Somewhere eastbound just outside Concord, California, I knew the fate of the Dodge Avenger. It made me feel uneasy. I wanted to like the car. It ran well enough. The air conditioning blew some cool air, but it seemed to make the little engine buzz even more. The steering felt very heavy, and I had to jump hard on the throttle to make the Avenger move. Its 3355 curb weight overwhelmed the 176 ponies under the hood, and when it struck any imperfection in the road, the jolt translated into a shot to my kidneys. With just over ten thousand miles on the odometer, this Dodge Avenger was part of a rental fleet, and it was destined to spend its few good years there. Sure, it might be sold to some unwitting rube in a few months, but after two hours behind the wheel, I knew the Avenger would ultimately join the heap of machines that have become part of our throw-away society.
My four door, front wheel drive, base model Avenger had the 2.4 liter, overhead cam, four cylinder engine mated to a four speed automatic transmission. It was bigger than the Chevy Aveo and cheaper than the Chevy Impala in the rental yard and looked like the best deal for the trip from Silicon Valley to South Lake Tahoe. My friends were getting married in the woods, and I needed something that would endure the heat of the Central Valley as well as the thin air of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Avenger's aerodynamics would probably be an assest on the open highway. It looked capable, even with styling might be called chunky-swoopy, a smaller version of its big brother the Charger. However, I later learned that the lines of the Avenger proved to be so indistinguishable that I used the license plate to identify it in any large parking lot.
I tossed my bag into the trunk that might hold a set of golf clubs or three bags of groceries. If I had been taking more people with more luggage, we would have faced some cramped conditions. The cabin felt generic, functional, nothing special or spectacular. Plastic abounded. The gauges clearly displayed the minimum information. It had a tachometer and satellite radio. The floor shifter had a manual mode when it was in Drive and the driver bumped it to the right. The seat felt oddly wrong. No matter the setting, it failed to support me correctly. The position was tolerable, but finding both comfort and proper visibility was impossible, perhaps a good thing given the need to concentrate profoundly while piloting the Avenger.
On straight, level, smooth stretches of the Interstate 80, the Avenger tried its best but expressed a struggle. My foot felt like it gave the engine too much throttle for the given speed. The steering gave the impression of taming the front wheels rather than guiding the car. The ride at speed imparted a sensation plummeting horizontally. The Avenger provided little confidence on the open road and profoundly yielded to its environment.
Once on Highway 50, the Avenger faced a long and tortuous pull. The two lane road to South Lake Tahoe is truly a playground for a car with power and grip. Deep, sweeping curves couple with neat, darting twists carved from the granite outcroppings themselves, accented by stands of magnificent conifers. With the afternoon sun casting rich red glows on the craggy peaks and giant redwoods, few vistas in the natural world afford so much beauty, and I enjoyed them fully because the Avenger allowed nothing to escape me too quickly.
At the first long incline, the Avenger downshifted and remained in the lower ratios. The needle of the tachometer bounced into the higher revs, and the multi-valve head loudly announced its displeasure. When a passing lane appeared, I tucked to the right to allow traffic to flow. On any long descents, I kept the Avenger in lower gears to avoid building too much speed that might overwhelm the brakes. The brakes did work as they should, but they matched the power train and did their best to discourage any spirited driving. Once at lake level, marching in slow traffic toward the casinos of South Lake Tahoe, the Avenger performed much better. It maneuvered well in tighter spaces and felt more poised.
Arriving at the hotel after four hours in the saddle, I felt as spent as the Avenger. I was glad for a swim and a snack and a little rest for us both. The next day, the Avenger took me to the wedding venue, some bluff a few miles out of town in a wilderness area famed for nuptials and harmonic convergence. The Avenger performed well enough, but the Sierras provided a customary, brief, summer down pour just after the ceremony, and returning to South Lake Tahoe proved to be very uncomfortable. Hard rain, lightning and high temperatures taxed the Avengers climate control capabilities. The blower blew, but the cabin was damp and clammy. The wipers and headlights worked well enough, but the car's design made for odd visibility anywhere except immediately to the front and to the sides.
With the storm passed, I left at dawn the next day. In a short time, I had come to learn how to drive the Avenger. I had to make concessions to it. I drove it, not as I wanted to drive it, but how it had to be driven, and in that way, we got along well on the ride home. The satellite radio provided a pleasant distraction, and the 31 miles per gallon average softened the fuel bill nicely.
Upon returning the Avenger, I tried to look at the journey objectively. The car had certainly done the job. I traveled nearly 500, trouble-free miles in three days. It always started quickly and idled smoothly. It took me where I wanted to go. Even with engine off and the key out of the ignition, the satellite radio played until I opened the door. The interior lights gently faded to black just like in a movie theater. The trunk light illuminated the space most clearly. However, a car should be more than nice courtesy lights, a good radio, and great gas mileage. Something was missing from the experience. The Avenger had brought no sense of fun or delight. It made me work. It left me tired. It felt outgunned in most circumstances. It inspired hope that something better must be out there. I was happy to return it. Next time, Ill try the Impala.