Dodge Avenger is a racy nameplate planted now on a new sedan

2008, Dodge, Avenger SXT

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Avenger as the name of a carplate tracks back almost four decades to the Hillman Avenger in Great Britain and through a corporate connection with Chrysler Europe to derivations like the Chrysler Alpine in Europe, the Dodge 1500 of Brazil and Argentina, and the Plymouth Cricket in the USA.

During the 1994 season of IROC contests, NASCAR racers like Dale Earnhardt and Mark Martin steered a Dodge stock car which bore the name of Avenger. For Dodge's 1995 consumer line the aged Daytona coupe was replaced with a sleek compact sports coupe which sported the Avenger badge off the IROC racer.

In 2007 a new Dodge Avenger stock car joins the Dodge Charger in NEXTEL Cup competition with the NASCAR Car of Tomorrow (COT) race series. And that leads to a street-legal version as a four-door sedan with bold styling and clever accessories packaged as the 2008 Dodge Avenger. This new car, which replaces Stratus in Dodge's line, fits in the mid-size class and comes in three flavors.

We spend time in various versions driving Avenger across Arizona's Sonoran Desert and discover the car wears an independent suspension system tuned to deliver a smooth ride quality, with the passenger compartment, padded and insulated, amounting to a comfortable space filled with stylish appointments.

The shapely body -- flashing the menacing face of a bulldog with shapely body bulges and the sleek profile of a coupe despite a pair of doors hanging off each side -- shows styling cues similar to the larger Dodge Charger sedan.

Avenger's blunt-nosed hood stretches long and the body's beltline on flanks seems tall, with a roofline tapering toward the rear and squeezing window glass to narrow proportions.

Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and swift performance. Dodge divides the Avenger into three different versions -- the entry-model Avenger SE, an upscale Avenger SXT edition and a sporty Avenger R/T.

Each Avenger carries unique trim on the body. For instance, the face of Avenger R/T shows foglamps in the low fascia and at the tail there are dual exhaust pipes with chrome tips to accommodate a souped-up powertrain.

Dodge offers three different engines to motivate the new Avenger -- one for each trim. Avenger SE the price-leader totes a 2.4-liter four-in-line plant with dual variable valve timing (VVT) to generate 173 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 166 lb-ft at 4400 rpm. The four-pack ties to a four-speed automatic transaxle.

This engine scores Avenger's best fuel economy numbers -- 30 mpg for highway cruising. Avenger SXT packs a V6 engine and a different four-speed automatic.

This plant, displacing 2.7 liters off an aluminum block with dual-cam configuration, delivers 189 hp at 6400 rpm with the torque pegged to 191 lb-ft at 4000 rpm. Despite the boosted output, the V6 still achieves good fuel economy numbers (19 mpg city/27 mpg highway) and runs on regular-grade gas. Avenger's strongest powertrain drops into the top version, Avenger R/T.

The single-cam 3.5-liter V6 produces 235 hp at 6400 rpm and 232 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. It ties to a new six-speed automatic available with the AutoStick manual shift controller. With the larger V6, mid-grade fuel (89 octane) is recommended and the fuel economy figures drop to 16 mpg city/26 mpg highway.

Different brake components go with each powertrain. For the entry-level Avenger, the brakes consist of front discs and rear drums with the option of an anti-lock brake system (ABS). For Avenger SXT, brakes include standard ABS and the option of a disc at every wheel.

For Avenger R/T, the four-wheel disc brakes include ABS plus options for a non-skid device called electronic stability program (ESP) linked to a traction control system (TCS). Avenger R/T also offers an optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) system combined with sport suspension tuning. All versions of Avenger stock a significant content of passive safety gear, including a lot of air bags.

There are frontal air bags and seat-mounted side air bags for front seats and curtain-style air bags stretching the length of the cabin above all outboard seats. Avenger's cabin is straightforward in a clean design. The layout consists of two sport buckets up front and followed by a rear bench broad enough for three but with indented sections for two.

The back of the front passenger bucket folds forward to form a flat horizontal surface, and backs of the rear seat, divided into two separate sections, also fold for access to the trunk. Long cargo items can be stacked on top of these folded seats and stretched from dash to trunk.

Cool concepts make life nice inside Avenger:

* A cupholder in the front console has hot/cold elements to keep a beverage piping hot or nearly freezing.

* Chill Zone in the dashboard is a cooler bin that holds four 12-oz. cans of beverage.

* Optional Harmon/Kardon audio and information gear includes a dashboard touch-screen interface to control a 20-gigabyte hard drive for music and video storage.

* Optional UConnect adds hands-free wireless voice communication with a cell phone using Bluetooth technology.

Dodge structures a price chart for new Avenger to undercut the previous Stratus series. MSRP for Avenger SE begins at $18,220. Avenger SXT goes for $19,120, with Avenger R/T listing for $22,870, or $24,870 for the AWD version.

By Bob Plunkett

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Images of the 2008, Dodge Avenger SXT

2008 Dodge Avenger SXT from the front
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT from the front
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT has plenty of leg room
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT has plenty of leg room
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT from the drivers view
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT from the drivers view
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT side shot
2008 Dodge Avenger SXT side shot