By Mike Hanley
2:51 PM EDT, May 17, 2011
With all the attention surrounding the Chrysler 200 midsize sedan -- thanks in part to a breakout Super Bowl commercial -- its sibling, the Dodge Avenger, has been quite overshadowed. Like the Chrysler, the 2011 Avenger receives noteworthy changes inside and under the hood, but its exterior didn't change as radically as did its sibling's when it transformed from the Sebring into the 200.
That's a problem, because the Avenger is going to need all the help it can get to stand out in the crowded family sedan segment, which is getting better every year. Witness the redesigned 2011 Kia Optima, winner of Cars.com's Best of 2011 award.
The 2011 Avenger rides well, but that's overshadowed by lingering quality issues and a cabin that's not as comfortable as its competitors.
We tested the midlevel Mainstreet trim level, which has a base price of $21,245. Options -- including 18-inch aluminum wheels, a 3.6-liter V-6, heated front seats and a touch-screen audio system -- pushed the as-tested price to $24,880.
Quiet and confident
With the optional V-6 engine, the Avenger was one of the quietest non-luxury cars I've driven lately. Road noise is nearly nonexistent at midrange speeds, as are noises from other cars around you. Dodge made a number of changes for 2011 aimed at quieting the car like installing an acoustic glass windshield, laminated side windows and new sound-absorbing material. If quiet is what you want in a family sedan, check out this car.
The Avenger's suspension was also overhauled for 2011, and the results are good. Unlike some cars, in which you can feel shimmy when you hit particularly nasty bumps, the Avenger's suspension is especially tight, with no unnecessary wiggles to sully the driving experience.
The suspension tuning skews to the firm end of the spectrum, but there's enough damping to soak up any rough stuff before it disturbs you. Body roll is well-managed, too. Overall, it's one of the better examples of melding the competing qualities of ride comfort and handling poise.
The quiet cabin and composed ride make you feel like you're riding in an entry-luxury sedan, but that impression withers the longer you're in the car.
New V-6, underwhelming transmission
An all-new 3.6-liter V-6 is optional (a 2.4-liter four-cylinder is standard), and it makes the Avenger an acceptably quick car. Still, it can't match the forceful acceleration of the Toyota Camry's optional 3.5-liter V-6, which still impresses even if it has been around for a few years.
You may feel some torque steer when accelerating hard in the Avenger -- the car pulls a little to the right -- but the bigger issue with the drivetrain is the six-speed automatic transmission that teams with the V-6. It contributes to the car's quietness by readily upshifting to higher gears to keep engine rpm low -- and engine sounds to a minimum -- but numerous complaints cropped up during our test. The transmission pauses slightly between gear changes when upshifting, and a few of us noticed balky shifts in low gears, along with unrefined kickdown at highway speeds. We're left to wait for a better transmission to pair with the new V-6.
Gas mileage estimates for the four-cylinder Avenger with the four- or six-speed automatic are 21/30 mpg and 20/31 mpg city/highway, respectively, which is a few mpg shy of what competitors like the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord and Kia Optima achieve. Meanwhile, fuel economy for the V-6 Avenger is midpack: it gets 19/29 mpg. That bests the Fusion V-6's 18/27 mpg rating, is similar to the Camry V-6's 20/29 mpg estimate and slightly trails the Accord V-6's 20/30 mpg projection.
A snug, modestly improved interior
One of the problems with the 200 and Avenger is that they're not as roomy as many competitors, which have grown in size with recent redesigns.
The Avenger's tighter confines manifest themselves in a few ways. When you sit in the driver's seat, everything feels close to you -- from the roofline to the side windows to the front passenger seat. Front headroom is decent, but our test car's all-black interior -- including a black headliner -- made us feel like we were sitting in a cave.
The Avenger's front bucket seats are unusually small and unsupportive, and that compromises comfort. The snug cabin also means less room for backseat passengers to spread out; it's workable for adults, but there's not much room to spare.
Trunk space also suffers; at 13.5 cubic feet, the Avenger's cargo area is small for its class.
Trunk Space Compared (cu. ft.)
2011 Dodge Avenger 13.5
2011 Ford Fusion 16.5
2011 Honda Accord 14.7
2011 Kia Optima 15.4
2011 Toyota Camry 15*
*14.5 for SE, XLE trim levels
Dodge has been busy remaking the interiors of many of its 2011 models. The effort has met with mixed results, with models like the Durango SUV and Grand Caravan minivan now fitted with upscale, refined cabins, while others, like the Avenger and Journey crossover, gain interiors that are more stopgap than superlative.
To a large degree, the Avenger's new interior is the automotive equivalent of an old house getting some new siding. The dashboard and door panels have been skinned in nice materials, and the instrument cluster has a new design, but you don't have to look too closely to notice things that weren't addressed -- things like cheapo adjustable map lights, wobbly steering-column stalks and a gear selector that moves sloppily through its gates. The shortcomings are even more glaring when you compare the Avenger with a car like the redesigned Optima, which has one of the nicest interiors in the segment.
The 2011 Avenger was awarded Top Safety Pick status by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety thanks to its performance in front, side and rear crash tests, plus a roof-strength test (the Avenger received Good scores -- the best possible -- in all four tests). It also has a standard electronic stability system.
Other standard features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and active head restraints for the front seats.
Avenger in the market
Despite numerous improvements to the 2011 Avenger, they don't go far enough to make this sedan more appealing than any number of competitors, like the Camry, Fusion and Optima. When you compartmentalize the Avenger's attributes, you can praise various aspects, like its composed ride and quiet interior, but in the end you have to weigh the car as a whole. When you do that, there's a lot left to be desired.
Starting MSRP $19,245 -- $23,745
EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 19 -- 21
Highway: 29 -- 31
173-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)
283-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 (flexible; E85)
4-speed automatic w/OD
6-speed multi-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or Notable
* Exterior and interior updates for 2011
* Optional 283-hp V-6
* Optional navigation system
* IIHS Top Safety Pick
What We Like
* Quiet cabin
* Suspension refinement
* Interior improvements
* Brake-pedal feel
What We Don't
* Torque steer when accelerating hard (V-6)
* Six-speed transmission's hesitancy
* Snug cabin
* Small trunk
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