HEALDSBURG, Calif. -- A wiggly blacktop strip called Chalk Hill Road slithers through a lush landscape of vineyards in California's Sonoma Valley. This twisty route, looping around bumps like Black Peak and Bell Mountain, quickly shows off the retuned firm handling traits and sporty attitude of a new incarnation of Avenger, Dodge's mid-size family sedan cast with front-wheel-drive traction.
The 2011 Avenger, riding on a rigid platform with independent suspension for all four wheels and the five-seat passenger compartment, padded and insulated, fitted with comfortable appointments, represents a new and improved treatment -- it scores powertrain upgrades, revised suspension settings, new trim grades and fresh sheetmetal styling on the body.
Avenger's new exterior design features smooth lines flowing over a wedge-shaped body with stepped front hood and the raked windshield tipping to the extreme to enhance aerodynamic efficiency.
The new chin-forward prow projects Dodge's signature split-crosshair grille and an aggressive lower fascia housing new projector-beam foglamps.
Flanks bulge with muscular fenders ringing some nice wheels and the blunted tail treatment seems more sculptural now with new round LED taillamps on rear corners.
To forge Avenger's taut handling traits and precise manners, Dodge's engineers re-worked and reinforced the unibody architectural structure to make it stiffer and stronger. They revised, retuned or redesigned the suspension geometry, expanded the wheel track width by an inch and dropped the suspension -- down 12 mm at the front wheels and 6 mm for rear wheels – to set up a lower and wider stance.
Avenger’s independent suspension elements consist of front MacPherson struts with coil springs over gas-charged shocks and stabilizer bar mounted on an isolated suspension cradle, and a rear multi-link arrangement with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar with gas-charged shocks and an isolated rear suspension cradle.
Avenger also contains many active safety systems designed to keep an alert driver out of harm's way by avoiding accidents. The equipment includes a quick-response rack and pinion steering system and four-wheel disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), electronic brake assist (EBA) and anti-skid devices via the electronic stability control (ESC) system and all-speed traction control (ASTC).
Measures for passive passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to active head restraints on front seats, three-point front seatbelts with shoulder adjustment, backseat restraints with upper and lower anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage air bags up front with seat-mounted side air bags and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for outboard seats on front and rear rows.
Dodge constructs the 2011 Avenger with two different engines in four trim designations: Express, Mainstreet, Lux and Heat.
Avenger Express the price-leader totes a 2.4-liter four-in-line engine with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and dual variable valve timing (VVT) to generate 173 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 166 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
The four-cylinder plant links to a four-speed automatic transaxle, the 40TES.
This powertrain scores Avenger's top fuel economy numbers -- up to 21 miles per gallon (mpg) for city driving and 30 mpg for highway cruising.
Two other Avenger trims -- Mainstreet and Lux -- also carry the four-cylinder engine as standard but tie it to an intelligent six-speed electronic automatic, the 62TE.
Fuel numbers also look good with this power package -- 20 mpg City and 31 mpg Highway.
Optional power upgrade for Avenger Mainstreet and Lux -- or the standard for Avenger Heat -- is the new Pentastar DOHC 3.6-liter aluminum-block V6 engine mated to the 62TE six-speed electronic automatic with AutoStick shift-it-yourself manual mode.
The twin-cam six-pack generates heady power numbers -- 283 hp at 6400 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
Yet it still earns keen fuel economy numbers -- 19 mpg City and 29 mpg Highway.
Avenger's passenger compartment, padded and insulated, amounts to a comfortable space packed with stylish appointments and new premium interior finishes.
The layout consists of two low-back buckets up front and followed by a bench broad enough for three but with indented sections for two. Backs of the second-row seat, divided 60/40 into separate sections, fold down flat to expand the trunk's cargo capacity.
Up front, the driver fits in a comfortable bucket which adjusts in multiple directions.
Instruments in the dashboard cluster include round analog gauges with black faces and vivid white lighting.
Avenger Express the base model shows no options. Stock equipment includes the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, four-speed automatic transaxle, 17-inch steel wheels with Sparkle Silver painted wheel covers and 225/55R17 Continental ProContact all-season touring tires, power exterior mirrors, variable intermittent windshield wipers, air conditioning, tilting/telescoping steering column and the steering wheel pegged with audio controls, power windows and door locks, a floor console with stow bin, two 12-volt power outlets, cloth-covered front bucket seats with driver-side manual lumbar and height adjustments, a rear bench with 60/40 split folding seatbacks and fold-out armrest, and a four-speaker audio kit with AM/FM/CD/MP3 and audio jack.
Avenger Mainstreet adds the six-speed automatic, 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels painted Sparkle Silver with 225/55R17 Michelin Primacy MXV4 all-season touring tires, automatic headlamps, automatic temperature controls, heated outside mirrors, eight-way power for the driver's seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Homelink universal garage door opener, Sirius satellite radio and six audio speakers.
Avenger Heat totes the Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed AutoStick automatic, 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels painted Sparkle Silver with 225/50R18 Goodyear Eagle LS-2 touring tires, projector-beam foglights, a rear spoiler, remote engine starter, heated front seats, two-tone leather-wrapped steering wheel and a premium audio kit with dashboard touchscreen and 30GB of digital music storage plus six Boston Acoustics speakers.
Avenger Lux offers the four-cylinder or V6 powertrain, 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels and 225/50R18 Goodyear Eagle LS-2 touring tires, plus leather-trimmed seats.
A price chart for the 2011 Avenger starts at $19,245 for entry-level Avenger Express. The Mainstreet edition begins at $21,245, while Avenger Lux lists for $23,545.