Chrysler’s Deadly Sin #5: 2008-10 Dodge Avenger – Automotive Journalists’ Whipping Boy, And Deservedly So

The Dodge Avenger was the very bottom of the barrel in the mid-size sedan segment when it was launched. It excelled at nothing and sold poorly compared to its predecessor, relying on heavy incentives. It was so underdone that even when Chrysler fixed some of its most egregious faults with the 2011 refresh and improved it from a subpar car to at least average, the lingering funk kept the Avenger on automotive journalists’ and commenters’ lists of the worst new cars.

The platform underpinning the Avenger – known as the Chrysler JS platform – was a relatively solid foundation. The Avenger shared it with the Chrysler Sebring and both were related to the Dodge Caliber and Journey and Jeep Compass and Patriot. JS had started out as a co-developed platform with Mitsubishi, Chrysler making changes after DaimlerChrysler and Mitsubishi ended their partnership in 2004.

Mitsubishi’s version of the platform, known as GS, survives today underneath the Mitsubishi Outlander, Outlander Sport (ASX/RVR), Lancer, and Eclipse Cross. None of those cars are class leaders but they don’t embarrass themselves, thereby proving the platform itself is fairly sound.

Unfortunately, it’s what DaimlerChrysler put atop it that sucked. Simply put, you were better served buying literally any other mid-size sedan on the market in 2008. That included not only the stalwart Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, but also the Pontiac G6, Ford Fusion, Saturn Aura, Kia Optima, Hyundai Sonata and Chevrolet Malibu. Even the Mitsubishi Galant was a better choice at the time, before Mitsubishi starved it of updates and it assumed the mantle of worst car in the mid-size segment.

What was so bad about the Avenger? Let’s start with its most damning fault, the interior. The basic dashboard design was inoffensive and relatively ergonomic. Unfortunately, the material quality was awful. Like, first-generation Kia Rio awful. The plastics weren’t just hard, they looked hard. And cheap. And indifferently assembled. Let’s not forget the overly firm seats with their slippery, bargain-basement leather trim or the stain-resistant but cheerless cloth trim. Even high-spec models, with their extra bits of shiny “metal” trim, looked worse inside than a base model Camry or Accord.

The lower-line Avengers’ interiors were just embarrassing. If they’d been screwed together a little bit better, you might be able to argue the interior was “hardy” and “no-nonsense” but they weren’t and the interior instead was just dreary and low-rent. Even worse, the high beltline made the interior feel confining.

Over the years, the Big Detroit 3 have often been criticized for making you buy a top-line (or near-top) model to get a “good one”. For example, GM made you pony up for a Pontiac G6 GTP or Chevrolet Malibu SS just to get a V6 that merely matched the standard V6 in an Accord or Camry. This definitely applied to the Avenger.

The standard engine was the 2.4 four-cylinder “World” engine, co-developed with Hyundai and Mitsubishi as part of the Global Engine Alliance. Although it produced an adequate 173 hp and 166 ft-lbs, it came only with a four-speed automatic and was noisy and unrefined.

In the mid-level SXT, you could get a 2.7 V6 producing scarcely more power and torque – 189 hp and 191 ft-lbs. It, too, was mated to a four-speed automatic although in certain overseas markets like Australia it had a six-speed automatic. The 2.7’s sludge issues had been resolved by the time the Avenger launched but, by then, its power and torque figures were well behind the rest of the class. This was the 2000s after all, the decade of the mid-size sedan horsepower wars. The 2.7 couldn’t even best most rivals’ more powerful V6s in fuel economy.

Overseas markets also had a 2.0 “World” four, as seen in the Dodge Caliber, which produced an underwhelming 154 hp and 140 ft-lbs. This was scarcely enough to haul around 3400 pounds of Avenger, although it was available with a five-speed manual. (There was also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turbo diesel Avenger, using a Volkswagen-sourced 2.0 with a six-speed manual)

Even the “good” powertrain, the 3.5 V6 and 6-speed automatic in the flagship R/T, couldn’t match the power and torque figures of the Accord and Camry, producing 235 hp and 232 ft-lbs and mustering only 16/26 mpg. The 2008-only all-wheel-drive R/T achieved a truly atrocious 15/24 mpg score, which was V8 gas mileage.

