I usually don't review cars I don't actually own and spend any long-term time with, because I feel that a "test drive" doesn't really expose a driver to all that a car has to offer. Sure, the car magazines do it, but that's their job. I'm merely an automotive enthusiast, so while it may make me a better critic, I feel that opinions are best rendered with familiarity.
That said, I've spent about two weeks with this Dodge Avenger as a rental; my beloved Mazda Protege5 wagon was side-swiped by a driver who decided she didn't want to be in the "left turn only" lane, and instead made a right into my driver's door. Her insurance company graciously provided the 2007 Dodge Avenger SE in this review.
The car had about 10,500 miles on it, so it was sufficiently broken in, but still relatively "new" so it was probably as good as such a car can be. But make no mistake, this was pure, unadulterated rental car, right down to the mouse gray interior and ubiquitous silver paint job.
The Avenger SE's exterior suggested a somewhat sporty ride: the styling is certainly unique, and I can see how, in the right color perhaps, that it could be considered sporty. It's also quite large, perhaps as large as the Taurus I used to own, which, at the time, was considered a large-ish car. The Avenger is technically a mid-sized car, but is considerably bigger than its predecessor.
In today's world of aerodynamics, new Chrysler products have an edge of which I am fond. This car pulls it off less successfully than the Magnum or Charger, which ride on significantly larger platforms. This car looks like a 3/4-scale Charger, but the shrinkage has hurt the appeal of that car's exaggerated rear fenders. With the shorter tail and smaller greenhouse, this car just looks chunky and awkward, particularly from the rear 3/4 view. And the rear doors just look weird,
open or closed.
The familial Dodge front end is perhaps the most successful element of the styling, giving the car a slightly aggressive look (I'm sure the R/T has a bolder appearance than the milquetoast SE) without being overstyled. Again, it's BIG, and overpowers at least to my eye
the rest of the car's lines. In photos, the R/T model, with larger wheels and some more aggressive fascias front and back, looks much better and more proportional. Yeah, the neat, red R/T is the one in the commercial, and it costs considerably more. Go figure. Meh.
The wheels on this rental were 16-inch steel wheels with 215-65-16 tires and goofy plastic 5-spoke hubcaps which will never, ever pass for real aluminum wheels. Like everything else on the outside of this car, they look big, but not proportionate. They aren't even as big as the tires on the R/T model, which, though even larger, look better. The tall, black sidewalls are surely the culprit here, giving the wheels the appearance of a Hot Wheels toy. The upside is that the tall sidewalls ride very nicely. This car eats up potholes and frost-heaved streets very well, and the solid structure transmits nary a quiver to the occupants. Nice.
Items I appreciated a great deal, however, were the exterior door handles. Easy to grab and just pulling on them opens the door. Door handles may seem like a stupid thing to notice, but at least once a week my hand slips off the "grab-underneath-and-pull-up" handles on my Mazda, making a loud, plastic whacking sound as the handle snaps back into position without opening the door. These Dodge door handles would be great for someone with arthritis or weak wrists, and are probably a snap to use with heavy gloves. They're probably also ideal for rescue workers to grab when extracting people from a wreck. Kudos to that engineer. I
Inside, it didn't take long to get acclimated to most of the controls. Everything is about where you'd expect it and is well-labeled. The radio is above the HVAC controls where it belongs, and the shifter has the familiar PRNDL gate with notches for each detent. With car designers trying to get creative with every little detail, keeping the basics familiar is helpful, not harmful in my opinion. Check out the Bizarro-world shifter on any Jaguar for some "what are they thinking?" contrast.
Notable exceptions include the radio/CD player/i-Pod interface, which is a vast, flat sheet of identical buttons that could not be operated without removing my eyes from the road. The push-on, turn for volume left knob and station select right knob work fine and are familiar, however. Sound quality from the 4-speaker stereo is fine, though I'm no audiophile. It seemed a little boomy and bass-heavy to my ear and no amount of fiddling with the audio controls fixed it. I didn't try the CD player but I assume it sounds similar. The i-Pod interface is basic--simply plug in a patch cable from your i-Pod's earplug jack to a similar jack on the radio and press the "AUX" button. The system does not interface with the player beyond that, so to change songs, you still have to monkey with the i-Pod device itself.
