2011 Dodge Avenger: First Drive

November 14, 2010

With a blitz of sedans, crossovers and SUVs, Dodge is set to have a busy, busy 2011. The Durango is new from tires to tail; the Journey's been worked over substantially; and the 2011 Avenger sedan bolts on a new drivetrain, new suspension pieces and new front and rear clips as Chrysler tries to rehab the fleet-queen image of its mainstream, mid-size sedan.

We're covering the more intensive care applied to the 2011 Chrysler 200 elsewhere today, but most of those updates apply to the Avenger, too. But while the 200 sedan has new stampings that clean up its fenders front and rear, the Avenger's metal remains unchanged. Change is good, but the Avenger already had a lock on brand unity with its mini-Charger stance and upkicked rear quarters. The headlamps and taillamps are simplified, but the crosshairs on the Avenger's grille trade metallic ribs for meatier bright-and-black pieces. The 2010 Avenger photos below let you decide whether the change brings enough to the party.

The Avenger's interior wears a little less expensive trim than the Chrysler 200 in places, too. The new dash looks great, with convincing quantum leaps in style and materials. The Avenger's dash cap is sculpted a bit more over its gauges; the climate controls are streamlined, and rings of bright and matte metallic plastic are fine contrasts to most of the soft-touch plastic. The lower half of the Avenger's dash seems to wear lower-grade plastic than the 200, and some of the same carryover gauges and buttons are more noticeable, surrounded by better-quality bits. Our test Avenger had cloth upholstery, which doesn't look or feel as rich as some textures we're seeing in other mid-sizers like the Subaru Legacy, or even the Hyundai Sonata.

2010 Dodge Avenger

2010 Dodge Avenger

2010 Dodge Avenger

2010 Dodge Avenger

 

2011 Dodge Avenger

2011 Dodge Avenger

Grab the reins

A 2.4-liter, 173-horsepower four-cylinder carries over from last year's Avenger, but the V-6 is new across the board to the Chrysler lineup. Firing up a V-6 Avenger for a short first drive around wine country in Napa, we found few differences from the 200 with the same drivetrain--the same bucketloads of horsepower and worthwhile distinctions in ride quality.

The new Chrysler V-6 drops 283 horsepower in the front-drive Avenger's engine bay, with 260 pound-feet of torque twisting through a six-speed automatic transmission. On the spec sheet, that's higher output than the new Sonata 2.0T turbo, the Fusion V-6 and the Regal GS. In practice, the smooth windup of the six just can't be controlled with the Avenger's small-car strut-and-multilink suspension. Mash the gas hard and the Avenger weaves on takeoff with corresponding bucketloads of torque steer before it takes a straight-ahead set.

Chrysler's new six-speed automatic isn't the best companion for the power. Especially in manual-shift mode, the Avenger lags out some downshifts with slow torque-converter lockup that feels like a drivetrain burp. A dual-clutch transmission is coming, but even with the stock six-speed automatic, a pair of paddles on the steering wheel would be safer and less distracting than the lever-controlled sport-shift mode.

The old Avenger had a reputation for a thocking, thrumming ride. New tires, relocated suspension pieces, and better shocks shear off the sharp edges. The Avenger still has hydraulic power steering, augmented by a lower ride height in front than in back, which leaves it with more natural feedback and bite in its steering than most other mid-size sedans--with the exception of the 2011 VW Jetta, which reverts to old-school hydraulic power steering. What the Jetta has, and what the Avenger still lacks, is a cohesive driving feel--and an eagerness to use all its talents.

Family-sized, and safe

Nearly identical to the Chrysler 200 in raw cubic feet and the way it's arranged, the 2011 Dodge Avenger has roughly the same interior space found in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, or the latest Ford Fusion and Subaru Legacy, some of TheCarConnection's most highly rated four-doors. Head room and leg room are equal to or better than most, though the Avenger's trunk is on the small side of the scale.

The Avenger suffers some for the mini-Charger style. While the Sonata's tall, airy greenhouse lets in plenty of light, the Avenger's tall shoulders and low roofline--and dark trim most everywhere inside save for the upholstery--feels more confining, even though its flat but wide front seats have enough acreage for the Target market. Tucking into the back seats is a little trickier than in some competitors because of the body structure's higher sills and lower roof cutouts (disguised very well by tall door skins).
In the past, the Avenger has scored very well on crash-test ratings, but 2011 scores aren't in. The standard features list does include dual front, side and curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control; and active headrests. Advanced options like blind-spot detection and parking sensors aren't on the menu at all.
In five different trims, the Avenger spreads out standard features and options. The Express is the base edition; stepping up the ladder to Mainstreet, Heat, Lux and R/T models adds on new gear. All versions offer air conditioning; power windows, locks and mirrors; 17-inch wheels; a split-folding rear seat; and cloth upholstery. Bluetooth, satellite radio and a USB port are unavailable on the base Avenger Express; they're standard or optional on other models, with better availability than in the Jetta but well off the mark set by the Sonata and the 2011 Kia Optima. A navigation system is optional only on the top two trims; a dual-clutch gearbox comes to the lineup late in the model year, and only on the Avenger Lux.
Chrysler's already planning the future replacement for the Avenger, and it's squarely aligned with future Fiat global architectures. Without spending too much on the current car, Chrysler's peeled a few layers of "fleet" off the Avenger and exposed some more of the basic value underneath. It's not nearly so compelling as the Charger to drive, but the Avenger is a bit deeper than the mini-Me look and those big, big horsepower numbers.
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