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On February 26, 2008, the Dodge brand people held a little press event at the Industria studios in New York City, bringing with them a Dodge Journey, a Dodge Ram, and a cutaway Ram used in car shows. On hand were Dan Bodine, the truck communications man; Mike Acavetti, the Dodge communications man; engineer Klaus Busse; and regional rep Lisa Barrow. As one would expect from people on a travelling road show, all were friendly and enthusiastic.
Most of the time was spent on the all-important 2009 Dodge Ram, a vehicle whose many features will help it to maintain its sales in the face of both increased competition and some flight from the big-pickup market; but the bigger revelations to us concerned the Dodge Journey, a vehicle that did not impress us in Chicago but seems more comfortable and better-looking now.
The last time we went to an event like this, we heard a lot about styling and branding, but not very much about why we should buy the cars we were shown. This time, the story was more about the vehicles than the shape of the sheet metal or the "brand cues," but a new element was added for the first time since the 1990s - the idea that, by studying how people actually use their cars, designers and engineers can learn important things that will make people actually want their vehicles, more than goofy add-on gadgets or creases in the sheet metal. What's more, the old spirit of making room for one item in the budget by saving money on another seems to have returned.
The new cutaway truck that showed up in Chicago re-appeared, and seemed to have been worked on a bit. Certainly the lighting was better so you can see the rear suspension a little more clearly. Note all the bars holding the wheels in place - there are more struts going across. This is how they managed to get the new Ram, with a coil-spring suspension, to maintain the tow ratings from the previous one.
Most of the time was spent on features — you can only really say “380 horsepower and 404 lb-ft of torque” once, and there’s the Hemi pretty much encapsulated, albeit with a 5% gas mileage improvement to go along with that new power. The 4.7 liter V8, which we suspect will get around the same mileage as the Hemi, is now up to 302 horsepower in the Dakota, and will continue with that rating in the new Ram. The 3.7 liter V6 is carrying on, apparently unchanged.
The coil suspension was explained, though. Customers liked the 2007 Ram’s power, durability, and style, but they did not like the ride, interior comfort, or interior quality as much. In addition, there has been a trend towards more “casual” buyers owning big pickups - people who really do not need them. These groups include those who are new to trucks (largely women, Hispanics, and African-Americans, according to the research), and those in regions (especially the South) where pickups are “what we drive.” Dodge has traditionally sold well to the traditional commercial market - especially those attracted by the Cummins diesels in heavier duty models - and recreational users (boat and trailer towers). However, the coil suspension (which cuts 40 pounds of weight) should help to improve the ride for these new groups, as well as traditional customers. The Ram 2500 and heavier-duty vehicles will all continue to use leaf-springs.
The new feature for us was the bed expander; for the first time we heard the rationale, which is that the bed was truncated to keep the truck garageable despite the five-passenger (or six-passenger with front bench seats) interior. However, by lowering the gate and installing the bed expander (a plastic gate) onto the gate, one effectively increase the length of the bed for one trip. The bed expander locks into place (literally - it has a key-activated lock) on the gate using special grommets; it can be installed and removed in moments. It can also be folded differently to be placed anywhere within the bed, where it fits into the slots that look decorative until the expander is locked in. Placed in the bed, it can keep smaller loads from shifting or separate two loads. Also new, and related, is a lock within the gate, which is particularly helpful for those who put on bed caps.
Luxury car features for the Ram include a heated steering wheel, heated/ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, and satellite TV - all optional and fitting in nicely with the luxury-car interior.
Klaus talked about how he had come from the car group at Mercedes to work with Dodge truck engineers, and had toured the country to see how people used their trucks. He said you can’t ask people what they want; you have to watch them for days, and then ask specific questions about “if we could do this, would that be something you want?” This brought up memories of Dodge engineers noticing how buyers worked from their cars and developing huge center consoles to hold their clipboards and laptops.
