G6, Saturn Aura, new-for-2008 Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda6, Kia Optima) by nearly every other measure. Inside and out, it is better than some, but not so good as others. Avenger is head and shoulders above the 2001-06MY Stratus, but Stratus had been allowed to slip into mediocrity, and Avenger competes against modern offerings instead of the past.

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Competent and Entertaining, Not Inspiring
Avenger is offered in three trim levels, with three engines and two transmissions. I first drove an Avenger SXT equipped with the 173HP 2.4L I4 and then an R/T with the 235HP 3.5L V6; both offer automatic transmissions with four forward gears for the I4 and six for the V6. The SE and SXT are standard with the 2.4L I4 and R/T with the 3.5L. The SXT can be ordered with an E85-capable 2.7L V6. The SXT also offers a sport appearance package, so it can be dressed up like an R/T for less money. An R/T AWD arrives during the second quarter of 2007, but wasn’t available on this drive.

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The 2.4L I4 uses its 173HP to move 3400 pounds, and manages the job as well as you might expect. It isn’t quick, but it gets the job done for buyers looking toward the value-for-money side of the equation. The 2.4L is also stronger than most of the competing I4 offerings, not true of the R/T’s V6. The benefit of giving up power is solid fuel economy (26/30 city/highway, even with the revised 2008 EPA math) from a nicely sized and equipped, competent sedan for just under $19,000. The 2.4L has decent mid-range response, where drivers spend the most time. Off-the-line acceleration is predictable. The combination can be noisy at full throttle, though perhaps a little less than you’d expect. Passing maneuvers should be planned, but can be accomplished.
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Though the 2.4L does not get you a quick vehicle, moving to the 235HP R/T won’t have you winning all the stoplight races. It does provide a reasonable amount of power through an automatic geared to maximize acceleration at the low end, helping the Avenger feel quicker than its number indicates. This middle-of-the-road engine offers more power than the Ford Fusion and most Mazda6 models, but GM’s mid-size trio offers more power and also benefits from a six-speed automatic. The R/T doesn’t suffer from obtrusive torque steer, a challenge that higher-horsepower, front-drive vehicles have to manage. All in all, pushing the R/T is entertaining, but it is not powerful or crisp enough to inspire seriously enthusiastic driving. It is comfortable at cruising speeds and on highways.
The difference between the standard SE/SXT suspension and the R/T sport suspension stands out quickly and actually feels different than the standard setup. It is also unusual to offer two suspension setups for this segment. Using the same components, the stiffer R/T setup and more precise steering offers more responsive handling. The sharper R/T suspension is more rewarding for enthusiastic drivers. The entertaining setup offers more precise steering and road feel, but it is not stiff enough to be confused with a sports car or to be uncomfortable on rough roads.
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Designer Ryan Nagode and his Avenger

Designed to Grab Attention
Dodge worked hard to give Avenger the brand’s signature attributes, leaning heavily on design and personality to carve out a niche in a typically bland segment. The Avenger’s look speaks to the bold, aggressive Dodge personality with elements from recently successful models. The Avenger tries on the Charger’s shoulders and blacked out B and C pillars, to help hide the height of the tall bodysides. The shoulders work better on the longer and larger Charger, but give Avenger a family look. The grille, hood, and tucked under headlights give Avenger eyebrows, though with a less sinister look than the Charger. Avenger carries a deeper front grille, more like Caliber than Charger. Avenger’s face blends those two recent Dodge showroom successes. In the rear, the taillights and optional rear spoiler nicely mimic the Charger.
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Avenger’s aggressive look pushes the rather small envelope of the conservative mid-size sedan segment, following groundwork laid by Magnum, Charger, Caliber, and Nitro. Exterior designer Ryan Nagode gave Avenger attitude in a segment that doesn’t generally have it, telling us he was inspired by the tough feeling he had wearing his Oakley sunglasses. Avenger buyers get an entertaining car that can make them feel tough and that they stand out. Dodge is working to delight buyers going for this image, and Dodge Senior Marketing Manager Jim Yetter says they are “not afraid if some consumers don’t want it.”
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The weakest point of the Avenger is not powertrain, handling, or styling. It is the interior. Avenger’s interior fits right in with the rest of the Dodge family, which is good and bad. There are options not prevalent in the segment, like MyGig, heated and cooled cupholders, two-tone leather upholstery, and YES Essentials cloth. The interior design reflects the exterior well and there are subtle distinctions between trim levels, but the materials aren’t particularly good. Avenger takes on modern interiors from GM and Ford, but the company hasn’t developed an A-game interior yet.
Will Styling Be Enough?
The question is not whether Avenger embodies the modern Dodge style; it does. But will that be enough to be successful in the intensely competitive mid-size sedan segment? Buyers begin to vote with their wallets starting even as I write this story.
While most people think Toyota Camry and Honda Accord when you say “sedan”, the smaller and less expensive Avenger more accurately competes with the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Mitsubishi Galant, Kia Optima, Saturn Aura, or Pontiac G6. In this group, Dodge offers a nicely priced package and some uncommon and interesting features, but doesn’t do much that is significantly better than the products from Ford or GM.
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This article has 2 comments

  1. The Car Geek 05/24/2007, 9:11 pm:

    The Avenger’s cabin is spacious enough for two six-foot, two-inch occupants to sit one behind the other in comfort that means this is really built meant for big people (Germans). I know that perceived quality in Dodge performance parts is a big step up from other recent Chrysler efforts, and the unique dashboard architecture has good character that makes the interior great.

  2. Sue 07/29/2007, 6:47 pm:

    I have a SE and have no complaints. I have the Silver Steel Metallic and it’s really nice. I believe that this 16 valve engine will pull this car for a longtime. This car is so great and fun to drive. There’s enough room for people in the back. The new warranty is great.

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