The cruise control stalk is located very low on the steering column, say around the 5-o'clock position. It is well labeled, but again, you have to take your eyes off the road to use it. There's a button on the end that turns cruise control on and off. You push the stalk downward to set the speed and to resume, push it up to accelerate, and pull it towards you to cancel. It can also be pushed away from you, but that's just because it's very loosely fitted and feels cheap. I never got the hang of using it without looking at the thing. Once set, however, it seems to hold speeds pretty well, though the transmission can get busy on uphill stretches.
The windshield wiper stalk is on the right of the steering column, where it is on my other cars, but operates strangely. For a single swipe, pull the stalk downwards. But if you want to activate the wipers, you have to turn the bezel on the end of the stalk, which turns them on and
adjusts the duration of the delay. On my other cars, delay and the two full-time on speeds are activated by simply clicking the stalk up or down to the next detent. Not intuitive on the Dodge.
And speaking of wipers, I wasn't even sure I had it right at first because the delay intervals were so vast. The longest delay was something like 1 minute between swipes, and each click higher than that shaved very little off of it. I wasn't even sure the wipers were on at first. Ultimately, I found that instead of using the delay feature, I just clicked the stalk whenever I needed the windshield wiped. Full-time ON worked fine, but I had to twist the bezel to find it. See what I mean about getting the basics right?
The HVAC controls were easy to understand and use, with pictures instead of words for people to whom that's important (but I guess they're not reading this, are they?). The A/C is powerful, but since it's September, I didn't have cause to test the heater. At night, the controls light up with a ghostly green-blue glow, and the pointers on the knobs of the HVAC controls are easy to see. I could deal with a little more tactile feedback from the detents on the knobs, but this is minor. It's an easy to use, effective climate control system. The A/C compressor's action didn't seem to hurt performance nor mileage as much as I would have expected on such a small engine, either.
I was extremely disappointed with the interior materials--the dashboard is made of the same plastic Fisher-Price uses on its children's toys. Every single surface except for the seats themselves is hard plastic of one kind or another. I know this is just a $20,000 car, but this stuff is borderline painful and the materials in my $16,000 Mazda are worlds better (perhaps those fancy rear quarter panels cost so much to stamp that they had to cut corners somewhere). I once whacked my elbow on the door panel getting out of the car and it sang for a good 45 minutes after that. Even the headliner looks like some kind of plastic rather than fabric, and my wife and I debated its actual chemical composition on the drive home from a ball game. She thinks it may be more akin to a nylon windbreaker than to actual plastic. Whatever it is, it's cheap as hell.
The seats themselves are fine, though I haven't spent more than an hour in them at a stretch. I like a firm seat and a long lower cushion that extends to my knees to support my thighs. Some people don't like that, but I fit well in this car. The seats in the SE model are manual, and the fore-aft adjustment is the familiar handle on the front of the seat. The backrest angle is harder to adjust because there are two levers down there on the side where you'd expect such a lever to be, and the first one you grab isn't it. The first one adjusts seat height, which can be useful for shorter drivers. However, I found it to be an annoyance because I had to fumble around with two levers, jerk the seat up and down a few times to get the height right again, and then get the back angle reset just to move it a single click towards recline. Once again, not intuitive.
Regardless, the car's suspension isn't athletic enough to need more bolstering than the seats have, and the standard seat fabric is reasonably grippy for anything you're likely to try in this car. The material itself feels what else?
cheap and I have concerns about its long-term durability. It also looks like it will pick up stains quite easily. Hopefully the upgraded Avenger models have upgraded upholstery to match their upgraded price tags.
My one beef with the seats is the headrest design. They are non-adjustable wedges of material that jut forward from the top of the seatbacks, leaving them mere millimeters from the back of your head. Depending on whether you're driving uphill and the size of your dome, you'll likely find the back of your head rubbing against the headrests almost constantly. For me, my standard straight-ahead view leaves the hairs on my head tickling the headrest--very annoying. This is probably great for preventing whiplash, not so great for comfort. I think this being a rental car made it worse--I kept wondering who else's head had been rubbing on that headrest, and what their acceptable level of hygiene might have been.
