Everybody's getting into the crossover game. Now it's Dodge's turn with the 2009 Dodge Journey. Based on the platform that underlies the new Avenger, the 2009 Dodge Journey is slated to arrive in dealerships with base prices starting at $19,985 (SE), $22,985 (SXT) and $26,545 (R/T). Journey will carry Dodge's 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, non-transferable lifetime powertrain warranty and EPA fuel economy estimates of 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway (4-cylinder), 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway (V6 FWD) and 15 mpg city/22 mpg highway (V6 AWD). Let's drive.
I'd love to report that Dodge had broken the mold with Journey, and that the exterior design was a ground-breaking, eye-popping new look at the crossover equation. It's not. Journey will blend in with the crowd. At first glance, it might be a Chrysler Pacifica; it might be a Subaru Tribeca; it might be a Toyota Highlander.
Upon closer inspection, some of the new Dodge traits stand out. Up front, there's the big chrome crosshair grille with the Dodge Ram's head logo. Big wraparound horizontal headlights dress the corners, great for visibility. The wide flat hood is rather elaborately creased, with sharp edges and distinct planes. The body-colored front bumper melds with the front fascia and becomes part of the front wheel wells. The body side features strong lines, with an integrated rocker panel formed by more panel bends. The rocker panel feeds into the wheel arches, outlining the bottom of the Journey's profile. A blacked out DLO (designer-speak for "daylight opening," the space defined by the side windows of a vehicle) makes the Journey look longer and lower, a clever visual trick. Around back, big red taillights dress the corners and a wide expanse of glass is capped by a small integrated spoiler. Dual chrome tipped exhausts (standard with the V6) poke out below the body-colored rear bumper.
There's nothing in particular wrong with the Journey's design. It's just so generic that I don't think I could pick it out of a lineup.
Continued below. . .
In the Driver's Seat
Crossovers compete for buyers with several market segments: SUVs, sedans and minivans. The competition affects the interior design of the Journey more than any other area. Knowing that Journey would be measured against the minivan when it came time to write a check, Dodge paid a lot of attention to seating configurations, storage and flexibility. Five-passenger seating is standard on Journey, and a third row is optional on SXT and R/T trim levels -- a mixed blessing, only useful for small people or short trips. The second row is loaded with flexibility. It splits 60/40, adjusts several inches fore and aft, reclines about 20 degrees, and folds forward easily with one hand for access to the third row. In addition, you can order up a pair of integrated child booster seats in the second row. Booster seats don't replace infant safety seats -- they are for older children who have graduated from their infant chairs, but who aren't yet big enough to safely use the adult seatbelt position. Even though I don't have children, I love this feature. I frequently wind up driving when my wife and I go places with our friends, and the hassle of moving booster seats from car to SUV would be eliminated. I wish there was an option for booster seats in the third row as well -- that's where the kids usually sit.
Up front, things are well-done, with more clever storage. Material choices are typical Dodge, which is to say that I wish they were nicer. The dash, instrument panel and controls are standard issue, easy to read and logically arrayed.
On the Road
The Journey is available with two engine choices: a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder (Chrysler's "World Engine") that produces 173 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque in the SE trim level, or a 3.5 liter V6 that cranks out 235 hp and 232 lb-ft of torque in the SXT and R/T trim levels. I drove the V6 version in both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive configurations. The V6 uses a six-speed automatic transmission to provide smooth shifts and power delivery. Performance is unremarkable, but totally adequate for most tasks.
Journey handles very competently. While it doesn't have the planted feel of a sedan with a low center of gravity, it also doesn't feel tippy like some big SUVs. Driving around curves and typical highway driving revealed very predictable, stable behavior -- just what you're looking for when you're transporting precious cargo (like your family). Part of the credit goes to MacPherson strut front/multi-link rear suspension; part of the credit goes to the chassis design, which achieves great stiffness with over one-third of its body structure being high-strength steel.
Safety-wise, Journey has you covered. Four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution, electronic stability control and traction control, electronic roll mitigation, trailer sway control, advanced multi-stage front air bags, seat mounted side airbags, side curtain airbags, tire pressure monitoring and LATCH child safety seat system are standard, just to name a few features.
If you detect a bit of ambivalence in this review, you are an excellent detective. For some reason, thinking about the Dodge Journey makes me a little sad. Not because the Journey is a bad crossover -- it's not, not by a long shot. But it's not a leader, it's a follower, at a time when Chrysler could really use a leader. If you love SUVs, you have to root for Chrysler -- the company has a great legacy of SUV innovation (especially in the Jeep brand), and history has shown us that a company with its back to the wall can come up with some real innovation. Remember the 1984 Dodge Caravan? That was a Hail Mary by a company on the brink, and it changed the American automotive landscape for a generation.
Journey is not that vehicle. Once you start to tick the option boxes to get the good features, that $19,000 Journey looks more like a $25,000 or even $30,000 Journey, which is a bit too far to go. If you're considering a Journey, you have to drive the competition. Drive the Toyota RAV4, the Ford Taurus X, the Saturn Outlook/GMC Acadia/Buick Enclave, the Mazda CX-7, the Subaru Tribeca before you buy a Journey. Heck, drive a Nissan Quest and a Dodge Caravan. If Dodge is going to include minivan features, you ought to see how they work in an actual minivan.