When I first heard that Chrysler had revised nearly every one of its models for the 2011 model year, I cynically assumed the changes couldn’t possibility make much of a difference. After all, how much could they have done with little money and even less time—and with Detroit’s tendency to make minor changes and expect them to have a major impact? Then I drove the new Dodge Grand Caravan, and was amazed at how much its ride and handling had improved. For those seeking something smaller, or who simply refuse to buy a minivan, Dodge offers the Journey crossover. Underwhelming before, does it now similarly surprise?
The Journey’s sheet metal remains the same. It’s nearly as boxy as the minivan’s, but with the higher stance and the longer, more horizontal front clip of a crossover. Nothing fancy, but nothing off-putting, either. Of course, paint it “mango tango” and even a basic box will get noticed. A revised front fascia and the new 19-inch alloys fitted to the Crew and R/T trim levels suggest that the Journey is now a driving machine. The chrome-clad wheels fitted to the tested Lux, though equally large, aren’t as aggressively styled. One potential mod: even the 19s don’t begin to fill the wheel openings, and the rear in particular could be lowered a couple of inches.
The Journey’s interior revisions are much more extensive, and have an immediate impact. The tan leather fitted to the seats of the tested car looks and feels rich. It attractively contrasts with the black stitching and the soft-touch black trim panels. The thickly padded faux leather on the door panels extends to the inner surface of the door pulls—a premium touch too rarely found even among much more expensive cars. The doors shut with reassuring solidity. The instrument panel was already a soft-touch affair, but the new one has a cleaner, more upscale appearance to match. The various switches aren’t quite up to the rest of the interior. Even so, this is now easily the most upscale interior in the segment. Now in the bottom spot: the Honda Pilot.
The Journey’s ergonomics are also much improved. A large touchscreen, shared with the redesigned Charger sedan, is located where it’s easy to see and reach, without being awkwardly perched atop the instrument panel (as it was previously). The screen’s graphics are larger than most, making it easy to quickly find and tap the desired control (in distinct contrast to the Ford’s newest system). The screen does wash out at times, but simply designed and conveniently located knobs and buttons remain for key functions. A potential source of confusion: the fan speed knob is located between two for the audio system. But I never had the slightest trouble finding the right one. The Bluetooth for the phone works well. It’s possible to dial using the touchscreen, but the voice recognition system got the number right on the first try (simply hit the phone button on the steering wheel then say “Dial 1-234-555-1212”).
The front buckets continue the Journey’s newly premium character, with ample padding and enough contour that you’re coddled within the seat rather than sitting upon it. The driver gets an effective four-way power lumbar adjustment—but oddly a manual recliner. The view forward is very car-like, similar to the Chevrolet Equinox (but with much less of a sense of tunnel vision) and not nearly as high and upright as in the Kia Sorento or Toyota Highlander. The view rearward: not so good thanks to a small rear window and tall headrests that fill most of it.
Unfortunately, nothing could be done about the tight rear seats – short of reworking the metal. The second row—which continues to lack contour but is comfortably high off the floor—must be nearly all of the way back to provide enough legroom for adults, but if this is done there’s almost no legroom in the optional third row.
Adults might occupy both rows in a pinch, but the rearmost is best suited for pre-teens. (Built-in booster seats are an option in the second row.)
The Sorento offers a little more rear legroom (but less headroom in the third row) while the Highlander offers much more. The latter offers more shoulder room as well. The GM crossovers offer about the same amount of shoulder room as the Dodge, but far more rear legroom—easily done since they have no optional third row. Even the Mazda5 microvan, much smaller on the outside, is roomier on the inside.
There might not be much room in the back of the Journey, but Chrysler has equipped it like a large minivan. Every outboard seating position gets an airliner-like aimable LED reading light that looks classy and works well. The third-row seat package includes rear automatic climate control with vents in the ceiling.
In its original iteration, the Journey included an unusually large number of places to stash things. Storage compartments inside the front passenger seat and beneath the floor in the second row have been carried over. A well at the base of the center stack could easily hold a large camera.
There’s a couple inches more cargo space behind the third row than in the Sorento and Highlander—so unlike in those competitors, a single row of grocery bags would fit with no crushing of the eggs. Every seat save the driver’s can be folded to extend the cargo area. The load floor is high off the ground, though, a casualty of the crossover stance.
Like just about every other Chrysler product, for 2011 the Journey can be outfitted with the corporation’s new “Pentastar” 3.6-liter DOHC V6 engine mated to a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic. With 283-horsepower, this mill is considerably more powerful than last year’s 235-horsepower 3.5-liter and competitive in terms of both performance and refinement with the V6s in the Highlander and Sorento. GM’s 3.0-liter feels weak and sounds strained in comparison. Especially when prodded with a heavy right foot, the Chrysler automatic’s shifts have an unusual, firm feel—sporty perhaps, but less refined than the engine. The optional all-wheel-drive effectively blunts torque steer.
Fuel economy as reported by the EPA is a little better than last year, 16/24 vs. 15/23, but the city figure still lags the most efficient competitors. The trip computer confirmed the EPA ratings in real-world driving. Willing to sacrifice performance and/or all-wheel-drive for a couple additional MPG? A 173-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine remains standard in the base trim level. It’s good for 19/26, well below the 22/32 of the Equinox and 2012 Sorento.
The Journey’s chassis tweaks aren’t substantial. In turns, lean is moderate and body motions are fairly well controlled, but the revised steering is too light and lacks feel, especially on center. For the first 90 degrees, the wheel doesn’t load up at all. The Kumho Solus tires further indicate that sporty handling wasn’t a priority. Chrysler should let the people who tuned the minivan’s chassis have a go at the Journey.
So, if you’ve been looking for the domestic auto industry’s answer to the Audi Q5, this isn’t it. Not that most crossover buyers will mind. Instead, they’ll find a vehicle that is easy to drive and that rides very smoothly and quietly, with a cushier character than the Chevrolet and Kia. The Dodge doesn’t only look more expensive. It also feels more expensive.
The 2011 Journey Lux with all-wheel-drive, third row, sunroof, and nav lists for $36,685, about $3,000 more than the 2010. Roughly $500 of this increase pays for additional features like keyless ignition, Bluetooth, and the four-way power lumbar, according to TrueDelta’s car pricing tool. The rest covers the engine and interior material upgrades. A GM executive once told me that if only the bean counters would let him spend $300 more on interior materials he could charge $3,000 more for the car. Now we have a test. Does the resulting price seem steep? A Chevrolet Equinox LTZ is very close in price to a two-row Journey Lux after a small adjustment for feature differences. A similarly-equipped Toyota Highlander Limited lists for another $3,000 more. Then, of course, there are the Koreans. A Kia Sorento EX V6 with these features lists for nearly $2,000 less. But the Kia has a more truck-like driving position and doesn’t ride as smoothly.
Previously, the Dodge Journey had little to recommend it aside from a relatively low price. Its tight, cheaply outfitted interior did put it at a severe disadvantage. Now, the interior isn’t any roomier, but it is much nicer, even the best in the segment. The new V6 is similarly a match for the segment’s best. Between these two improvements, the Dodge Journey’s higher but still competitive price seems justified. The Dodge Journey’s now deserves a serious look by crossover buyers who don’t need a lot of interior room. Chrysler’s people clearly took the company’s recent brush with death seriously, and in this case accomplished a surprising amount, especially considering the time and money they had to do it.
Dodge provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.