Dashboard design looks like the car is having an identity crisis. The gauges are in 3 deep binnacles directly in front of the driver and look very racy, especially at night when they turn neon green/blue--very expensive looking indeed. The rest of the dash looks like it was hewn from pieces of plywood--all angles and flat expanses of textured plastic. Particularly odd is the "hood" that sits on top of the gauges--it is a totally different shape than the rest of the dashboard, giving it an odd, tacked-on appearance like a dashboard toupee. This is especially noticeable where the gauge pod, the gauge "hood" and the center stack come together, leaving a considerable gap large enough to insert your finger. Nobody noticed this in the mock-up stage? There wasn't a better way to resolve these shapes? Maybe the guy who designed the door handles was off that day...
But the single most jarring aspect of the interior is the giant plastic chrome bezel around the shifter. Now chrome may suggest "upscale" to buyers, but one lonely piece of chrome-plated plastic just screams cheap. Worse, because it's down low and because the windshield is so large and laid-back, overhead sunlight reflects directly into your eyes. After 2 days of driving the car, I put masking tape on the bezel to cure the problem--it's that bad. Again I have to ask whether anyone actually drove this car before they signed off on the design?
I've been pretty harsh on interior design and materials, but I will say that the car is quite spacious. My test is to position the driver's seat comfortably, then see if my 5' 10" frame will fit behind it. No problems in this car, though the back seat's lower cushion is a little short. I wouldn't object to putting 2 friends back here for a long road trip. If you tried 3, I'm sure that third guy would
object, however. And despite the gun-slit like side windows and sharply raked front and rear windscreens, it feels bright and airy inside. This may be the biggest car for your dollar this side of a minivan.
The trunk is similarly large and well-shaped. It is deep and the lid opens to nearly bumper level, allowing easy loading and unloading. The rear seats also fold down, greatly expanding carrying capacity and accommodating long objects. I was able to carry some thin 10-foot-long metal strips with the trunk closed. Handy.
Now for the meat of the matter: how does it drive? Well, um, adequately.
The Avenger SE has a 2.4-liter, 177-horsepower 4-cylinder "World" engine with variable valve timing and a 4-speed automatic transmission. While 177 horsepower may seem like a lot, remember that this car also weighs more than 3400 pounds without passengers, which is a lot of steel to haul around with just 4 cylinders. The automatic works pretty hard to compensate, but you notice how busy it sounds up front in the engine room under all but the most sedate cruising conditions. The engine is loud in any gear but overdrive, and unless you're on the flattest highway in Kansas, it's unlikely to stay there for very long. Even a modest press on the accelerator produces at least one, and sometimes two downshifts. Second gear at 70 MPH on the highway makes a lot of noise but not a lot of acceleration. And when it is making all this noise, it isn't even a pleasant soundit just sounds like it's working too darned hard.
The loose torque converter conspires with a very touchy throttle to make the car lunge
off the linethis is an old trick to try to make a car seem more powerful than it is, and it's annoying as hell. In the rain, it's hard not
to chirp the tires from a dead stop. That same touchy throttle probably contributes to the constant downshifting, perhaps because your foot isn't sensitive enough to call up the correct amount of throttle for a situationyou're constantly calling up too much, then having to scale back after you realize you've pressed too hard. As a result, the car lurches from slow to fast and back again. Perhaps this would pass given more familiarity with the car, but I was in it for nearly two weeksthat seems sufficient, no? Lurch.
The brakes are also touchy, but are powerful and reliable. Even down the very long (1.5 miles) hill from my house, I detected no fade (and this hill tested the brakes more than it should have because the transmission can't be locked in 2nd gearmore on this in a moment). Pedal action was smooth and consistent, albeit touchy under light applications and in stop-and-go traffic, just like the throttle. I have an SCCA competition license, and even I had a hard time driving this car smoothly in traffic. Lurch!
