The 2013 mid-size sedan with the lowest starting price in the United States isn't a Kia or Hyundai. It's the Dodge Avenger, which has seats for five, a good-sized trunk and distinctive Dodge front styling — all for $20,390 including destination charge.
This base Avenger with 173-horsepower four cylinder and four-speed automatic transmission is $1,760 less than a base 2013 Kia Optima mid-size sedan and $1,600 less than a base 2013 Hyundai Sonata.
Both Optima and Sonata have naturally aspirated four-cylinder engines in the lower-end models.
Even better, the Avenger's attractive pricing doesn't end at the base model.
Uplevel Avengers with the 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 get more horsepower — 283 — than the V-6s of other non-luxury mid-size sedans and yet carry the lowest starting retail price in the class — just $23,900.
In comparison, the 2013 Nissan Altima with 270-horsepower V-6 has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $26,555.
It's true the four-door Avenger has been around for years and hasn't received a lot of major updates.
The base transmission being just a four speed is an obvious clue. Most carmakers upgraded transmissions in recent years to boost fuel mileage and add smoother shifts.
Thus, the Avenger's top government fuel economy ratings, with the four-cylinder engine mated to the four-speed auto, are just 21 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.
These numbers are lower than those for the larger 2013 Ford Taurus with four-cylinder engine. The Avenger fuel mileage ratings also are much lower than the 27/38 mpg federal government ratings for the 2013 Altima with four cylinder and fuel-conscious continuously variable transmission.
Additionally, there are some features that are not available on the 2013 Avenger.
For instance, the Optima can be had with a panoramic sunroof and wood interior accents. Neither is offered on the Avenger.
But the Avenger doesn't necessarily look or feel cheap.
All Avengers are attractively styled with Dodge's crosshair grille that differentiates them easily from the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord cars that dominate the mid-size family sedan category.
All Avengers ride on good-sized wheels that are at least 17 inches in diameter. The base Camry comes with 16-inchers.
The Avenger's standard equipment on every model includes remote keyless entry. This feature isn't on the base Camry. And, the Avenger's interior includes a surprising amount of soft-touch plastics.
The test Avenger SXT with V-6 also impressed with a fast-working air conditioner, driver seat with appreciable height adjustment and comfortable cushion, a sizable trunk opening, easy-to-read gauges and 1.5 more inches of rear-seat legroom than in the Optima and Sonata.
Window sticker price for the test Avenger was impressive, too, at just $25,380.
This price included leather-covered seats, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, navigation system, voice recognition, 40 gigabyte hard drive special body package that dressed the car all in black, inside and out, and added 18-inch wheels — black, of course.
The test car could cruise happily on highways and tread water in congested city traffic without a problem.
But it also could propel forward with "oomph," accompanied by hearty engine sounds. Dual rear exhaust helps cement the performance image and ensure the Avenger V-6 would in no way be confused with a Camry.
Indeed, peak torque from the Avenger's double overhead cam, 60-degree V-6 is 260 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm and compares with 248 foot-pounds at 4,800 rpm in the Camry V-6.
But fuel economy for the Avenger with V-6, estimated by the federal government at 19/29 mpg, was much lower. The test car averaged only 22.3 mpg in travel that was 60 percent on highways.
This translated into a driving range of 376 miles on a single tank of regular gasoline. And with fuel prices spiking to $4-plus in the Midwest these days, a fillup of the Avenger's 16.9-gallon tank could cost upwards of $65.
Driver and passengers also regularly noticed shift points as the transmission went through its paces.
Brakes worked fine and the rack-and-pinion steering had a mainstream feel.
Passengers felt vibrations coming through as the car traveled on scarred and patched roads, but all but the potholes were muted.
Despite the large, 18-inch wheels at the corners of the Avenger, there was no hint of unwieldly unsprung weight that can have a jarring effect. There was, however, a good amount of road noise that came through to the passenger compartment.
Weight transfer from one side of the car to the other was noticeable as the Avenger went through curves and turns. But it did not cause alarm.
The Avenger's display screen for navigation and radio was 6.5 inches in size and seemed small compared to the larger screens in more up-to-date cars.
And while the textured ceiling material was attractive and upscale looking, the numerous plastic interior pieces in the vicinity of doors and windows were not. They looked like obvious add-ons; some did not have the same texture as the plastic pieces that they were next to.
The Avenger has the usual standard safety features, including antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control and six air bags.
The 2013 Avenger earned four out of five stars for occupant protection in frontal and side crash testing by the federal government.
Earlier this year, Dodge recalled 1,785 Dodge Avengers and sibling Chrysler 200s from the 2013 model year because of possible broken control valves in the fuel tank assemblies. Broken valves could cause vehicles to stall or leak fuel.
Note that unlike the Camry, Optima, Sonata and many other mid-size sedans, the Avenger is not offered in a gasoline-electric hybrid version.