SCOTTSDALE, Arizona - When Dodge decided to issue a new midsize sedan for 2008, they dropped the badge used for such models since 1995. Instead of a Stratus, the 2008 midsize is named the Avenger.
Actually, that's another Dodge nameplate from the past. Considered a sport coupe, the original Avenger disappeared after the 2000 model year.
Introduced at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January, the 2008 Avenger resembles Dodge's Charger sedan, especially up front - though in a slightly smaller size. Dodge "wanted to bring a bit of attitude to this segment," said design chief Ryan Nagode. Like a person who wears sunglasses even when the sun isn't shining, the 2008 Avenger "felt a bit tougher," with a "sinister flair." It's "almost like the car is kind of lifting its eyebrows at you," Nagode said, and the R/T edition "looks a little meaner than the rest of them."
Standing 4 inches taller than the Stratus, the 2008 Avenger is 1.2 inches wider. "We wanted a limber, upswept stance," Nagode explained. B- and C-pillars are blacked-out. More pronounced wheel flares surround 16-, 17-, or 18-inch wheels, depending on model. Torsional rigidity is 1.7 times stiffer than that of the Stratus, and bending rigidity is 1.6 times tougher.
Three engines are offered: a 173-hp four-cylinder "world engine" and two V-6s, topped by a 3.5-liter six-cylinder that generates 235 horsepower. The midlevel 2.7-liter V-6 produces 189 horsepower. A four-speed automatic transmission is used for the four-cylinder and 2.7-liter, but the 3.5-liter V-6 accompanies a six-speed automatic with AutoStick manual operation. R/T editions get a low wing-type rear spoiler and dual exhaust outlets. Dodge also offers a Sport Appearance Package that mimics the look of the R/T.
All-wheel drive will be available on Avengers, which was definitely not the case with the prior Stratus. Specifically, the R/T AWD model goes on sale during the second quarter of 2007. Other models began to reach dealerships by February.
Avenger is the first Dodge model that is rated using the new EPA fuel-economy figures, which are supposed to better reflect real-world driving. The four-cylinder Avenger is rated 21 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway (versus 24/32 mpg for an equivalent 2007 model). With the 3.5-liter V-6, the EPA figure is 16/26 mpg, versus 18/28 in 2007.
Curtain-type airbags and seat-mounted side-impact airbags are standard. Antilock braking is not standard on the lower-cost SE model, but is available as part of a package. Asked about the lack of standard ABS across-the-board, engineering spokesman Dave Lauzun explained that "we get a very low take rate on that" when it's optional.
Even in the sportier Avenger R/T, there's not much penalty in ride comfort, at least on relatively smooth pavement. Mild imperfections are traversed admirably. You hardly notice them, in fact - though tires do transmit noticeable sounds from flawed surfaces.
Acceleration with the R/T isn't exactly inspiring from a standing start, though the modestly rich exhaust note makes this Avenger sound like it's performing energetically. Gear changes from the six-speed automatic are occasionally a bit abrupt, and the transmission seems a little "busier" than some.
Despite a moderately heavy overall feel, the R/T yields good steering response. It's also stable and secure on the highway. On the whole, though, the R/T - unlike its bigger Charger R/T cousin - does not feel like a real performance machine, and produces less-civilized responses than some competitors when pushed hard. As a family sedan, on the other hand, the Avenger R/T satisfies nicely.
As expected, performance is less exhilarating with the four-cylinder engine, which is also snarlier. The four-speed automatic in an SXT produces satisfactory shifts, too, without any jarring or curtness.
For a good compromise, the optional 2.7-liter V-6 in an SXT produces notable blare when accelerating hard, but it gets up to speed reasonably well. Ride quality is especially impressive, even on comparatively flawed pavement.
Avenger prices start at $18,895 (including destination charge) for the Avenger SE. An SXT model with 17-inch wheels stickers for $19,795, while the R/T goes for $23,545. When it becomes available later, the R/T AWD will have a sticker price of $25,545.