To the untrained eye, Dodge's 2011 Journey may not look very different from the version that hit roads in 2008. Don't let that fool you.
The changes that Dodge has made for 2011 (inside and out) transform the Journey from a forgettable crossover into a worthy competitor.
The Journey distinguishes itself easily among competitors with a quiet cabin and smooth ride that rival entry-level luxury cars.
Trim levels start with the Express and move up to the Mainstreet, Crew and top Lux trim level. (Don't be alarmed; the trim names don't make sense to us, either.) An R/T trim will be available later but few details have been announced at the time of this publishing. I tested a front-wheel-drive Mainstreet Journey. Engine options include a four- and six-cylinder, though only the Express is available with the four-cylinder. Front-wheel drive is standard and all-wheel drive is optional.
The Journey fits somewhere between the compact and midsize crossover SUV segments -- it's larger than a Honda CR-V but smaller than a Toyota Highlander. Competitors include the Kia Sorento, Mitsubishi Outlander and Toyota RAV4, which, like the Journey, have standard seating for five and optional third rows that increase capacity to seven.
The Journey's interior has been thoroughly redesigned for 2011. After seeing the new version, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize the 2010 version. Just about everything has been restyled and upholstered with soft-to-the-touch materials. The new interior has a much higher-quality feeling than the old, with significantly improved fit and finish.
The plush interior is enhanced by the ultra-comfortable front seats. I drove the 2011 Journey on a West Coast excursion from Los Angeles up to Napa Valley and back to San Francisco, for a grand total of 644 miles.
Comfort is crucial when you're driving long distances, and even after eight-hour stints behind the wheel I could have continued driving, thanks to the supportive seat bolstering, cushy backing and cushioned armrests that kept my elbows comfortable.
Helping make the Journey a road-trip hero is its quiet interior. Dodge added sound-deadening material to improve resistance to noise, vibration and harshness, and it works. Road and wind noise are at levels I'd expect in a luxury car, not in an SUV that starts at $22,245.
The Journey's optional backup camera is well worth the money. Our tester didn't have one, and its belt line and small rear window don't offer much rear visibility. I had to ask passengers to get out and spot me while parking, because I didn't have a clue how close I was to filing an insurance claim. A backup camera can be optioned but requires the Safe and Sound Group for $1,395 plus Popular Equipment Group for $1,295 on the Mainstreet trim I tested. The camera's image is displayed on the 8.4-inch screen that comes with the Safe and Sound package. A backup camera is standard on the most expensive Lux model but not available on the base Express.
The Journey's interior may be a home run, but the exterior seems a little outdated, despite getting a few tweaks for 2011. Not helping were the refrigerator white paint and uninteresting five-spoke wheels. The outside doesn't scream "look at me" or have any feeling of uniqueness. It was easy to glance past the Journey in parking lots.
Early production models will look like the one I drove, but most later models will come with different front and rear styling that help give the Journey a more aggressive look. A Dodge representative says all models except the Express will have this styling starting in late February. It offers a more interesting look, with a gaping lower front bumper and matching rear bumper, but even then I don't think it musters the same excitement as do crossovers such as Kia's Sorento and Sportage.
Yes, styling is subjective, but it's not unheard of for someone to dismiss a car that I'm trying to recommend because they don't like the way it looks. The Ford Flex and Infiniti QX56 are both highly recommendable, but friends, family and colleagues are often instantly put off by their polarizing looks.
If you have a massive music library on your MP3 player or if you just like having something flashy to show off, the optional 8.4-inch touch-screen and Alpine stereo package are worth a look. Called UConnect Touch 8.4, the $995 option is a drastic departure from the small screen and weak MP3 integration offered in the old Journey.
Controlling my 80-gigabyte iPod Classic in the Journey was almost as intuitive as using the iPod itself. Even better than my iPod was the massive 8.4-inch screen that displays album covers, title listings, composers and any other available info all at once. The touch-screen responds quickly, but it doesn't include navigation or a backup camera in the package I tested; navigation is available in other UConnect systems, however. Also, the screen isn't hidden or shrouded very well, so on a bright day it can be hard to see.
