Pros: Reasonable price, much better interior than before, impressive range of technology offerings, optional V6 is a winner.
Cons: Less back-seat space and smaller trunk than most rivals, outdated base four-speed automatic, poor 4-cylinder fuel economy.
Let's start with the good news: the 2012 Dodge Avenger is a considerably improved version of Dodge's midsize sedan. Thanks to a thorough rejuvenation last year, interior quality is way up, the ride and handling are more sophisticated and the available 3.6-liter V6 delivers satisfying power at a reasonable price. However, the Avenger in its previous state was one of the worst cars in its class, so it wasn't exactly challenging to improve upon. Here's the real question: Has the overhauled Avenger become a fully viable alternative to established family-sedan favorites?
Well, not quite. Although there's no doubt that the spruced-up 2012 Avenger is a nice car on its own merits, it's still fundamentally the same old Avenger underneath. That means it's still an awkward in-between size, slotting above compact sedans but below familiar family sedans like the Camry. Consequently, the Avenger's down on both passenger and cargo space. It's also down on refinement if you go with the archaic four-speed automatic transmission. Most competitors grew out of their four-speed phases years ago.
But here's the thing-the Avenger is priced more aggressively than the typical sedan in this class, so you might get a great deal on what has become a pretty solid car. That's the sort of good news that doesn't need an explanation.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Dodge Avenger comes in one of four trim levels: SE, SXT, SXT Plus and R/T. The just-the-basics SE includes 17-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, power accessories, cruise control and a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary input jack (but not a USB input). The SXT steps it up with 17-inch alloy wheels, a power driver's seat, six speakers for the stereo and automatic climate control. The SXT Plus tacks on 18-inch alloys, fog lamps, a rear spoiler, dual exhaust tips, unique seat fabric with red stitching, USB and Bluetooth connectivity (optional on lower trims) and a 6.5-inch touch-screen infotainment display with 28 gigabytes of digital music storage (optional on SXT). The R/T model gets its own 18-inch polished alloy wheels, various sport-themed styling cues, jazzed-up seats with "performance" leather bolsters, Boston Acoustics speakers and an exclusive gauge cluster with a center-mounted tachometer. A navigation system can be added to the 6.5-inch infotainment suite.
The Avenger's front seats are squishy and lack adequate lateral bolstering, even in the R/T, which gets those special leather bolsters but little in the way of improved support. The R/T chairs do look kind of cool, though. From the driver's vantage point, the most notable feature of the R/T is its unique gauge cluster, which includes an all-time first for the family-sedan segment-a center-mounted tachometer (never mind that a manual transmission isn't offered). Its usefulness is debatable, but the fact that Dodge went out of its way to add this feature speaks to the company's commitment to its R/T line. Most folks, though, will end up with something other than the R/T, and for their sake we're happy to report that every Avenger's dashboard is swathed in the same premium-grade supple material. The degree of improvement here relative to the previous interior cannot be overstated.
The back seat is where the Avenger starts to lose some of its newfound luster. Like its Chrysler 200 sibling, the Avenger is based on the same architecture as compact cars like the Dodge Caliber and Mitsubishi Lancer. Accordingly, there's only so much Dodge's engineers could do for rear passengers. The Avenger does have a surprisingly high rear bench, which helps alleviate the legroom shortage, but there's still a sense of snugness back there that's not present in any rival save perhaps for the Suzuki Kizashi.
The snugness continues in the trunk, which maxes out at 13.5 cubic feet of storage. In the real world, we should add, there's a decent amount of space in the Avenger's boot; it's just that most rivals offer considerably more.
The Avenger SE may seem like a good value, but it doesn't come standard with iPod/USB or Bluetooth connectivity, so you'll have to pay extra for these increasingly expected features-on the SXT, too. Still, we give Dodge credit for making sure that the Avenger offers a full range of technological goodies, including that 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system. This isn't exactly a cutting-edge system, as it dates back a few years and obviously lacks the crisp graphics and intuitive interface of the 8.4-inch touchscreen that appears in newer Chrysler products. But the Avenger's touch-creen is functional enough, and we definitely appreciate its 28 gigabytes of hard-drive storage, which is a boon for digital-music aficionados.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The Avenger SE comes with a four-speed automatic transmission and a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. That's right, you're stuck with the clumsy four-speed if you get the SE. Maybe you won't mind it, but we think this transmission is the worst in the family-sedan class. You're better off stepping up to the SXT, which keeps the inline-4 engine but uses a relatively smooth six-speed automatic instead. Acceleration is acceptable with the 4-cylinder, but fuel economy is unfortunately below-average with either transmission: the four-speed yields 21 mpg city/30 mpg highway, while the six-speed surprisingly does about the same at 20/31 mpg.
As for the 3.6-liter V6, it's standard on both the SXT Plus and the R/T, and it's a beast, cranking out 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed automatic. The V6-powered Avenger is one of the best values out there for folks who want a little extra oomph, and it gets nearly the same fuel economy as the 4-cylinder models, checking in at 19/29 mpg.
The 2012 Dodge Avenger comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain). In government crash-testing, the Avenger received an overall rating of four stars out of five, while the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Avenger its top rating of "Good" in every category.
The Avenger's improvements last year were far more than skin-deep, as the suspension went in for extensive revisions, too. The result is a far more pleasant car to drive. Quiet, soft (except for the firmer R/T with its 18-inch wheels), yet surprisingly coordinated in corners, the Avenger strikes a good dynamic balance for American roads. Easily the most memorable aspect of the driving experience, is the thrust from that powerful V6, which transforms the Avenger into a little muscle car that's totally worthy of its Charger-inspired styling.
Other Cars to Consider
Kia Optima - The daringly styled Optima has superior fuel economy and a bigger backseat, yet it's still aggressively priced, even with the optional turbocharged inline-4.
Suzuki Kizashi - If you're looking at 4-cylinder sedans, check out the Euro-inspired Kizashi, which has compact dimensions and an affordable price tag, just like the Avenger. It's got available all-wheel drive, too.
Toyota Camry - The redesigned Camry has great fuel economy, plenty of space all around and few notable flaws. The Camry SE is even fun to drive this time around, easily giving the Avenger R/T a run for its money.
We think the V6 is clearly the way to go, even if it costs you a little more upfront than you planned on spending. The R/T is an acquired taste, however, with its boy-racer styling cues, so we'd stick with the SXT Plus and enjoy the money we saved over rival V6-powered sedans.