On Friday night, I noticed some unexplained damage to the back of my car, consisting of a gouged out scratch through a plastic trim panel and a broken tailight. This meant a trip to the body shop as soon as possible and a rental car. I have no idea what caused the damage and am pretty pissed that some careless idiot has now left me out $500. That said, I figured maybe I'd make the most of my rental car experience and try to get some level of entertainment out of it.

It was a Saturday, at a relatively small and understaffed office attached to the shop where I brought my car, and, as I waited in line for service, I saw the selection of available cars quickly dwindle away before my very eyes – two Ford Fusions, a Mazda 6, a Kia Forte, and a Chrysler 200 were all snapped up by people ahead of me. When it was my turn, all that was left was one Impala, two Avalons, a Focus, a Prius, and my pick of about a half dozen Avengers. Even though my insurance is footing 80% of the bill, I was still trying to keep my costs as minimal as possible, so the full-size cars were off the table and I asked for the only sensible choice – the Focus. The clerk went out to get it, and returned apologizing that the car was dirty and low on gas and they were short handed and would I mind taking a midsize car instead if she could offer me the same price as the compact. That left the Prius and a number of Avengers, so I took an Avenger. I must admit I've always had a perverse desire to experience one for myself, after hearing for years how terrible they are – with all the rentals I've done over the years, I've actually never had the pleasure, so why not see what its really like to drive day to day.

The bottom line – it really is just as terrible as we've all been told, but somehow not quite as terrible at the same time. I thought I'd start out by doing something I don't believe anyone has ever done with a Dodge Avenger – point out the things about the car that I actually like, because there are a few, just a few, redeeming features.

THE POSITIVES

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

  • Body Style

The Avenger is basically a scaled-down last generation Charger, and while the Charger's looks don't translate perfectly to the smaller proportions, it is still a fairly handsome car, all things considered. Certainly better looking to my eyes than the overstyled mess that is the Sonata. That, and a lack of finances, is probably why Chrysler didn't see fit to give the Avenger as intensive of a makeover as the Sebring/200, since it wasn't completely butt ugly to begin with, it didn't really need new sheet metal as badly. The Coke bottle treatment on the quarter panels is a nice touch that harkens back to the big Dodges of the '70s.

  • Ride

The Avenger can make you forget that the Malaise Era ever ended, in more ways than one. The most pleasant way is in the over-emphasis on a smooth ride, it actually feels surprisingly composed, soaks up bumps well, and has decent sound deadening.

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

  • Shift Lever

Shame about the cheap plastic gate, because the chromed shift handle itself is decent looking and seems out of place in the car.

  • Name

"Avenger" is a really good name for a car, conjures up images of 1960s British TV shows involving Bentleys and bowler hats; Anglo-American-Iranian compact cars; and Japanese-American sports coupes. Actually, it's quite unfortunate that the rest of the car doesn't live up to the promise of its moniker, because the name deserves better. You could say the same about "Sebring" as well.

That's it, after a few days and a few hundred miles, that's about all I can come up with that stands out in a good way. Not a very long list, but still 3-4 more items that I thought I'd be able to come up with beforehand.

Now for the part that you expect from an Avenger review – the bad bits.

THE NEGATIVES

  • Steering

Vague, disconnected, mushy, not much to say about it. The car goes in the direction you want, but there's no pleasure anywhere in it.

  • Brakes

The pedal feels like its connected to something by spring loaded rubber bands, awful, just awful.It stops eventually, but you get so little feel through the foot you feel like you have to almost stand on it before the car cooperates.

  • Engine Noise

Here's where that sound deadening really shines, because what little you hear of the engine does not inspire confidence. It's a rental car, so that means the base 2.4L GEMA 4-cylinder, which makes lots of noise for very little substance. Most Mahindra tractors will run smoother than this. Some of it could be down to lax maintenance on the part of the rental company, but it is a fairly new car with low mileage, so how bad can it get in such a short time?

  • Acceleration

In some cars, like my old Cadillac, you can easily feel like you are going much slower than you really are; in others, like the old Subaru I learned to drive in, the illusion is that you are going much faster. In the Avenger, you pretty much feel like you are going exactly as slow as you really are. It runs out of steam somewhere around 60mph and needs to work extra hard to get an extra 10mph to keep up on the highway, I think that last 10 actually takes longer than the first 40, or at least it feels like it.

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

  • Plastic Cheat Panel

Look at it! So realistic, you'd swear it was real glass!

  • Interior

Oh God, it's terrible. Just terrible. The Avenger was actually refreshed a little for 2011, but as mentioned, it received far fewer changes and had less money spent than its more upscale Chrysler platform mate. It's better than it was inside, but that's not saying much, because it's still horrific.

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

The refresh added padded armrests and door panels, soft touch plastic on the areas of the dash directly in front of the driver and passenger, and a Pleather covering over the gauge hood with contrast stitching; plus a helping of Plastichrome accents here and there.What was left is hard, shiny, brittle-feeling plastic all up and down the center of the dash and the console that I imagine would scratch up pretty badly over time and won't stand up too well to years of UV exposure. The HVAC controls are laughably oversized and cheap feeling, and may have come out of a city bus, though I'm not sure about that.

The less said about the seats the better, I don't have a bad back and have never really had back pain in my life, but it was hurting after the 10 mile drive home from the rental place and there is very little adjustment parameters available to fix things. The overall impression is of a car that very easily could have been made between 1998-2003, certainly there's really nothing that looks any newer or more modern than that in evidence, which is a shame, because this car actually dates from 2008 with a 2011 facelift. Actually, most Japanese cars of the late 90s/early 00s would still handily outclass this if built today.

Rental Car Review: Dodge AvengerS

Also, what's with that big expanse of a depressing black wall in front of the passenger? I'm not one to go in for fake wood, but this is a case where even the fakest of the fake plastic stuff would actually provide a welcome bit of variety to kind of break that surface up a bit.

BOTTOM LINE:

While there are a few features that aren't horrible, there's a lot here that really is. I honestly can't imagine ever buying one of these, ever. It is unequivocally the worst midsize sedan sold in America today. If you're the worst in a particular category, you can be forgiven somewhat if you're also the cheapest, but that actually isn't the case here – a new 2014 Subaru Legacy actually has a lower base MSRP than the Avenger and is a much better car. The Avenger is still the lowest priced of the Domestic Three, but not by much – its only a few hundred less than a Fusion and a few hundred is also all that separates it from a Passat, 6, Sonata, or Optima. When you're financing over 3-4 years, a few hundred dollars practically comes out to pennies a month. There is no reason for anyone to put themselves through this, buying something better is as simple as choosing anything else, really, anything.