By Andrew Ganz
Tuesday, Nov 23rd, 2010 @ 12:00 pm
 
Get this: That Dodge Avenger you just rented from Avis shares its basic platform with the handles-on-rails Mitsubishi Evo. Throw that one out to the crowd the next time you're perusing the shined up offerings at your local Cars and Coffee and you'll probably stump more than a few gearheads.

An uninspired kid brother to Dodge's feral-to-ferocious Charger sedans, the Avenger elicited little praise at its 2008 model year launch when it replaced the Stratus sedan. A victim of Daimler cost cutting and Chrysler indifference, the Avenger was high on Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne's "fix list" when the Italian automaker took a stake in the Michigan automaker about 18 months ago.

The clouds have since parted, revealing what's shaping up to be a potentially sunny future for Detroit's number 2.5 and, with an open mind, we recently spent some time behind the wheel of a heavily revised 2011 Dodge Avenger sedan.

The pundits disagree
Straddling the line between "lipstick on a pig" and "all-new," the revised Avenger is neither as warmed over as cynics suggest nor as fresh faced as Chrysler tries to portray. For starters, it doesn't really look new, but we've learned not to judge a book by its cover.

The front and rear fascias have been redesigned and snappy revised wheels are on offer, but the latest Avenger hardly makes last year's model look like old news. And that's definitely a bad thing because, while the Avenger isn't necessarily unattractive, its salty reputation will be hard to shake without a new look.

If Dodge can get buyers inside of the Avenger, they might change their minds. An all-new interior awaits, replacing the positively Little Tykes outgoing crapbox, if we may be so crude to call it such. The proportions are the same, meaning the driver sits low in the cabin and the A-pillar is tucked in close, but nearly everything else has been rethought.

Soft touch materials and nicely-stitched surfaces abound, giving the Avenger a premium feel not experienced in too many rivals. The look is derivative and not particularly forward-looking, but it's inoffensive and, on the early production models we sampled, everything seemed well screwed together. Dodge's new three-spoke steering wheel makes an appearance and in most trims it's wrapped in the same high grain leather you can opt for on the seats. Those chairs are more padded and comfortable than before, although they lack the finely-sculpted feel found in rivals like the Mazda Mazda6 and Ford Fusion.

Rear seat passengers get a nice fold-down armrest and the 13.5-cubic foot trunk is better finished than before.

Driving force
Dodge is quick to hype up the appearance of its new 3.6-liter V6, which replaces a pair of under-performing 2.7-liter and 3.5-liter mulls. If you've been paying attention to news out of Auburn Hills, this engine will feel familiar. Corporate parent Chrysler's much-ballyhooed Pentastar unit, the V6 features variable valve timing but not direct injection. In this application, it cranks out a class-leading 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque and it is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

As such, it moves the 3,600 lbs. Avenger along with authority, always feeling fast. It suffers from some torque steer under hard throttle applications, but it rewards drivers with a refined growl. Gas stations will love it, too; Chrysler hasn't released fuel figures, but we don't expect much better than 26 mpg on the highway.

Despite the hype, the V6 isn't expected to account for more than a quarter of all 2011 Avengers to roll out of the automaker's Sterling Heights, Michigan, assembly plant. Most happy new Avenger owners will pop their hoods to find Chrysler's familiar 2.4-liter four-cylinder, which has been reworked for improved efficiency and a more docile demeanor. Horsepower checks in at 173 ponies and the four-banger offers 166 lb-ft. of torque.

Mated to a four-speed automatic in stripped down models, most Avenger 2.4s will get a six-speed automatic. A Fiat-sourced dual clutch six-speed automatic designed to improve performance and save fuel will come within the year.

We didn't spend much time behind the wheel of the four-cylinder, but we were impressed with its silence. Emitting only a light vibration at idle and a little buzz at high speeds, the four-cylinder moves the Avenger along adequately - about par for the class.

Some of the biggest changes will be invisible to most eyes, but they manifest themselves after only a few minutes behind the wheel. A substantial sound deadening package including laminated front and front side glass quieted down the cabin to luxury car levels, certainly making the Avenger one of the quietest sedans under $30,000.

Even more work was done to the suspension, which features new designs for virtually every non-metal part - shocks, bushings, dampers and more. The result is a vastly improved ride and sharper handling with less play in the steering. Avenger falls well short of being a sports sedan, but its ride and handling is certainly class competitive for once. Dodge promises more precision for the upcoming Avenger R/T, which doesn't offer powertrain changes but does ride on a more sport-oriented chassis. We aren't ready to bite into the hype just yet, but we'll try to keep an open mind once again.

Leftlane's bottom line
Don't automatically cross the 2011 Dodge Avenger off your midsize sedan shopping list just yet. We're anxious to spend more time in Dodge's midsize mass-market sedan to see just how much the "New Chrysler's" efforts have paid off, but our first impressions point toward good things. No, the Avenger isn't a class leader, but the fact that this re-energized automaker was able to do this much work in just over a year's time bodes well for its future endeavors.

Think of this latest Avenger as a stepping stone - and let's hope Chrysler can continue down this path.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz