2011 Dodge Journey: First Drive

November 23, 2010

In the two years since the Dodge Journey first showed up in showrooms, Chrysler's been through a couple of near-death moments. For all its turmoil with the private-equity crowd and the bankruptcy courts, Chrysler's now churning out a heavily revamped line of 2011 vehicles that includes a Journey with a new powertrain offering, retuned handling, and a striking new interior.

It needs them, because while competitors like the Mitsu Endeavor have fallen into obscurity, the Journey's been met with a few very capable new competitors. The Subaru Outback is one, but the vehicle with the Journey right in its Dodge crosshairs is the Georgia-built 2011 Kia Sorento.

We flew to Napa to sample seven new Chrysler vehicles in all, and the Journey made a better lunch date than in the past. In part, it's because so much is carried over. From our first Journey drive back in early 2008, we found the Journey's packaging, sheetmetal and some of the flexibility features right on target with the audience in mind--those crafty new families who need an "everything" car. What it didn't have was a cabin we'd want to sit in, or a modern six-cylinder drivetrain worth our extra dollars.

Most of those shortcomings are fixed in the 2011 Journey. A quick walkaround doesn't reveal a lot of newness outside. It's still a wagon with some overt SUV cues, like the squared-off corners, pronounced fenders, and straightforward grille. Those ribs are thicker and meatier, which always has to be a check in the "better" column, even if you're not talking Dreamland BBQ.

What's been tossed on the junk heap--where it always belonged--is the old dash, with its funny, tilted, squared-off gauges and sheeny, brittle plastics that brought back bad memories of the Omni hatchbacks. Open the door and a vector of metallic trim guides you around all the suave finishes and tight fits of the new interior. The sculpting of the center stack doesn't entirely match with the cut-tube gauges and blocky geometrics of the steering wheel, but they play nice with each other--and so do the big LCD screen (on some versions) and the no-fuss climate controls that ride above or below that rollercoaster of bright trim. The new dash does carry over lots of contact with front-seaters' knees, but it gut-checks the cheap feeling entirely.

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