The R/T had a firmer suspension than the regular Avenger but still didn’t handle with the alacrity of, say, a Mazda6. That was pretty disappointing for something both aggressively styled and emblazoned with the R/T logo. Regular Avengers used the same suspension tune as the Sebring and were utterly forgettable to drive with numb steering and so-so handling albeit relatively decent ride quality, depending on who you asked. The Avenger had Charger styling but Camry dynamics. At least the Camry had some decent engines…

Over the years, Detroit has also been criticized for releasing cars that couldn’t match imports in quality or refinement and which instead relied on gimmicks to sell. Gimmicks were about all the Avenger had in its repertoire, including heated and cooled cupholders, a chilled glovebox, fold-flat front passenger seat, and stain-resistant YES Essentials fabric. Optional was a MyGIG touchscreen infotainment system with a 20GB hard drive and a USB port for transferring data, pretty impressive for 2008.

There was only one other area in which the Avenger stood out in a good way. That was its unmistakably American, Charger-esque styling, Chrysler designers trying to make a statement with the car to help it in European and Asia-Pacific markets. Given the surprising international success of the Chrysler 300, it was a strategy that had some merit. After all, the Avenger could compete on little else other than price and equipment and that left it exceedingly vulnerable in cutthroat markets like Europe.

Ryan Nagode’s design was a mixed bag. On one hand, the visual link to the Charger was unmistakeable, the front-wheel-drive Avenger boasting its larger brother’s aggressive haunches. Unfortunately, the platform’s proportions left the car looking rather tall and stubby even though the car was an inch both taller and longer than the Toyota Camry. In my eyes, it was mostly attractive. In your eyes, it may be ugly. At least we can all agree it was better-looking than the bizarre, overwrought Sebring.

I was excited when the Avenger was launched in Australia, the first mid-size Dodge to make the long trip over here. Given the dearth of American cars here, it was a delight to see Chrysler expand their Australian model range and offer not just one but two mid-size sedans. Then the reviews came out and dimmed my enthusiasm – there was praise for the Avenger’s styling and feature content but little else. Even the European-spec suspension tuning of Australian-market Avengers couldn’t elevate the brash Dodge above the Camry in the fun-to-drive stakes, while the cars’ build quality further enforced local stereotypes about American cars and their lack of attention-to-detail and polish.

Sitting in one was enough to completely turn me off. At the time, my sister had a Mitsubishi 380 (Aussie-market Galant). It had some cheap trim here and there and the silver plastic center stack looked dated almost right away. Nevertheless, it was a Lexus next to the Avenger. Aussies avoided the Avenger and it limped on until 2010 (the Caliber and Nitro quickly posted double-digit declines and disappeared a year later). It couldn’t even last that long in Europe, disappearing after 2009.

The reviews were no more positive in the Avenger’s homeland, the brand new sedan coming 7th out of 7 mid-size sedans in a 2008 Car & Driver comparison test. Europeans were unimpressed, too, beyond the basic pounds-for-your-pounds value aspect.

From 1997 until 2005, Dodge shifted around 100k Stratuses each year. The Avenger couldn’t even reach that in its debut year, reaching only 83k units. By 2009, it was selling less than half that. For comparison, Pontiac sold more than twice as many G6s in 2009 in spite of its corporate parent’s bankruptcy spectacle and the impending death of the division. The Avenger did manage to sell more than rivals like the Galant, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy and Mercury Milan but Chrysler managed this with a glut of fleet sales.

Fiat acquired more and more of Chrysler after its bankruptcy and made a serious effort to fix Chrysler’s fleet of often underwhelming, underdone cars. Key to that was a healthy investment in improving interior quality. For 2011, the Avenger received an entirely new, vastly better-quality interior with attractive, soft-touch plastics (although some hard surfaces remained). There were mechanical improvements, too: the four-cylinder was now available with an optional six-speed automatic while the two V6s were replaced with a single, more powerful V6, the 3.6 Pentastar with a class-leading 283 horsepower.

Though the Avenger would only live for a few more years and would never again reach the sales heights of the Stratus, Fiat’s improvements instantly reversed the car’s sales slide. In fact, in both 2012 and 2013 Dodge shifted more than 90k units. The car still wasn’t a class-leader and the mediocre four-cylinder engine was carried over but the Avenger was now a competent if unexceptional mid-size sedan.

And yet, the jeers continued unabated from bloggers and commenters. Dodge had so royally messed up the ’08 Avenger that the stench lingered. Dodge’s macho marketing had presented the ’08 Avenger as a dynamic, fun-to-drive, powerful mid-size sedan. In reality, it was an unexciting, underpowered, unrefined, underdone sedan. And though the 2011 refresh went a long way towards righting the Avenger’s wrongs, it couldn’t resolve them completely and, for some, it couldn’t redeem the Avenger name.

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