First Look: 2012 Dodge Avenger R/T

Once upon a time, someone in the marketing department at Chrysler hatched what seemed to be novel idea: Take the R/T badge, once a sign of an enthusiast-oriented product, and slap it across most — if not all — of Dodge’s lineup. It was given the green light, and the world was flooded with R/T models that drove no better than their plebian siblings.

Flash forward to today. Dodge brand CEO Ralph Gilles — himself a driving enthusiast — has promised to restore the R/T badge to its former glory, applying it only on vehicles that “stoke their love of driving while still taking care of their families and responsibilities.” That hopefully holds true for the new 2012 Avenger R/T, which debuts this week at the 2011 New York Auto Show.

As is the case with other current models in the R/T portfolio (now including the Charger, Grand Caravan, Durango, and Journey), the new sport-tuned Dodge Avenger doesn’t receive any wild bump underhood. In fact, it continues to make use of the same 3.6-liter, 283-horsepower Pentastar V-6 found in lesser Avengers, matched up to a six-speed automatic transmission.

In other words, it’s not exactly a configuration that’s going to raise eyebrows, quicken pulses, and set Internet discussion boards afire. But wait: In the immortal words of Ron Popeil, there’s more.

The secret, or so we’re told, lies entirely with chassis tuning. Lo, engineers have had their way with the Avenger’s suspension bits in an attempt to liven up a front-drive platform long regarded as more milquetoast than magnificent. The Dodge crew says stiffness is increased by 18 percent, while front and rear spring rates are upped by 17 and 12 percent, respectively.

Front dampers are 15-percent stiffer than standard Avengers, while those in back are now 20-percent firmer than before. Capping things off is a new rear sway bar, which, at 21mm, is two millimeters thicker than usual.

In plain English: This theoretically has the makings of a sedan that can corner — not careen — through tight switchbacks and sweeping bends.

The Avenger R/T’s powertrain may not have received a makeover, but its exterior has. Along with a body-colored crosshair grille, R/T models receive black headlamp surrounds, unique 18-inch aluminum wheels, a rear spoiler, and so-called war paint — a vintage Mopar visual cue revived for the 2010 Challenger — on the front quarter panels.

Inside, a new instrument cluster puts an R/T-labeled tachometer front and center, while driver and front passenger are held in place by cloth bucket seats with enlarged leather-trimmed bolsters. Standard equipment also includes a 276-watt Boston Acoustic sound system, red accent stitching on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, and aluminum pedals patterned after those used in SRT models.

Will all this transform the Avenger into a verifiable performance sedan? We’re not going to go that far, but if Gilles’ promises hold true — and we suspect they will — the Avenger R/T could prove to be a practical sedan that offers some reward when the Road / Track beckons. We’ll know for certain shortly, as production is slated to begin in the third quarter of 2011.

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