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Retrofitted last year with a new V-6 powertrain, a retuned suspension and a new interior, the Dodge Avenger comes back for the 2012 model year still intent on rehabbing its rental-car image. It's undoubtedly better than it was before, but the Avenger still struggles as it competes with some family-sedan powerhouses including the Ford Fusion and Kia Optima.
Carried over almost unchanged in 2011, the Avenger still looks right. It's a mini-Charger, and it has a lock on brand unity that few small cars carry over from their successful big siblings. Dodge's big crosshair grille takes up residence on the nose, but it's the upkick to the rear quarters that connects the Avenger more to the Charger sedan. Inside, the cabin was polished up somewhat in the 2011 model year, but not to the same level as the Chrysler 200. The dash cap's a little more sculpted, the climate controls are streamlined, and some nice details of bright and matte plastic contrast with the softer-touch pieces. The lower half of the dash was mostly left untouched, and it wears lower-grade plastic than the 200, and some of the same carryover gauges and buttons are more noticeable here.
Chrysler carries over the base Avenger powertrain this year, and for most everyday buyers, the 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder and four-speed automatic are best left to rental fleets. The Avenger's 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 was new in the 2011 model year, and it's a vast upgrade. It lets loose 283 horsepower in the front-driver, and its 260 pound-feet of torque can twist its front tires a little too vigorously sometimes. Torque steer's an issue: while the engine winds up smoothly, and puts out more power than the high-output engines from Hyundai, Ki and Ford, the power makes the Avenger's strut-and-multilink suspension dance. The Avenger weaves on takeoff with left-right swings of torque steer before it settles down into a straight-ahead set. The Avenger has old-fashioned hydraulic power steering, and a lower ride height in front than in back. Together they give it decent road manners and feedback, but it's not happy and taut at most speeds like a Fusion is--aside from acceleration, it's uninspired.
Interior space can be tricky with the Avenger. On paper, it offers roughly the same space as a Sonata, Optima, Fusion or Subaru Legacy. Head and leg room are equal to or better than most, though the Avenger's trunk is on the small side of the scale. It's the mini-Charger roofline that plays tricks. The glassy Sonata lets plenty of light into its cabin, where the tall shoulders and low roofline of the Avenger and its dark interior trim make it feel more confining. With flat, wide seats, it has the space and room to please, but doesn't feel like it. Entry and exit can be an issue in the back seat, too, thanks to high sills and a low roofline.
An IIHS Top Safety Pick, the Avenger comes with curtain airbags and stability control, and Bluetooth is offered at least as an option--but there's no rearview camera on any version, or blind-spot monitors. All versions offer air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; 17-inch wheels; a split-folding rear seat; and cloth upholstery. Satellite radio and a USB port are standard or optional on all models, and a navigation system is now offered on the Avenger.