2007 Dodge Avenger breaks with mid-size tradition

Friday, May 4, 2007
This undated photo provided by Dodge showed the 2008 Avenger. (Associated Press)

Just because the new Dodge Avenger is a mid-size sedan doesn't mean it's conservative or mainstream.

In fact, commendable handling and road poise make the early-for-2008 Avenger seem pricier than it is, and the car's exterior styling that's just shy of aggressive stands out in this usually mainstream segment.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $18,895 for an SE with 173-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. Compare this with a starting price of $20,140 for a 2007 Toyota Camry with a 158-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission.

Shoppers who prefer a more satisfying engine sound and more torque than a four cylinder will likely enjoy the Avenger's two V-6 choices.

Even the base, 189-horsepower V-6 in the test car had good get up and go, pleasing engine sounds and 191 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. Starting price is $21,145 and compares with the $24,160 starting price for a Camry with higher-power, 268-horsepower V-6, and the $23,030 starting price for a 2007 Pontiac G6 sedan with 224-horsepower V-6.

The five-passenger Avenger offers a larger, 3.5-liter, high-output V-6, too. It delivers 235 horsepower and 232 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm in the R/T model and starts at $23,545, which is still a lower starting price than a Camry V-6.

The mid-size Camry tops the mid-size sedan segment and ranks as America's best-selling car, with sales of more than 431,000 last year. The Avenger's predecessor, the Dodge Stratus, didn't quite hit 100,000 in calendar 2006 sales, so the Avenger -- a decided step up from the Stratus -- has lots of room to grow.

Built on the front-wheel drive platform that's also used in the new-for-2007 Chrysler Sebring sedan, the Avenger is wider and taller than the Stratus and draws some of its styling from the larger Dodge Charger.

The Avenger's extra 4 inches in height helped Dodge engineers position seats up higher from the pavement for better views and more comfortable positioning for passengers.

I appreciated the 36.5-foot turning circle, which made U-turns easier to negotiate. And the Avenger's speed-proportional, power rack-and-pinion steering had good, on-center feel with no loosey-goosey moments.

The ride, on mid-level, 17-inch tires, impressed the most, though.

Passengers felt most road bumps only mildly and were jostled just a bit when the car went over large potholes. But none of this was upsetting or harsh.

Better yet, the mid-level Avenger SXT with V-6 and touring suspension that was the test car handled so stably in all maneuvers, it was fun to drive. Most surprising was how well-balanced the car felt in weight and control. There was no weird body motion or unsettling movement of mass, even in abrupt, emergency moves.

The Avenger SXT wasn't like a sports car exactly -- tightly controlled, taut and rough-riding -- but it sure handled like a car much more expensive than its $22,300 total price tag.

Just be careful backing out of parking spaces and driveways.

The Avenger's shape creates a wide pillar between the rear window and rear doors, and then there's a black, plastic piece in the rear door window for styling, so this area obstructs the view more than in many convertibles.

Trunk space is 13.35 cubic feet, which is less than the 15 cubic feet in the Camry and the 14 cubic feet in the G6 sedan.

Front bucket seats in the test car were finished with soft, obvious leather -- a $925 option -- and provided good support for passengers. Back-seat passengers, however, have head restraints that are molded into the seat backs and cannot be adjusted.

Rear legroom of 36.5 inches is a bit on the short side. The Camry has 38.3 inches, while the G6 sedan has 37.6 inches.

My biggest quibble with the test Avenger was in the details.

Some plastic pieces inside weren't aligned properly, and large knobs on the dashboard to control the ventilation system had a weak, cheap feel to them. Blinkers had the loud, old-style, clickity sound that most new vehicles have abandoned, and floor mats in front seemed narrow for the space they were supposed to cover.

All safety equipment is standard and includes six air bags -- frontal, side-mounted and curtain -- as well as traction control, electronic stability control and antilock brakes.

The Avenger already was part of a safety recall of 11,191 cars for a front door latch cable that might not hold a door closed in a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Dodge is adding all-wheel drive to the Avenger. It's available on the top, R/T model and starts at $25,545.

All-wheel drive is a feature that's not offered by most mid-size sedans, including the Camry.

Shoppers will see two sets of fuel economy ratings on Avenger window stickers. This is because the early-for-2008 Avenger is subject to more stringent federal government fuel economy computations that will affect all 2008 cars.

But to provide apples-to-apples comparisons for shoppers today who might be cross-shopping the 2008 Avenger with 2007 cars in showrooms, fuel economy also is shown, in smaller print, as if the Avenger were a 2007 model.

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