Ride and handling
Driving the Journey up scenic U.S. Highway 1 from Los Angeles to Monterey, Calif., provided plenty of winding roads and exhilarating elevation changes. Changes to the suspension and steering for 2011 make the Journey's ride surprisingly competent on these roads. It's not a dedicated canyon-carver, but for a crossover/SUV aimed at families, the Journey resists body roll well and somehow isn't horribly boring to drive.
During casual highway and city driving, the Journey feels planted and taut, with no signs of rattles or thumps over harsh roads. The steering doesn't require much effort, yet manages to feel crisp and connected to the front wheels. Driving the Journey on the highway all day was a pleasure because of its soft and quiet ride. Few SUVs in this price range can match that.
Under the hood
The Journey's V-6 is a potent power plant, and in the right situations it makes the Journey feel downright quick. It's Chrysler's new 283-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, and it goes in all Journey trims except the base Express, which uses a 173-hp four-cylinder engine.
The V-6 seems to make most of its power above 3,800 rpm, where a surge of acceleration comes on strong. Anytime I was out of that range, or the transmission decided it didn't want to downshift, the car felt sluggish. That could, however, be due to the fact that I was driving a pre-production model with preliminary transmission programming. If you're out on a test drive, definitely pay attention to see if it's an issue.
Official Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ratings for the front-wheel-drive V-6 are 17/25 mpg city/highway, 20 mpg combined. I averaged 20.01 mpg over 644 miles, including many miles on Highway 1 mountainsides as well as navigating up and down San Francisco's hilly streets.
The Journey's V-6 handled steep roads easily, only requiring a light touch of the accelerator to climb hills. For seemingly not having a whole bunch of power at lower engine rpm, the Journey's performance in that setting was flawless.
The V-6 doesn't suffer a huge mileage penalty versus the four-cylinder, which is rated 19/25 mpg, but neither engine's ratings are particularly impressive. The RAV4 V-6 is rated slightly higher, at 19/27 mpg with front-wheel drive, and the V-6 Kia Sorento with front-wheel drive manages 20/26 mpg.
The 2011 Journey earns the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation. It scored the highest rating, Good, in front, side, rear and roof-strength tests and comes with a standard electronic stability system.
As of publication, the Journey has not been crash-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using that agency's new crash-test procedure.
The Journey hasn't been known for its stellar reliability ratings. When it debuted as a 2009 model, Consumer Reports' reader surveys rated it Much Worse than Average, their lowest rating. The 2010 improved on that, with an Average score. There won't be any reliability data from CR on the 2011 until it's in owners' hands, but it expects reliability of new models to be 84 percent below average.
There's no questioning the 2011 Journey is a significant improvement over the previous model, and that in many ways it's now ready to compete with the segment's best. The biggest hurdle left is its bland exterior -- which is somewhat misleading, given that what's inside has the quietness and quality not commonly found among competitors in this price range.
As much as I wish people were willing to look past boring or ugly cars that are great on the inside, looks are a first impression that isn't easily overcome.
$22,245 -- $33,445
EPA Fuel Economy:
City: 16 -- 19
Highway: 24 -- 25
173-hp, 2.4-liter I-4 (regular gas)
283-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 (flexible; E85)
283-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 (regular gas)
4-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
6-speed multi-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or Notable
* New interior, V-6 engine for 2011
* Seating for five or seven
* Standard four-cylinder engine
* FWD or AWD
* Optional 8.4-inch touch-screen entertainment system
What We Like
* Limited body roll
* Comfortable ride
* Easy to maneuver
* 8.4-inch display's simple interface
What We Don't
* V-6's automatic can be hesitant to kick down
* Nonlinear braking response
* Some low-rent dashboard buttons
* Garmin-based navigation system's rudimentary graphics