- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

When you’re running on all cylinders, as the Dodge folks claim, it means none is missing.

Well, there have been a few misfires, with sales down in 2006, mainly of trucks. But that’s happened to other manufacturers as well. Despite the downturn, there’s no question that Dodge has an array of sparking cylinders to rev up sales across the spectrum.

At last count, the Dodge division of the Chrysler Group fielded an even dozen separate lines, ranging from the rip-snorting Viper to the Sprinter van, with passenger cars, pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles in between.

However, it’s not had much impact in the guts of the automobile market — midsize sedans, dominated by the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. The Dodge Stratus, one of the cylinders that didn’t fire regularly, came up with 51,393 sales in 2006, down from 99,648 the previous year.

Midsize cars arguably make up the market’s most competitive sector, with at least 17 nameplates from manufacturers in the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea. And most of them have something brand-new to tempt buyers.

At Dodge, it’s the 2008 Avenger, an all-new offering that replaces the Stratus. It has the same basics as the 2007 Chrysler Sebring, and uses all the same engines and transmissions as well as suspension system components. But the body and interior are different except for the windshield and front-door window glass.

What results is an aggressive-looking midsize sedan that borrows styling cues from its siblings, the larger, rear-drive Dodge Charger and Magnum. The Avenger, like most of the competitors in the midsize field, has front-drive, although the R/T version is available with all-wheel drive.

To be fully competitive in the midsize class, a manufacturer has to straddle a range of buyers with a variety of needs and interests. The Avenger is no different. It starts with a suggested retail price of $18,895, which gives an economy-minded buyer a decently equipped sedan.

Standard equipment includes side air bags, low tire-pressure warning light, side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, remote locking, power windows, motorized and heated outside mirrors, a “chill zone” storage area above the glove box that can keep four drink cans cool when the air conditioner is running, cruise control, a manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and sliding sun visors.

Unfortunately, the base SE model is not available with stability control or brake assist. Antilock brakes are available as an option.

The SE comes with the Chrysler Group’s 2.4-liter “world engine,” which delivers 173 horsepower and city/highway fuel economy of 21/30 miles to the gallon. It has adequate power for most driving circumstances, although the four-speed automatic transmission could stand a few more ratios.

Besides the base SE, there are three others: the midlevel SXT, which is expected to account for about half of all Avenger sales, the R/T and the R/T with all-wheel drive. The SXT is available with a smoother and more powerful 189-horsepower, 2.7-liter V-6 engine. But it still makes do with the four-speed automatic.

Featured on all but the base SE model is Chrysler’s YES Essentials seat fabric, which is one of the best interior inventions extant. It’s a special cloth, which means it is way more comfortable than leather or vinyl, but it’s virtually impossible to stain, even with such formidable agents as red wine.

You can even order the SE with heaters in the front seats, though that’s ridiculously redundant. At the top of the line is the R/T model, in either front-drive or all-wheel drive. It has a 235-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

The R/T is the version for enthusiasts. It surges off the line with authority and, with Chrysler’s AutoStick manual-shift mode, it trusts the driver. It stays in whatever gear is selected, unlike other manual-shift automatics that override the driver’s selection.

With a full load of options, the R/T’s price can be bloated to well north of $30,000.

The tested front-drive version, which came standard with stability control, antilock brakes and brake assist, also had a motorized sunroof, remote starting, leather upholstery, heated front seats, a cup holder that could be heated or cooled, a rear-seat video entertainment system, Bluetooth hands-free communication and Sirius satellite radio. Its suggested sticker price was $28,895.

Dodge has borrowed a page from its European sibling, Mercedes-Benz, which charges extra for certain paint jobs.

On the Avenger, it costs $225 extra for “red inferno crystal pearl” and $150 for “pearl orange.”

In the overall scheme of things, it’s probably not a lot of money if you want to elicit gasps from the neighbors.

The Avenger has ample room for a driver and three passengers. Like most sedans today, however, it does little to accommodate the center-rear passenger, who does not get a headrest and must sit on an uncomfortable perch while straddling a big hump in the floor.

Rear seatbacks fold down, and the front passenger seat also folds flat, which is a good thing because the 13-cubic-foot trunk is among the smaller in the midsize class.

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