Let's face it, in the mid-size sedan market it's models like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu that get the lion's share of attention. Right now, the competition between these four is fast and furious and they all have their strong and weak points.
But sitting quietly on the sidelines is the Dodge Avenger, which, while it may not match its rivals in terms of sales volume, has its own particular charms.
Offered in three trim levels - SE, SXT and R/T - the Avenger is available with either a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine or a 3.5-litre V-6. The former is the base engine and can be had with all models. The V-6 develops 235 horsepower, while the four-banger gets 173 horsepower. My tester, a base SXT, had the four-cylinder engine and, to put it bluntly, this is not one of the vehicle's stronger points; it may well be one of the reasons this car doesn't sell as well as its rivals. Compared to the Camry and, even more so, the Accord, this engine is rambunctious, underpowered, loud and coarse - definitely past its due date.
Originally designed as a "world engine" some five years ago, it's also been utilized by Mitsubishi and Hyundai in some of their models, and will apparently be around for another year or two. It's time for a replacement.
Once they settle in behind the wheel, the first thing most people notice about an automobile is its engine, and this unit definitely gets your attention - and not in a good way. On the plus side, it does return reasonable fuel economy, and will run on E85 ethanol fuel. But since that particular commodity is only available at - what? - maybe four locations in all of Canada, that doesn't mean much.
The four-cylinder is mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and, again, the Avenger is a little short of the mark here, as most of the competition features five and even six-speed auto boxes as standard issue. In short, the Avenger's drivetrain is a little behind the times.
On the plus side, it has surprisingly decent handling - all things considered. The wheezy four-banger prevents the Avenger from doing anything really interesting, but on the highway and through the turns it's quite stable, with very neutral handling.
Suspension duties are handled by MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement with coil springs in back. Brakes are front disc/rear drum, with optional four-wheel discs and ABS as standard equipment. Traction control, vehicle stability, and brake assist are all optional. Again, some competitors have these features as standard kit.
Ingress and egress is excellent. In fact, this is one of the Avenger's strongest points. Like its bigger brother, the 300, the Avenger has generous-sized doors and a surprisingly amount of headroom.
When you get into it, you sort of step down a little bit and, though it may not be as sophisticated as other models in this segment, the Avenger gives up nothing in terms of comfort. Decent trunk room as well; almost 380 litres, which is less than the Chevy Malibu, but almost the same as the Honda Accord. In fact, the Avenger gets my vote as one of the most accommodating mid-sizers out there and I would give it serious consideration for its elbow room alone.
A word about price. According to Chrysler, the SXT starts at just over $24,000. Alas, so do most its rivals. True, you get a fair whack of standard equipment for the money, including air conditioning, power door locks, a centre console, cruise control, engine block heater and a slick little extra in the form of a "chill zone," which is a storage area for beverages and what-not located above the glove box. Still, at this price, the Avenger is not a bargain.
My tester also had a few extras in the form of Sirius satellite radio ($250) and U-Connect cellphone connectivity, but even so, with taxes and levies, it came in at well more than $26,000. By way of comparison, a base Honda Accord LX with a five-speed manual gearbox starts at just over $25,000 and a Camry LE with an automatic five-speed is about $23,000. The Chevrolet Malibu, with a four-speed auto box, is about the same.
A quick trip around the Internet and through the display ads of my local papers reveals '09 Avengers priced all over the map. Given the fact that this is the end of the model year, there should be all kinds of deals out there, as dealers clear out their lots and showrooms to make way for the 2010s. So, a little hard bargaining could go a long way right about now.
Speaking of which, the 2010 Avenger looks to be pretty much the same as the '09 edition, and even the '08 models. Chrysler hasn't officially released any numbers yet, but it's unlikely that prices will be any higher for next year.
2009 DODGE AVENGER SXT
Type: Five-passenger, mid-size sedan
Base Price: $24,295; as tested, $26,320
Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder
173 hp/166 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel Economy (litres/100 km):
9.7 city/6.6 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Mitsubishi Galant, Subaru Legacy, Saturn Aura, Volkswagen Jetta, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Magentis, Mazda6
Should have a five-speed at least