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Dodge makes its own luck with the Journey

The affordable, fuel-efficient Journey looks tailor-made for this period of pricey gas and consumer wariness about the state of the economy. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
Image: Dodge Journey
The Dodge Journey has more available convenience features than any other vehicle anywhere close to its price.Dodge

“The harder I practice, the luckier I get,” basketball legend Michael Jordan once famously quipped, and some skeptics might ascribe the timely arrival of the Dodge Journey to plain old good luck. After all, the affordable, efficient people-mover is hitting showrooms just when the national mood is turning less frivolous with regard to transportation.

But these days automakers need more than luck. The development of a new vehicle already takes several years from concept to car production. Several years ago, when gas was just over a buck a gallon, few were predicting today’s sky-high fuel costs, which are driving everyone and his wife away from the big, gas-swilling SUVs that Chrysler has traditionally sold toward the most fuel-efficient vehicles they can find.

The Journey looks tailor-made for this period of pricey gas and consumer wariness about the state of the economy. It can carry as many as seven occupants while achieving EPA estimated highway mileage of 25 mpg, thanks to a thrifty 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. And the starting price is only $20,750 (including shipping). If this sounds like an appealing combination, apparently a lot of people agree, because the Journey burst out of the gates as a hot seller the moment it arrived in showrooms this spring.

It wasn’t luck that put Dodge in this position, it was experience — both good and bad. When the company resurrected itself from financial oblivion in the early ‘80s, it was on the popularity of another affordable, efficient people-mover the company introduced during a slow economy — the original Chrysler minivan.

It also learned from the Chrysler Pacifica crossover that a comfortable family vehicle, laden with power and goodies, would find itself competing against flashy alternatives and usually losing in the comparison. Sure, it is possible to lard up the Journey with a thirstier V-6 engine, leather seats and the rest (to a shocking $29,160, an almost 50 percent increase), but that probably isn’t the direction most customers are headed right now.

But what of the minivan? Wouldn’t consumers still be well-served by the original people-mover? They would, but they won’t. Two and a half decades of service have left the van’s reputation as threadbare and stained as the Cheerio-strewn back seat of an old Dodge Caravan. Also, in the intervening decades, the van has grown fat. It’s heavy, powerful and opulently equipped, making it less of a bargain, especially when compared to the affordable Journey.

To be fair, vans and big SUVs can carry seven or more occupants in respectable comfort, while the compact Journey is really a five passenger vehicle that has the ability to occasionally carry two extra people. But considering the real-world usage of cars in suburbia, the Journey covers the need to periodically ferry teammates or the neighbor’s kids without being excessively large for everyday use when few of us actually need seven real seats.

On paper, the Journey is an obvious winner, with flexibility and efficiency matched to critical safety features such as standard electronic stability control and more air bags than the pillow department at Bed, Bath and Beyond (the side air curtains extend to all three rows of seats).

The electronic stability control incorporates a roll mitigation feature that further reduces the likelihood of rollover crashes, and a trailer sway control feature keeps the trailer tail from wagging the dog. (Remember trailers? They’re the things people would use to haul those items too big to fit in their cars, but that was back before everyone’s car grew to the size of a U-Haul truck).

Image: Dodge Journey

What’s more, the Journey offers more available convenience features than any other vehicle anywhere close to its price.

Consider the panoply of available goodies: In-floor storage bins under the second-row floor, a storage bin under the front passenger seat bottom and chilled drink storage in the glove compartment. Thoughtful child-centric details make the Journey especially kid-friendly. The back doors open a full 90 degrees making it easier to get an infant seat through the opening, and the second-row seats slide forward so it’s easier to attend a baby from the front seats. Optional built-in booster seats save the hassle of hauling around boosters for older kids, and the “Tilt ‘n’ Slide” second row seats ease access to the cramped third row part-time seats when they’re needed. There’s even stain-repellent fabric to give grown-ups a shot at mopping up spilled Juicy-Juice before it soaks in.

When it comes to technology, the Journey’s got more than a Circuit City store. Check out the 30G hard drive music and photo storage. The navigation system has real-time traffic reporting and a rear seat DVD entertainment system can be supplemented by Sirius satellite backseat TV later this year. Sirius satellite radio is available too, natch. And don’t forget the rear-view camera system. A remote starter will warm things up for you on chilly mornings, and the optional seat heaters can be had with even the fabric upholstery, so pricey leather isn’t mandatory for electric bun warmers.

That’s the good news, but the Journey does have its problems. A clever design and sapient features make the Journey’s mediocre execution all the more frustrating. What should be a slam-dunk obvious choice for frugal families is instead a tempered recommendation, softened by disappointing details. Designers specified soft materials in some areas of the cabin, but other parts are blighted by more of the kind of cheesy plastic that gives Velveeta a bad name.

The worst detail is in the plainest view — a failing that should cost someone their job. 

The upper door trim, the part you see first upon opening the Journey’s door, has sharp visible molding lines with excess flashing around the edges. But the real piece of aesthetic resistance is the door lock button. The Journey has old-style buttons that pop straight up through the top of the window sill. It’s standard practice to surround the hole through which the button protrudes with a trim bezel, and Dodge does exactly this on other models. But incredibly, someone concluded that the little plastic doughnut that hides atrocities like rough-hewn edges was too costly, and it’s missing.

Consumers and car reviewers will cut an automaker some slack when they feel they are doing their level best, even when they make mistakes. But it’s hard to believe the interior trim in the Journey represents anyone’s best effort, even considering the cost constraints applied by the bean counters.

There are other drawbacks. On the road, the Journey’s drivetrain refinement falls short of Honda’s benchmark, but it’s still plenty smooth and quiet, even with the base four-cylinder engine. That engine also works well enough at around-town speeds, but it struggles to maintain highway speeds, a challenge that is exacerbated by the paucity of gears in the automatic transmission. While the more burley V-6 engine enjoys a six-speed automatic, the four-cylinder, which really needs all the help it can get to move a 3,800-pound vehicle, is saddled with an old-tech four-speed.

The four-cylinder needs a downshift to climb even modest grades in the Interstate, but it doesn’t need the high-revving passing gear downshift to third gear wrought by the four-speed transmission. A milder shift from sixth to fifth gear would be less jarring and would still let the four-cylinder power plant haul the Journey up hills.

On balance, Chrysler’s engineers and designers have proved the benefit of their experience building cars for families on a budget. And, considering the company’s recent moves to correct similar flaws in existing models, I expect they’ll fix the last few defects in the Journey with a refresh as soon as possible.

So with some more practice, Dodge can improve the luck of its customers, something even Michael Jordan couldn’t do.