When I made a career decision to transplant to New York City last January, insane rent and other cost of living factors forced me to give up one of the things I loved most about living in the middle of nowhere: Owning a car. Garage parking alone costs about two times the rent of my college apartment per month in New York and, considering the abundance of cheap public transportation, ditching the wheels was a no-brainer. It was just part of the give-and-take that comes when choosing to live in a place where your life and livelihood can easily co-exist within a 30-city block radius.
So, when the folks at Dodge invited me, a car-less urban dweller, to take a 2011 Avenger R/T for a spin around NYC and Westchester County, I jumped at the chance. In the past year I've only been behind the wheel of a car a dozen or so times. My right foot has been itchy for the pedal since my week-long January road trip from Chicago to New Orleans in the Chrysler 200. Plus, what man can call himself a man without taking the simple joy in learning the ergonomics of a car's steering wheel or committing the slightest nuances of an accelerator to muscle memory?
O.K., honestly, I had no interest in testing and critiquing the minutiae of the vechicle's engineering. We'll leave that job to the experts at Consumer Reports and Car and Driver. Rather, it was something more esoteric than just a chance to kick the tires on a brand new mid-size sedan: It was an opportunity to navigate the urban traffic jams I've spent the last year avoiding by jumping on a subway; a reason to become ensnarled in Manhattan's seemingly third-world gridlock that I've only gawked at as a pedestrian without much thought.
And that's exactly how the day started: In maddening bumper-to-bumper traffic on Manhattan's East Side. Driving through the city at high noon might as well be an obstacle course: Cabs swerve and change lanes without signaling like New Delhi rickshaws; delivery trucks stop short to double -- and sometimes triple -- park in the middle of a traffic lane; herds of clueless tourists are so busy looking up that they forget to notice the "Walk" light is now a firm, orange "Don't Walk"; pot holes go unnoticed up until the moment the front wheel kerplunks into the enemy trench. To label such damning driving conditions "Darwinian" is a compliment.
My first and most immediate observation was just how well the Avenger R/T handled in the city. In previous years, this was a huge deal breaker for the Dodge Avenger. Last year Consumer Reports said the 2010 Avenger's handling was "competent, but nothing special." It's a whole different ball game with the 2011 Avenger R/T. Dodge's engineers went back to the drawing board for the new Avenger R/T, completely overhauling the vehicle's suspension. The nitty-gritty specs include major increases in the front and back spring and damper rate (17% increase in spring rate in the front, with a 15% improvement in damper rate; 12% spring rate increase in the back with a 20% increase in damping rate). Overall, we're talking about an 18% increase in stiffness. One might not notice these tweaks when pulling out of a driveway, but it's an improvement that screams for attention when strong-arming around a stopped UPS truck and a cab that just pulled over to squeeze through a yellow light on Second Avenue.