Saturday, May 1, 2010

Rental Road Test: Dodge Avenger

Never before have I been so excited about something so mediocre. I’ve read a lot about the Chrysler Sebring over the past couple years, mainly in regards to how it’s the “Worst New Car in America”. So, of course, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a chance to try one out and see for myself what exactly all the fuss is about. Since the Avenger is nothing more than a Sebring dressed in (slightly) less hideous clothes, I figured it would provide pretty much the same experience.

Surprisingly, it’s not quite as unutterably awful as the reviews would lead you to believe. Which isn’t to say that it’s good, or that it even approaches “good”. The Avenger thoroughly and utterly defines what comes to mind when you think “Rental Car”.

Let’s start with what everyone knows already – Chrysler makes, by far, the worst interiors in the business. They also sport the poorest fit and finish this side of a Hyundai Excel. The Avenger is no exception to this. Just a few examples: The gap where the glove box meets the dashboard is large enough that my fingers fit inside; close examination of the trunk lid revealed a large clumpy paint splotch (almost like an assembly line worker dropped his used gum on the sheetmetal, and didn’t bother to take it off before the paint had been applied); and the headliner bends and folds to the touch as if it’s made of aluminum foil. These are just a few examples… I could easily go on. Long story short: This is the cheapest-feeling and most shoddily built car I have rented thus far, and *that* is saying something. As for interior materials, let’s just say the cabin of the Avenger make a Kia Rio feel upscale. About the only place you’re going to find lower grade plastics is inside a bus station, or, well… in a Dodge Caliber.

One part of the Avenger that really is as bad as they say is the powertrain. Yes, the fleet-grade four-cylinder is noisy, slow, and produces liberal amounts of vibration, but the unbearable 4-speed transmission is what really crashes the party. A good automatic transmission is a transmission you don’t notice. If you notice it, that means there’s something wrong with it. You shouldn’t hear it, you shouldn’t feel it, and you shouldn’t have to wait for it. 95 percent of new cars today - large and small, cheap and expensive - are somehow able to pull this off. So why can’t the Avenger?

Well, because it’s using the same four-speed “Ultradrive” transmission my 1992 LeBaron had. I remember the tranny in that car well – upshifts came with a jerking clunk, downshifts were by appointment only, and, worst of all, slowing down to stop produced the loud, intrusive, and unrefined whine of a gearbox at work. Cut, copy, paste – it all holds true for the Avenger. At least the wide gearing was less noticeable with the LeBaron’s torque-rich V6. You could almost write a book before the trans decides to downshift after stomping the pedal in the four-pot Dodge.

What keeps the Avenger from descending down into A.L.A. [Aveo-level awful] is how it manages to pass the “cruiser” part of the exam acceptably well. This rental-spec model with smallish 16-inch wheels actually rides quite decently, and, apart from the noisy engine and transmission, there is surprisingly little wind and road noise inside the cabin. Still, larger bumps pound through the suspension and cause the rigidly deficient chassis to flex and rattle with all the structural assurance of Chevrolet Celebrity. On all but the worst roads, though, the Avenger is relatively smooth and hushed. It’s a nice surprise in a car that otherwise assaults most of the human senses.

Apart from the relatively good ride and somewhat low noise levels, this car has little to offer over, erm… pretty much anything else on the market. Despite the fact that the Avenger is a mid-size sedan, a number of lower-priced compacts outperform it in a number of ways. Some outperform it in virtually every way. While evaluating the Avenger, I found myself indirectly comparing it to my father’s new Honda Civic – a less expensive car that is a whole size class below it. You don’t have to wait for the transmission in the Civic, and you don’t feel or hear it either. The engine, despite being smaller, is smoother, quieter, and produces little to no vibration or thrash. The ride is steady and supple, and the body stays rigid over rough surfaces. Materials quality and fit and finish? So far ahead they’re in another galaxy. Actually, apart from better sound insulation, I can’t think of a single way the Avenger outdoes the Civic. Save width, the Civic even has a larger interior, and, compared the Avenger’s prison-cell cockpit, the Honda feels much nicer thanks to its airy interior and good sight lines.

With the top-level 3.5-liter V6, six-speed automatic, and slightly better interior trimmings found on a higher trim level, the Avenger might even be able to approach “acceptable”. Still, the only way I would ever even begin to consider one as a serious purchase would be if the price was, really, really low….say; $15,000 maybe. No, wait, scratch that. You can get a base Civic for $15,000.

Yes, yes, I know… some seemingly mediocre cars are desirable for reasons other than objective qualities. They’re charming, they have character, they give you a special “feeling” behind the wheel. Sorry – the Avenger is not one of those cars. It’s mediocre and that’s all. In fact, the only “feeling” I get from this car is regret that I did not put forth the extra five dollars for that Impala I could have gotten.


Anonymous said...

Wow, they even gave you a white one. The only thing missing is the phone company's logo on the front door.

Andrew T. said...

I'm not sure what DaimlerChrysler were thinking of when they penned the Avenger several years ago. It's not a great performer. It doesn't even look attractive: The styling consists of random 1970s and 1980s design cues thrown together and tumbled down. I can see a bit of muscle car in the bulk above the rear wheels (pointless for FWD) and a bit of Aries-K in the upright grille. Unfortunately, it takes more than that to make a desirable automobile...