The value built into the Dodge Avenger jumps out in the driving, because the car is more enjoyable to drive than some of the more expensive mid-size sedans. Both the base four-cylinder engine and the upgrade V6 are strong, with good fuel economy ratings. Handling is light and responsive around town. The ride is smooth, even over bad pavement, and the Avenger is generally quiet.
Avenger's standard 2.4-liter, 173-horspepower four-cylinder is EPA-rated at 20/31 mpg City/Highway with the 6-speed automatic transmission. It feels athletic, like it's working hard but could work forever. Noise and vibration are well isolated from the cabin, and the harder you run it, the smoother the four-cylinder gets. It pushes the Avenger briskly, more than fast enough to keep up. There are some turbocharged four-cylinders in midsize cars that are faster, but those are turbos. They cost more to build, and that's reflected in the price of the car.
The optional 3.6-liter overhead cam V6 is used in a variety of Chrysler vehicles. The company claims it is both the least expensive and most powerful V6 in the mid-size class, and we've found nothing to refute that. And the V6 still delivers a respectable 19/29 mpg City/Highway EPA rating.
The 6-speed automatic transmission, standard on all but the base Avenger SE, is fine for everyday driving. In Drive, around town, the upshifts are quick enough, and smooth. This transmission isn't too slow to drop down a gear, either, and most of the time the Avenger chooses the gear you expect it to. On the highway with your foot on the floor, the upshifts feel a bit slower, but they come at the four-cylinder's 6500 rpm redline.
Operated in manual mode, we liked the 6-speed automatic a lot less. We'd hoped the buttons on the back of the steering-wheel spokes allowed manual shifting, but they turned out to be audio adjustments. The only way to shift manually is with the plus-minus slot on the shift lever. Doing so, the 6-speed was all over the place, only rarely keeping the gear we selected. Run up toward the redline and it will shift itself up. Keep the engine revving too slowly for the chosen gear, and the transmission will automatically kick down. Ironically, Dodge was among the first domestic brands to re-discover manual-automatic shifting in 1995 (the idea is older than most people realize), and back then it was much truer to the driver's commands. Now the computer brain too frequently overrules the driver's desires and intent. In short, it's best to just put it in Drive and leave it there or use the manual feature to help it along.
This all makes us wonder if maybe the 4-speed automatic in the low-dollar SE four-cylinder model is actually a disadvantage after all, especially for those committed to four-cylinder fuel economy. At the very least, the four-speed will shift less frequently. And while it drops one mpg Highway in the EPA Highway ratings (to 30), the four-speed Avenger gains one mpg City (to 21).
We really like Avenger's ride-handling balance, because it has a big impact on making it a pleasant car to drive. Dodge retuned or redesigned virtually every part of the suspension for 2011, and they aced it. There's very little body roll or undulation, better isolation of road shock, better steering precision and increased grip, thanks to wider tires.
We ran the four-cylinder Avenger at a spirited pace through a long, climbing section of curves, and were impressed by how nicely it responded to steering input, even when we pushed it. On smooth curves it dove in with accuracy, and on choppy ones it stayed stable. Bumps don't upset the Avenger. It fends them off well. There's a point where the suspension could be firmer, but that point is beyond where most people ever drive. If you want to drive like that, the Avenger R/T is for you, but it isn't required. The everyday suspension works fine, and the Avenger SE V6 may be the Avenger for closet hot-rodders on a budget.
The R/T is definitely more firmly sprung than the other Avengers are, but there isn't a serious degradation in ride quality. Its suspension tuning gives it a heavier, muscular feel, more so than we'd expect in the typical mainstream mid-size. Then there's that 283-horsepower V6, with 260 pound-feet of torque, delivering serious acceleration and a nice growl when it's floored: strong, solid but not obnoxious.
The R/T is generally quiet otherwise, notable mostly for some tire slap, and it still delivers that 29 mpg Highway rating. Too bad there's no manual transmission. That might make the Avenger R/T a truly affordable muscle car for the 2010s.
Brakes might be the weakest point in the dynamic package of the Avenger. Pedal feel is fine, and you'll notice nothing untoward around town. But when we came back down our curvy mountain and used them hard, the brakes didn't feel strong enough to encourage us to really push them. No fade, but the feel didn't inspire confidence.