Of all automakers, Chrysler has committed the most resources to the family mobility concept provided by minivans. Long the sales leader in this once-burgeoning segment, Chrysler has had to rethink its family wagon thought processes recently due to increased competition from Honda and Toyota, a small blip in the road called bankruptcy, as well as changing consumer tastes. Change remains a constant in the auto industry just as it does in our lives.
The resulting emphasis is now evident in three designs meant to give buyers plenty of choices. Topping the sales, still, is the venerable Dodge Grand Caravan — now available in sportier and better equipped versions as well as less-expensive base models, a full-size seven-passenger Durango in the model of traditional big SUVs, plus this week’s medium-sized five- and seven-passenger crossover wagon, the Journey.
The Journey started life three years ago as a derivative of the front-wheel-drive Avenger sedan. Initially available with an assortment of powertrains meant to appease a wide cross-section of shoppers and EPA mileage connoisseurs, the Journey has evolved. The latest Journey is still available in a wide variety of trim levels — five altogether, starting at $18,995 for SE, however powerplants have been trimmed to two: a 173-hp 2.4-liter four and the new 3.6-liter corporate V-6, which makes 283-hp with a six-speed automatic here.
Weighing in at almost 3,900 pounds the Journey gains a modest EPA mileage edge with the four-cylinder powerplant over the new V-6 — two miles per gallon. The new Chrysler V-6 is smoother, crisper when asked to provide additional power and much more refined.
That said, the V-6-powered Journey did not produce an appreciable gain in realized fuel economy over a recent Durango review. Peak gas mileage was 21.6 mpg for a long, dry road highway stint while the 1,000-mile average for our week together was only a so-so 19.4 mpg. The week was cold and there were some snowy trips, yet the pace was very reserved. EPA estimates for the AWD Journey are 16/24-mpg.
Unlike its recently sampled brethren using this same powerplant, the Journey also balked at smooth highway travel when cruise control was engaged. Large downshifts with surging engine and hesitating shifts were the norm as the Journey plied the hills on the highway, laboring to maintain a consistent pace. We can only hope that this is an anomaly relating to this particular model.
While Chrysler has made dramatic strides in interior design, fit and finish, and the overall feel of its interiors, the Journey benefits in many ways from these enhancements while also displaying opportunities for greater evolution. The Journey’s front seats are average at best, with flat bottom-pans and a slab-sided backrest that offer varying degrees of comfort. The twisting effort needed to activate the wiper control stalk also resists your best one-touch efforts as this lever is not the best design for rapid, oh-my-gosh-I-can’t-see moments.
These perceptions are offset by the large knobs and buttons for the climate and audio systems, or, the touch-screen efficiency of the optional navigation/Uconnect system. This oversized 8.4-inch screen displays audio, climate, car systems, trip computer, even the heated seat buttons in one convenient location in the center of the dash. The Garmin-based navigation is one of the industry’s easiest to use, while the Sirius satellite radio and traffic support provide additional entertainment to complement the personalized audio storage files. Voice command Bluetooth is included, as is a 368-watt amplifier.
What the Journey does best is give family buyers a multitude of cargo options. If you opt for the seven-passenger layout you get small third row seats suitable for children. Second row seats slide fore and aft for access and space while both rear rows easily fold for a flat load deck front to rear. The front passenger seat also folds for long-item storage, plus there is a hidden storage compartment in the passenger seat bottom. Floor bins reside under the second row occupant’s feet, while additional bins populate the rearmost deck. Add child booster perches built into the second row seats and it is clear that this wagon is designed for growing families.
Who will want a Journey and what are its competitors? Mazda’s 5 van springs to mind first as it offers similar versatility in a size comparable to the Journey, but absent the crossover look of the Dodge or the available AWD. A Toyota Highlander and Honda’s Pilot are actually shorter than the Dodge, but both offer more third row seating space and a larger cargo hold. Few other midsize crossover/SUV wagons still offer three row seating.
When former Motorweek personality, and current Chrysler PR representative, Lisa Barrows demonstrated the numerous virtues of the Journey’s family-friendly packaging at the 2009 New England Auto Show, she and the car were a big hit. Unfortunately, the Journey had the dubious distinction of debuting during a financial debacle that would severely alter not only Chrysler but the whole automobile industry. Sales were less than exhilarating as Chrysler had no money for advertising and the Journey’s message was lost.
Last year, Dodge sold just over 55,000 Journeys. Not a bad number certainly — about half of the total Grand Caravan’s sold and about equal to the fast-growing Durango.
For Dodge buyers weary of the minivan look, but still craving the versatility of a van, and perhaps wanting the confidence of optional AWD, the Journey is a competent offering.
It will be challenging, however, going forward to expand this sales base and to earn thousands of conquest sales from rival automakers as the Journey is a tick below most rivals in tactile feel, polish and overall presentation. The Durango is a bigger, easier fit with comparable fuel economy, while the minivan still offers more room.
Given the efforts recently applied at Chrysler, these issues can be surmounted.
Just the Facts: Dodge Journey
Journey pricing starts at $18,995 plus destination for an SE or American Family Package edition with front-wheel drive and the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. A front-drive SXT model with the V-6 — the best selling trim — begins at $24,495. Tested Crew AWD starts at $30,295 before options.
Journey starts out at 3,900 pounds and quickly increases to 4,400 pounds with options like V-6, AWD, etc. Vehicle measures 192.4 inches long on a 113.8-inch wheelbase — the longest in this segment. Properly equipped V-6 editions can tow up to 2,500-pounds.
Crew trim includes: heated front leather seats, remote start system, remote proximity key, remote USB port, power front seats, dual zone climate, rear reclining seats, Sirius radio, tilt and telescoping steering column, trip computer, 4.3-inch info screen, Bluetooth compatibility, 19-inch wheels, fog lamps and heated power mirrors.
Journey is built in Toluca, Mexico.