An Old Dog Learns A Few New Tricks

2011 Dodge Avenger
2011 Dodge Avenger - Click above for high-res image gallery

Chrysler has chosen vastly different fates for its Sebring and the Dodge Avenger, despite the two essentially being identical vehicles. While the Sebring underwent a complete personality makeover for 2011 and emerged with new sheetmetal and a new nameplate to match, the Avenger was left to soldier on with more conservative tweaks. The Dodge version of Chrysler's midsize sedan still wears the same basic body lines as before, masking over the significant adjustments to the vehicle's interior, drivetrain and suspension. While the Chrysler 200 may be stealing (okay, borrowing) the show, the 2011 Avenger is no less improved, at least when equipped with the company's new 3.6-liter V6 engine.

With 283 horsepower and respectable fuel economy, the new six-cylinder turns the Avenger into a vehicle that no longer takes its driving cues from capital punishment, though lower-rung trim levels don't fare as well. Buyers who opt for the old 2.4-liter four-cylinder will be met with visions from the vehicle's less-than-award-winning past, including plenty of engine vibration and fuel economy that's not on par with new hardware coming out from the competition. All this begs the question: Is there room for both the Dodge Avenger and the Chrysler 200 under the new company tent?

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Related Gallery2011 Dodge Avenger: Quick Spin
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Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

The 2011 Dodge Avenger has eschewed the full nose-job of its Chrysler cousin in favor of a simple fascia tweak. The new front bumper cap is slightly rounder compared to that of the 2010 model and it accommodates the redesigned Dodge corporate grille well. With that simple change, the Avenger now looks a bit more feminine, you but you won't hear us complaining. The rear now wears a similarly subtle redesign and is joined by new LED taillights.

We aren't exactly wild about the new lamp design, but they fall in line with similar units on vehicles like the 2011 Dodge Journey. There's something to be said for brand cohesiveness. We would have preferred to see the back of the Avenger receive a quick cleanup akin to that of the 200. In our estimation, tricks like shaving the vehicle's badges and using simple design tweaks to integrate the trunk lid and the tail lights would go a long way toward making the Avenger a more attractive vehicle.

2011 Dodge Avenger side view2011 Dodge Avenger front view2011 Dodge Avenger rear view

The good news is that once you're indoors, the differences between last year's Avenger and the 2011 become much more apparent, starting with the dashboard. The cheap-feeling expanses of hard plastic have been done away with and replaced by a very snappy-looking single-piece unit. Swaddled in soft-touch materials, both the door panels and the instrument panel go a long way to improve the perceived quality of the cabin. Contrasting stitching on the armrests and gauge binnacle is a thoughtful accent and make the pieces feel considerably more high-quality, while the sedan's instruments have been replaced with more legible units that are easy on the eyes.

In base trim, the Avenger comes with the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder and four-speed automatic as last year. Since our mothers always taught us to keep our traps shut if we couldn't come up with something nice to say, we'll just skip commenting on this rental-spec drivetrain combination altogether. Our tester was thankfully equipped with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, and while it's a huge improvement over the four-cog unit, this transmission still struggles to make up for the shortfalls of the relatively thirsty four-cylinder. With just 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque, the engine slurps down fuel at the rate of around 31 miles per gallon on the highway. While it does manage to crest the 30-mpg mark, there are larger, heavier mid-size sedans on the market today achieving mid-30s with more modern four cylinders.

2011 Dodge Avenger interior2011 Dodge Avenger front seats2011 Dodge Avenger speedometer2011 Dodge Avenger engine

The 2011 Avenger isn't a lightweight by any means, and the four-cylinder engine has a hard time producing enough grunt to boot the sedan up to speed. The six-speed transmission spends its time switching through gears to keep the engine revs high, resulting in plenty of engine noise and vibration at interstate speeds.

Of course, all of this can be avoided by simply opting for the very capable 3.6-liter V6. While we weren't able to grab any time behind the wheel of a six-cylinder Avenger, its driving characteristics ought to be nearly identical to the 2011 Chrysler 200 Limited that we drove recently, as both cars make use of the same suspension upgrades, including a quicker-ratio steering rack, stiffer bushings, springs and dampers as well as larger roll bars. Even with all of those enhancements, the Avenger still feels soft and more easily unsettled compared to competition from Hyundai, Nissan and Chevrolet.

2011 Dodge Avenger rear 3/4 view2011 Dodge Avenger grille2011 Dodge Avenger wheel detail2011 Dodge Avenger side detail

Given the blatant similarities between the 200 and the Avenger, Yours Truly would just as soon drive the Chrysler in V6 trim were the choice limited to those two models. Both carry identical price tags, with the Avenger starting at $19,245 plus destination, though with its freshened sheetmetal, this author finds the 200 to be a marginally more attractive package.

In any case, if you have your heart set on going Mopar, take our advice and step up to the Avenger Heat. At $23,745, it rolls with the Pentastar V6 as standard equipment. With 29 mpg highway and over 100 additional horsepower compared to the four-cylinder, the price premium is well worth it.

Related Gallery2011 Dodge Avenger: Quick Spin
2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger2011 Dodge Avenger

Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL