by Kevin Ransom
Sporty and roomy, the Avenger is just right.
Base Price $16,120
As Tested $22,440
Sport coupe buyers often want the best of both worlds. They yearn for a car that projects a sporty image and comes on strong on twisting country roads, a car that can speed them out of a jam on crowded freeways. But they aren't always willing to accept a rocky ride. And they don't want to shoehorn family members into a tiny back seat with their knees tucked up under their chins. So they may be willing to sacrifice a little performance in exchange for interior room and a nicer ride. And if they can get out the door for under $25,000, so much the better.
The engineers at Chrysler had those buyers in mind when they designed the Dodge Avenger, and its cousin, the Chrysler Sebring Coupe.
The Avenger delivers a smoother and quieter ride than cramped road rockets, such as the Mitsubishi Eclipse. There's ample legroom in front and a back seat that's big enough to keep folks from getting on each other's nerves on long weekend hauls. Yet, there's also a firm suspension and grippy tires to provide entertainment value on back roads.
Chrysler introduced the Avenger as a 1995 model. For 1999, the company has added next-generation dual air bags and two new colors, plum and shark blue.
Two trim levels are available: $16,120 Avenger and $18,395 Avenger ES.
The standard powertrain is a 2.0-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine hitched to a five-speed manual transmission. A 2.5-liter, 24-valve, V6 engine and four-speed automatic transmission are optional.
Avenger ES comes standard with air conditioning, tilt steering, leather wrapped wheel, speed control, power steering, a cassette player and aluminum wheels.
The Dodge Avenger offers a good value when compared with the $21,095 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Z34, $22,250 Toyota Celica GT, and Toyota Solara, which ranges from $19,058 to more than $26,800. The new Mercury Cougar, priced in the $17,000 range, is a closer competitor. At 190.9 inches bumper-to-bumper, the Avenger is 1 inch longer than the Solara and 10 inches shorter than the Monte Carlo.
Our Avenger ES came with a $2,020 customer-preferred options package that includes leather low-back bucket seats, power windows/mirrors/locks, six-way adjustable driver's seat, CD player and keyless entry. It was fitted with anti-lock brakes ($600); automatic transmission ($695); 2.5-liter V6 engine ($610); power sunroof ($640) and upgraded stereo with graphic equalizer and Infinity speakers ($325). A $630 discount brought the total price to $22,440.
Our ES was painted with an eye-popping Indy Red clear coat that accentuated its high-flying profile. Its aggressive, windswept lines are more predatory than the Chrysler Sebring Coupe's more contoured shape, and the Avenger's compact grille and hungry-looking air dam suggest a car that's ready to gobble up the miles and anything else that gets in its way.
The Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger share basic platforms with the Mitsubishi Galant and Eclipse and all four are built at the same Normal, Illinois, plant.
The Inside Story
The Dodge Avenger's cabin is smartly laid out, with gauges that are instantly readable and switchgear that is easily reachable.
When the driver's seat is pushed all the way back, it delivers enough headroom and legroom for a six-foot driver. Its 43.3 inches of front legroom is the same as the Camry Solara SE's, and surprisingly more plentiful than the Monte Carlo Z34. But we wished the manually adjusted driver's seatback offered more precise adjustments.
The Avenger is better than most two-door coupes when it comes to climbing into the back seat. An adult can easily pass through the driver's side opening - as long as the driver's seat is slid all the way forward. The back seat offers sufficient legroom for two normal-sized adults. In fact, the Avenger offers as much rear legroom as the much longer Monte Carlo and it's comparable to the Solara.
Nice features include the digital compass readout that appears in the upper right corner of the rear-view mirror; all cars should have compasses, but many don't. And instead of having to reach over and behind your head to locate a dome light switch, the Avenger provides good map lights accessed by three small, easy-to-locate buttons that run along the bottom of the rearview mirror. Recessed cupholders in the Avenger are far superior to unsteady slide-out trays popular in other cars.
Ride & Drive
Whether working the commuter traffic or devouring Interstate miles, the Avenger ES offers a quietude that rivals the larger, more expensive Dodge Intrepid. Even when surrounded by big trucks on the freeway, the Avenger ES abates road noise better than we would have expected from a sporty coupe.
On a twisting road that winds through the Michigan countryside-a road with inclines and sweeping curves-the Avenger's speed-sensitive steering and independent suspension made it a pleasure to drive. Even on dirt roads, the Avenger's nicely tuned suspension provided a good buffer from the bumps.
The Avenger's stable platform enables it to soar through big curves with ease. Sharper turns induce some body roll, one of the compromises of the coupe's smoother ride. So, while the Avenger can outmaneuver a larger, heavier sport coupe like the Monte Carlo, it's not as nimble as a smaller coupe, like the Honda Prelude.
With a 0 to 60 mph acceleration performance of 9.1 seconds, the Avenger ES isn't as quick as a Prelude SH, Monte Carlo Z34 or the new Mercury Cougar. But its 2.5-liter V6 deploys its 163 horses with little effort and minimal engine noise and offers more than enough thrust for passing maneuvers. Strong low-end torque makes driving around town and pulling away from intersections a pleasure. And there's plenty of horsepower for high-speed cruising.
While we prefer the V6, the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine costs less and offers better fuel economy. In fact, a good engine-transmission combination for this car is the 2.0-liter engine and five-speed gearbox. (The five-speed is not offered with the V6.)
In the braking department, the Sebring's combination of discs in the front and drums in the rear bring the vehicle to an admirably quick stop, with no grabbing and minimal fade.
The Dodge Avenger is roomier and more comfortable than coupes like the Mitsubishi Eclipse and Honda Prelude, but smaller and more maneuverable than the Monte Carlo Z34. The Prelude and Ford Mustang are faster and hug the road harder, but have niggling back seats.
Overall, the Avenger provides a good combination of both worlds.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.