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.

2011 Dodge Journey

2011 Dodge Journey

Look aside from the fleet-ish four-cylinder, four-speed drivetrain that keeps the Journey's pricetag under $20,000. With its trade-offs in shift quality, you'll still want to opt up to the Journey's new Pentastar V-6 option. It replaces the old 235-hp, 3.5-liter V-6 that felt old and hoary when it first made the rounds, back in Chrysler's Mitsubishi period. The new V-6 is a bit riper, a bit more plush-sounding, and even if it doesn't feel quite up to its stated 283 horsepower, it's a magnitude better than what passed before. The new six-speed automatic's shift quality? Give it a mulligan for now. In the Journey, and both the related Avenger and Chrysler 200 sedans, we picked up on some shuddery shifting that betrayed some glitchy programming. Call for a downshift, and the transmission doubts you're ready for it--then it slides through a long shift action, stripping out the potential for tossing the kids around in the backseat like a summer seasonal mix. The manual shift mode doesn't always listen, and it's actuated on the shift lever--so you'll be driving one-handed if you're trying to drive with some pizazz, which is exactly wrong.

Fuel economy does rise by two miles per gallon, at least on V-6 versions. With front-wheel drive, the six-cylinder Journey hits EPA figures of 17/25 mpg; all-wheel drive drops a notch to 16/24 mpg. A fuel-saver indicator is now installed for frugal, observant drivers,it's still a hair lower than the Sorento, which has a worst-case rating at 17/26 mpg (V-6, AWD), but can top 21/29 mpg in front-drive, four-cylinder form.

Handling is reasonably responsive in the Journey, and some of the changes to the suspension--like stiffer, better-responding shocks and lowered ride height--have honed some of its duller responses. The ride quality remains a strong point, with the proper damping and roll control for a family vehicle. Braking is strong, and wheel sizes range from 16-inchers on base vehicles up to optional 19-inchers. It's the steering feel that's still gone awry: numb before, the Journey now zips off-center quickly, weightlessly, without much effort or feedback. For a hydraulic-power-steering setup, it's eerily electric in feel, and not an improvement except for people who aim cars, instead of driving them.

2011 Dodge Journey

2011 Dodge Journey

Back inside, the Journey's unchanged packaging gets topped with a sprinkling of new features and improved actions. Four adults, or two adults and three or four kids, are happy enough inside the Journey, with flat seats and right-sized head and leg room taking good advantage of the Journey's proportions. On mid-grade-and-up Journeys, the second-row seat slides fore and aft to free up more leg room, and on the same versions, front seats have storage built in beneath the seat cushion, and the center console gets a new tilt-and-slide top. Bins and cubbies abound, and the cargo hold specs out at a swell 37 cubic feet behind the second row, and a smooshed 10.7 cubic feet behind the raised third-row seat. Flip everything down behind the front seats, and you can fit a half-dozen flat-screen TVs in the Journey's 67.6 cubic feet of space. 

The 2010 Dodge Journey rocked both the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) crash tests last year, but both agencies have changed their standards, and 2011 scores aren't yet available. Standard safety equipment on the 2010 Dodge Journey includes dual front, side, and curtain airbags; stability and traction control; active head restraints; and four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock control on all models. A rearview camera and parking sensors are available on all but the base version; integrated second-row child booster seats are optional across the board.

The Journey sports some of the most extensive offerings for entertainment in this class, but to get them all, you'll be spending considerably more than the base price of $20,000. Standard features include air conditioning; cruise control; power locks/mirrors/windows; a cooled glove box; a telescoping steering wheel; and an AM/FM/CD player with MP3 capability. Options include a not-terribly-intuitive Garmin navigation system; Sirius Satellite Radio, TravelLink and Backseat TV, an on-the-go service with a small selection of kid-friendly programming; a DVD entertainment system; and a premium audio system and uConnect multimedia with MP3 player controls. A USB port is standard now, but it's buried deep in the center console, so there won't be any texting and driving without a long connector. Bluetooth is added on the top three models for free, but it's available on the base and Mainstreet trims.

With the quibbles for steering and shifting set aside--it's a crossover for seven, not a Le Mans intender--the Journey's now off Chrysler's endangered list. Like most of the company's 2011 models, it's been brushed up for a better shot at sales success. In other words: what a short, practical Journey it's been.

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