On long downhill stretches, I cringe every time I see a driver riding his or her brakes all the way downby the time they reach the bottom, the brakes are overheated and may not be there when they are really
needed. For this reason, one should always shift to a lower gear to allow engine compression to help control speed. In most cars, 2nd or 3rd gear is adequate to allow you to simply coast down the hill at a safe speed without using the brakes at all, saving them for the bottom when you may have to stop suddenly. Well, this Avenger makes that nearly impossible. The shifter gate, while easy and intuitive enough to use, doesn't let you directly access 2nd gear. You can access Drive (which shifts through all the gears up to and including overdrive), and 3 (which locks out overdrive), but shifting it into L typically gives you first gear. Where's second? There's no detent for 2nd gear like on most other vehicles with automatic transmissions. Ah, but waitif you're clever, you can trick
it into giving you 2nd gear down a hill. Accelerate sufficiently to get it into 3rd gear, then pull it back into L and with luck, it will shift to 2nd as long as you're going too fast for it to downshift back down to 1st (if you're not going fast enough, it'll lurch violently back into 1st gear and the engine will sound like it's about to toss a rod). If you get 1st, quickly shift back to 3 and speed up, then try again. Eventually you'll get second and then you can coast safely down the hill. But be awareas you slow down, it'll aggressively grab 1st gear just as soon as it can. LURCH.
Ah, to hell with itjust ride the brakes until you can smell them cooking.
The open road is where this car really shines. Once up to speed on the highway, this car cruises effortlessly at supra-legal speeds. I often found myself going 10 MPH faster than I thought I was going, so easily and quietly did it move along. Wind noise is well suppressed and the tires handle bumps and expansion strips with a well-damped "thump-thump." The low final-drive gearing combined with overdrive means that the engine is loafing at cruising speed, keeping it quiet. I could see eating up large chunks of asphalt on a road trip with this car. It tracks straight ahead very well and stays planted in cross winds and when you pass large trucks. Wind noise is a whisper, though exterior noises from other vehicles leak through the thin glass and doors, which probably aren't all that well insulated (heck, it is just a $20,000 car, after all).
The suspension absorbs bumps and potholes very well and is quite comfortable on rough pavement. I was especially impressed by how easily it rolled along over pavement which, in my other cars, feels like a brick road. I'd almost forgotten what a soft suspension felt like, and it was a pleasant and refreshing change. Perhaps I'm getting old, but quiet and soft has an appeal that sporty and firm is losing. But as soon as I bent the Avenger into a corner with anything approching enthusiasm, I remembered why I'm willing to put up with a little extra NVH--the Avenger SE howled and protested loudly until I backed off to a more appropriate pace. Comfortable yes; agile no.
High-speed lane changes and course corrections are another opportunity to practice smoothness, however. The steering has great on-center feel and tracks well no matter what the surfaceit doesn't follow truck grooves or ruts at all. The alignment must have a ton of positive caster, because it definitely likes to stay straight. But pulling it off of straight ahead takes some effort that isn't linearit takes a lot of muscle to start the turn, but not so much to continue it. The net effect is that you're using more strength than you think to make a small adjustment to the steering, leading you to ultimately add too much and have to correct again, pitching the car around uncomfortably--even my wife noticed this from the passenger's seat. Note that this happens only at highway speeds and for slight steering movements, but it is nevertheless very, very hard to be smooth in this car. LURCH!
My final point is fuel economy. Though my 2-week sample only took 2 tanks of gas, which isn't great for statistical analysis, it went through those tanks faster than a 4-cylinder engine should have. I'd estimate that I averaged about 18-20 MPG in mixed city and highway driving. That stinks in a car ostensibly designed for "economy" as this one is.
If you're buying 4 cylinders to save on gas, buy a smaller car to go with them. The Avenger is just too big for that small engine and I suspect that you will probably not see notably better fuel economy than the V6 models. This is because the little engine needs to work much harder than the V6 to move all that mass. That means you're spending a greater proportion of time with the throttle opened wider than necessary. In addition, the V6 comes with a 6-speed automatic, which allows the engine to operate in its powerband more efficiently. If you want an Avenger for any reason, get the V6. It'll cost more on the window sticker, but probably not at the gas pump. I'm guessing it will also be a much more pleasant car to live with every day.
Amount Paid (US$):
2007Model and Options:
SE with automatic