First Drive: 2011 Dodge Journey [Review]

Almost invisible, the outgoing Dodge Journey hardly made much of a dent. Do a new interior, V6 and revised chassis spell success for this MPV-like crossover?

It might seem hard to believe, but the outgoing Dodge Journey was actually one of Chrysler's freshest designs having premiered 2008 as a 2009 model. The last few years haven't exactly been the Pentastar's most prodigious.

Designed both to take on international rivals like the Ford S-Max and domestic competitors like the Toyota Highlander, the Journey had a lot resting on its shoulders. Unfortunately, its story unfolds more like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid than kickin' ass like Scarface. Saddled with a haphazard interior and an unconvincing powertrain portfolio, it was a fleet cruiser and not a segment bruiser.

The 2011 Journey might look pretty much the same from the outside, but it has been completely reborn for the new model year. Mid-cycle refreshes don't come much more substantial than this one, as we found out on our brief introductory drive in San Francisco.

Dodge says it is re-launching Journey and we get distinct feeling that the automaker hopes we'll forget the lackluster first effort. First impressions are everything, but we can't fault the brand for trying to start anew.

New light treatments, fascias and wheels round out exterior changes, meaning the Journey still has a Euro or Asian-inspired flair that don't give it much of a Detroit vibe. It was conceived as a global competitor, but Chrysler's new Fiat overlords have their own portfolio of three-row MPVs, meaning the Journey will primarily do battle in the heartland of America.

It's hard to decide where the biggest changes lie; the interior is all-new, taking little more than its proportions from the outgoing model, while the crossover gains Chrysler's modern Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 and a number of chassis enhancements.

Inside, things don't feel particularly Detroit-like. All-new switchgear abounds, giving a driver familiar with the outgoing Journey a feeling that he's in a vehicle made by someone else. The automaker's excellent new three-spoke steering wheel greets the driver. Peer through the spokes and the gauges reveal a full-color center LCD, an uncommon item on a crossover. Further adding to the upscale feel on all but the lowest specification models is a touchscreen display for controlling audio and climate functions. Most essential items feature redundant buttons, but we found the menuing system particularly easy to use and efficient.

Rounding out the upgrade is a substantial improvement in interior materials. Nearly all are class-leading, easily besting luxury-grade vehicles costing tens of thousands more. Our midgrade Journey Crew tester featured nice cloth upholstery, fine leather around the steering wheel and soft touch surfaces throughout.

What hasn't changed are some of the Journey's still awkward proportions. Its destiny as a global-style seven-row MPV gave it a more van-like driving position with an upright windshield, fairly low seating position and an oddly-positioned gear lever. At least the second row still offers good room and the cargo area is especially large. An available third row is still best left for kids.

Getting going
Only the basic Journey Express gets the outgoing model's 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated to a four-speed automatic. Dodge anticipates that most buyers will step up to its new 3.6-liter V6, which boasts 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque. Mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic, the V6 will start to become very familiar to Chrysler brand shoppers since it will be put in everything short of the company's largest and smallest vehicles.

The V6 doesn't offer direct injection, but it does feature variable valve timing and gobs of solid power. Smooth and refined, it powered our all-wheel-drive Journey feature vehicle with impressive performance. Front-wheel-drive is standard, but we only had the opportunity to spend time in the snow-belt model.

The all-wheel-drive system sends most of its power to the front wheels, but an electronically controlled coupling sends power to the rear wheels when needed more quickly than before.

Dodge also set to work on the suspension, returning shock absorbers to reduce roll, improving steering feel and adding more premium tires. The result? Our test Journey rode smoothly and confidently and gripped well through curves. Its steering is still very light and devoid of sports car feel, but it is certainly more confidence-inspiring than its chief rival, the Toyota Highlander. The package feels refined and well worth the roughly $33,000 price tag of our tester.

A sportier Journey R/T is due out next Spring. Aside from the badge, it adds a sport-tuned suspension and some styling upgrades.

Dodge hasn't released fuel economy figures for the Journey, but we'll be sure to report our findings once we get an opportunity to spend more time in one.

Leftlane's bottom line
The 2011 Dodge Journey hardly transformed into a game changer, but it is finally more than class competitive by offering up a number of features buyers won't find anywhere else. For once, it will likely be hampered more by its MPV-like style than its execution as it goes up against more butch-looking crossovers like the Chevrolet Equinox, Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot.

But perhaps its biggest demerit will be the lack of a high-efficiency entry-level engine. While Chrysler's dated 2.4-liter is on offer, availability is relegated only to front-wheel-drive base models - a rather 1990s-style approach. Hopefully the automaker's access to Fiat's parts bin means that Journey 3.0 will come with an even wider powertrain array.

2011 Dodge Journey base price range, $22,245-32,740.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.