I was expecting much less than I got with the 2010 Dodge Avenger Express, the economy model of this handsome, yet smaller, Dodge Charger clone.
The Avenger and its Chrysler cousin, the Sebring, have managed to stay under everyone’s radar for years, being among the weakest entries in the highly competitive midsize market. Both have garnered the label of cheap cars, but not in a good sense.
So I expected your basic rental car sedan, and in some ways – acceleration, exterior finish and transmission performance – I got just that.
Still, there are things here a family of four could like.
First, there’s value pricing: The base for the Avenger Express is just $21,230. Even adding in a bright red paint job ($245), stability/traction control ($425), a power sunroof ($845) and Uconnect phone with voice command, auto-dimming rearview mirror with microphone ($380), plus a $750 delivery charge, the car came in at $23,875. That’s just below the average price for a new car today.
The interior is roomy enough for four adults, and the ride is as pleasant as any midsize I’ve driven. The car takes large bumps well. It even handles the crumbling streets on Milwaukee’s northwest side with ease. These are streets I travel regularly with my test cars, and pricier cars haven’t handled this test course so well.
Handling is another plus, with less play in the wheel than you might expect and not much lean when you toss the Avenger into a hard turn. The car is easy to control and comfortable to steer.
Rental car aura
Where I felt the rental car aura was in acceleration and shifting. The 2.4-liter dual variable valve timing, four-cylinder engine is rated at 173 horsepower, but it felt much weaker. Much of the problem I attribute to Dodge’s less refined four-speed automatic transmission. Most cars in this class have five-speeds, and this one really whined. It was particularly noisy from 20 to 40 mph, and such whine plants seeds of doubt for long-term reliability.
In the engine’s defense, it came to life after 40 mph, but on city streets the car feels pokey. At a modest 3,299 lbs. and 173 horsepower, it should accelerate better. One other concern: Several times the engine died after start-up. As I was about to shift into reverse, the engine would die. It always started right up and ran smoothly, but such behavior is rare in a new car.
Braking was fine, given four-wheel discs with an anti-lock feature. The test car added the optional traction and stability control systems for safety.
Gas mileage was decent. I got 26 mpg in an even mix of city and highway driving. The EPA rates Avenger at 21 mpg city and 30 highway.
I’m not a fan of overly complex dashes that are loaded with buttons, and in that way the Avenger is a bit of a throwback. Its hard plastic dash and controls are simply laid out and easy to understand and use. It adds a useful split dual glove box up front, and I like the Dodge/Chrysler layout with radio volume and channel controls on the rear of the steering wheel hub. They’re out of sight, but a quick touch of the finger away as you drive.
The car also comes with a tilt/telescope steering wheel, which helped me get comfortable behind the wheel.
No bare bones car
The mildly contoured front seats are a bit tight, and I’m not a big guy. Several other riders noticed the problem, too. There’s also a huge glare that comes off the chrome gear shift surround on sunny days. That makes sunglasses a must.
Two-speed heated front seats are standard on the Express. There’s a touch-screen for the radio, a 20-gig hard drive to hold 6,700 songs, one year of Sirius satellite service, six speakers and a CD player. Cruise control is on a stalk to the left of the steering wheel and power mirror controls on the driver’s door. So this is not a bare bones car.
The trunk is pretty large, too – certainly big enough for a family of four’s luggage on a driving trip.
Outside, I notice one exterior fit flaw. The gas cap stuck out from the body’s side, even after it was pushed shut. Otherwise, the Avenger looked great decked out in its “inferno red” paint job.
Note that there are two other Avenger models: the less costly SXT, which starts at $20,230, and the R/T, a slightly racier model that lists at $21,730. If the standard engine seems too tame for you, consider the 2.7-liter V6 that produces 189 horsepower or the sturdy 3.5-liter V6 that generates 235 horsepower and is available on the R/T model.
If you’re shopping for low-cost muscle, the latter may be a reasonable choice. But be aware that Dodge and Chrysler, with the help of their Fiat parents, are just beginning a product blitz.