There are cars you drive because you want to and cars you drive because you have to. The 2008 Dodge Avenger is in the latter category. Everything about it screams "rental car." The 2008 Dodge Avenger SXT arrived at my house with a base price of $19,120 ($19,795 as tested), a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty and an EPA estimate of 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway. I just couldn't shake the dread -- a week in a four-cylinder automatic sedan is not my idea of fun. So I decided to pretend that I was a tourist right in my hometown, and inject some fun into the Avenger.
First Glance: Baby charger
Here in Southern California, points of interest dot the map like pimples on a computer nerd's back. My first stop with the Avenger was in Downtown Los Angeles, a great place to look for parking and art galleries. I parked in front of MoCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and examined the exterior of the Avenger.
Though the all-new Avenger replaces the mid-size Stratus in Dodge's the lineup, the Avenger bears a family resemblance to the larger Dodge Charger. The big flared front wheel wells give an impression of a vehicle that's raring to go, and the chiseled details around the body reinforce the feeling of muscularity. Avenger has an expressive face, with big horizontally arrayed headlights (link goes to photo) and a wide open grille quartered by a chrome cross with the Dodge badge at center. The long flat hood is detailed with two blood grooves that run from nose to windshield, a more tasteful treatment than gouges on the hood of its near-twin, the new-for-2007 Chrysler Sebring, but still a little odd. I didn't get a chance to drive the Dodge in the rain -- that's why the tourists come here to Southern California, we don't get much of the wet stuff -- but I wonder how the channels in the hood affect the water while driving.
SXT is the mid-level of trim available on the Avenger -- there's the base SE below, and the sporty R/T above. SXT wears a nice set of 17" aluminum wheels as standard equipment.
Time to hit another hot spot. I jumped back into the Avenger, and flogged the four-banger to life.
In the Driver's Seat: Good design, poor materials
I couldn't wait to get where I was going next. Not because the destination was so spectacular, but because the interior of the Avenger was so bland.
My test vehicle, a pre-production model, was fitted with a Dark/Light Slate Gray interior package, a combination that reminded me of an unfinished Revel model. Cheap-looking and feeling plastic components litter the dashboard. Especially unsatisfying are the monochromatic air vents, which look more like prototypes than production units. Fit and finish within the cabin was mediocre, with big gaps in the dash panels, an ill-fitting glove compartment door and frame, and cheesy textures all over. Dodge assures me that the production vehicles will be more polished -- time will tell. I hope so, because the bones of a nice interior are there. The steering column both tilts and telescopes. The instrument panel is clear and crisp. The center stack is especially clean and uncluttered, with simple controls and dials. There are some clever optional features available, like a "Chill Zone" dash compartment that can keep up to four 12-ounce cans of soda cool, a heated/cooled cup holder, MyGIG hard drive navigation/music system and UConnect hands-free Bluetooth.
The gray anonymity of the Avenger's interior depressed me. I could just imagine picking up my Avenger at O'Hare Airport during a heat wave and heading out to a business meeting near Joliet that I had no desire to attend. Avenger would make me homesick right out of the lot.
I decided to cheer myself up by heading to the beach -- Zuma Beach, to be exact.
On the Road: V6, anyone?
Getting to beach cleared my head a little, and made me a little more charitable toward the Avenger. I mean, as elemental as the interior looks, at least the driver's seat is fairly comfortable, firm and supportive. If it wasn't fun to drive, at least it was getting good gas mileage.
I decided to drive home through Topanga Canyon, a great twisty road that connects the Pacific Coast Highway with the San Fernando Valley. Four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front and multi-link with coil springs out back do a decent job of keeping Avenger civilized, though sharp bumps deliver a thunk through the whole chassis. Big elevation changes and steep grades betray the engine's low power -- if you regularly drive through canyons or over big hills, you may want one of the Avenger's two optional V6 engines (2.7 or 3.5 liters) under the hood.
Journey's End: Give me wide open spaces... and a better car
The car to beat in the mid-size sedan class has been the best-selling vehicle in America for several years running, the Toyota Camry, which just underwent a major redesign for 2007. Lots of people love their Honda Accords, and with good reason -- it's an excellent vehicle. The Nissan Altima and Mazda 6 are also worth a look, and don't overlook the Hyundai Sonata or the Mitusbishi Galant. If you're a big "buy American" family, you may want to consider Pontiac's G6 or Ford's Fusion.
If you have lined up a Dodge Avenger at the rental agency for your next vacation or business trip, and the guy at the counter offers you an upgrade to a convertible -- take it, even if it costs a few dollars more. Be sure to wear a hat and some sunscreen, and you'll have a memorable trip, instead of a forgettable time in the Avenger. -- Jason Fogelson