The 2008 Dodge Avenger is still living with the burden of an old SNL skit by actor Will Ferrell. Don't believe us? Then say this aloud: "I drive a Dodge Stratus." Now scream it as if your hair were on fire.
Once a great-looking car that made the reputation of an entire generation of Chrysler designers, the Dodge Stratus never got any better than the moment it was unveiled and gradually declined into mediocrity.
It was Ferrell, playing the dull, white-bread dad of a wildly dysfunctional family in a now-famous skit for Saturday Night Live, who made the Stratus a totem of shame.
"I am a division manager! That's very important! People are afraid of me! I drive a Dodge Stratus!" Ferrell screams over the dinner table, demanding respect.
Now the 2008 Dodge Avenger has arrived, trying to rescue the reputation of Dodge's midsize sedan by adopting the name of the Avenger, once known as the coupe companion of the Stratus. White bread no more, Dodge is telling us.
It's got fangs!
We're told that the 2008 Dodge Avenger is "aggressive," "menacing," "in-your-face" and even "sinister." Really, they told us.
Beneath the marketing baggage is the hardware of the 2007 Chrysler Sebring, itself an odd combination of sedan styling and sport-utility packaging. This same platform with front-wheel drive and all-independent suspension also forms the basis for the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot.
Perhaps the Avenger's mechanical similarity to such a raft of other vehicles from the Chrysler Group is why the company seems to be putting so much stock in the look of this new sedan. One gander at the Avenger will tell you that the company is trying awfully hard.
The headlights are said to glare beneath heavy brows. The taillights are said to wear "war paint." And Exterior Designer Ryan Nagode says the whole front of the thing was inspired by a pair of Oakley sunglasses he once owned.
Like a Dodge Charger, only smaller
The Avenger's profile is supposed to mimic that of the larger Dodge Charger. And it does, in that the B-pillar is covered in black plastic and there are big haunches over the rear wheels inspired by the Dodge Challenger pony car of the 1970s. Somehow, though, the voluptuous Charger makes all these visual themes hang together more gracefully.
The Avenger's haunches rise awkwardly out of the rear doors, as if they were a last-minute add-on to an already completed design. Dodge says that the blacked-out B-pillar and the triangular flap of ribbed, black plastic at the trailing edge of the rear windows accentuate the car's stance, or some such thing.
Truth is, that piece of ribbed plastic grabs your eye and will not let go. Along with the haunch below and the big rear-wheel flares, it makes for one of the oddest, most uncomfortably complicated door panels in recent memory.
Add the big chrome-covered wheels and the obligatory rear wing and the whole thing looks a little over the top, too much like (dare we say) a Pontiac Grand Am.
The not-all-that special edition
Underneath all this visual bluster and shininess is a safe and competent — if not especially aggressive — sedan.
The basic specs are identical to those of the Sebring sedan. Three engines, two automatic transmissions and two different suspension calibrations are available.
At the bottom of the pile is the SE. It comes with a 173-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder that's mated exclusively to a four-speed automatic transaxle. It's got rear drum brakes, plastic wheel covers and 215/65R16 Firestone FR690 tires. This is the version that you would likely be assigned at the rental-car counter.
In this configuration, the Avenger is a timid performer. If you're going to pass that semitruck on a two-lane road, you'll want to plan ahead and be prepared for the slightly raucous noise coming from the other side of the firewall. But it'll get the job done. And we must say that Dodge has done a good job at quelling road noise, even on this most basic of Avengers.
The Avenger is 4 inches taller than the old Stratus, and the passengers get the benefit. The interior measures out to a spacious 100.9 cubic feet, and the rear quarters afford about the same amount of living space as other cars in this class, although the beltline is so high that you feel as if you're sitting in a well.
The $18,895 Avenger SE comes with front-seat side airbags and curtain-type head protection bags, plus a tilt-telescoping steering wheel and power windows. What these buyers will not get standard is ABS or much in the way of excitement, overheated styling notwithstanding.
Oh, and like all Avenger and Sebring buyers, those opting for the SE get the "Chill Zone." This grandly titled bit of technology is simply a second glovebox with its own air-conditioning vent. You can store up to four cans of soda in the Zone and they will be cooled by the air-conditioning.
Wanna SXT you up
More than 50 percent of Avenger buyers will go for the middle version, the well-equipped but price-conscious SXT.
At $19,795, the SXT comes standard with the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine as the SE. But one could also pony up for an updated SOHC 2.7-liter V6. It makes 189 hp, which is considerably less than the V6 of pretty much all the Avenger's competitors, and this car weighs a substantial 3,465 pounds in SXT trim.
At the same time, the V6's 191 pound-feet of torque matched with the four-speed automatic transmission will be much appreciated during that two-lane road, truck-passing scenario described above. And although it carries rear drum brakes, ABS is standard equipment.
The SXT's exterior is sassed up a little with chrome on the front grille, body-color side molding and 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels with 215/60R17 Bridgestone Turanza EL400 tires.
This vehicle drives pretty much exactly like the SE since it shares the same suspension tuning, but it's a little quicker. And if you want to use E85 ethanol-blend fuel, the 2.7-liter is the only engine in the Avenger lineup capable of running on the stuff.
More road than track, really
The R/T version of the Avenger is really the only version of the car that we can endorse.
These is because once you check the R/T box and pay the minimum price of $23,545, you get the 3.5-liter V6, which is rated at 235 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque. Just as important, the R/T comes standard with a six-speed automatic that incorporates Chrysler's autostick manual-shifting feature.
We admit that the Avenger's 3.5-liter V6 doesn't have a power rating that will make you swoon, and only the Ford Fusion has a V6 that makes less power than the Avenger's 235 hp. But once you combine this engine with the quick-shifting six-speed automatic, a more capable state of tune for the suspension and 18-wheels with 215/55R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE92A tires, the 3,568-pound Avenger R/T becomes a reasonable companion on the road.
Later this year, Dodge will offer the Avenger R/T with an on-demand all-wheel-drive system.
For all its newness, the Avenger assumes much the same place in the automotive sky as the Stratus. It's got some style and it's got some space, but this Dodge is built to a price, and you can tell when you put it next to a Honda Accord, Nissan Altima or Toyota Camry.
Even Dodge admits to us that the Japanese-label competition has a stranglehold on the market for midsize sedans, and the 2008 Dodge Avenger will have to scrap with the Ford Fusion and Pontiac G6 for what's left over.
This doesn't sound very aggressive to us.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.