The styling was a major hit on the focus-group trail, and came about after evluation of 12 models, narrowed down to three models and then to one. Customers said they had an icon, and shouldn't do anything revolutionary; so they tried to work with what they already had. Surprisingly, they found that the basic design was fairly aerodynamic, but that airflow was impeded by details. They tightened up the gaps in the front; pulled the metal over the front door pillars so the opening was on the side; added seals; and put in wraparound bumpers, all to lower the drag. (The wraparound bumpers turned out to have another benefit - at least one customer appreciated that because he used the bumper to open the gates on his ranch.) The mirrors took a long time to get exactly right. Even the power bulge in the hood is there to reduce drag; and the spoiler has been built into the liftgate sheet metal, providing an opportunity to relocate the handle to a more convenient space, as well as “the perfect place” for the rear-view video camera.
The doors were the subject of some effort, as they wanted to keep the “big doors/short glass” look from the Charger; but they could not interfere with the sill line as it moved from hood to bed, and needed to keep the door openings large. Eventually they drew down the lower sill by 14 mm, which covered the frame and also reduced drag.
In the front, Klaus said they wanted to make the Ram icon bigger, “to show our pride.” They started putting slightly larger icons onto the front, a few millimeters at a time, until management noticed, and left it there.
The dual exhaust were an aftermarket feature many buyers used; the built-in dual exhaust, with its clear cutouts in the rear bumper, is equally clearly not aftermarket.
Features we had not noticed before included underfloor storage, which can be reached with a single hand; it feels solid. Klaus invited us to play with the knobs and switches, all of which had a tuned feel, both to the touch and when being moved, and the interior does indeed feel far better than most recent Dodges have. The stitching is real, not simulated, and goes across the entire instrument panel. According to Klaus, the idea was to have a bold interior; so they made the vents part of the design, four tall, strong columns, each one made taller and stronger-looking through the inclusion of a control or cubby. The center stack includes thin chrome lines within the larger silver columns. All touch points are soft.
The person in the middle of the back seat will have to do without a headrest, since that was deleted to preserve rear visibility. On the lighter side, rear doors open to nearly 90 degrees.
As for the optional Rambox storage, it has a decent feel when opening and closing; it's weatherproof, waterproof, and easy to drain by pulling out the plug (from above, so you can get your hands wet). It takes up virtually no space, because it only goes out to the point where the wheel-wells would otherwise be. Overall, as with the interior, they “used every cavity we could find” - for over forty storage locations, including bins on either side of the center console.
When we experimented for ourselves, we found the interior looked more impressive than in the photos; it felt good, as well, with all controls responding nicely. The front and rear seats are more giving and comfortable than in the 2007s, and far, far better than some of the park-bench seats in recent vehicles.
Before getting into the thick of it, let me just say that my impressions of the Dodge Journey at Chicago might have been premature. I found it to be okay - nothing special - not something I would trade in my PT Cruiser for. The interior looked far better in the more natural lighting of Industria Superstudio #6, which set off the interior brightwork (we'll call it chrome), particularly around the radio, vent controls, and the vents themselves, which are in dark plastic, surrounded by rounded-corner rectangular thin-chrome boxes; knobs also have chrome accents (I was looking at an SXT model; the chrome diminishes as you move down the line). It really did make a difference. So did playing with the knobs and switches; and so did turning on the lights - which we could not do in Detroit, as the batteries had been removed. Suddenly the little instrument panel came to life with an impressive, clear, bright display.
The radio and climate system controls both looked natty and easy to use; the radio in particular had a new set of controls which includes what appears to be a turn-and-press knob which suggests easier access to some functions. Paying attention to usability is a welcome change in sound and navigation systems.
The seats were fairly comfortable if firm; rear seats have optional built-in boosters for older children, nearing the end of their mandated booster-seat period. This time around, sitting in the middle row didn't give me a sense of being right in the roof; the seat seemed a bit lower, and I didn't find myself drawn to staring at the roof vent. Legroom was okay if I had the seat pushed back, but filling three rows at a time means restricted legroom for everyone. Fortunately there was underseat foot-room, which mitigated the need for more legroom - and would have been even better had the seatbacks not been covered by a sheet of hard plastic which made it hard to keep one's knees up against the next seat. Dodge does make it clear that the three-seat capacity is not meant for everyday use.
The third row of seats was easy to get to, though I was glad I hadn't put on more weight; the middle seat folds and rolls forward easily enough, and then it's just a long step into the back, where the seats are surprisingly comfortable. Headroom was at a bit of a premium - I'm just five-foot-eleven and my head hit the back of the roof when I leaned back (so "don't lean back.") My feet barely fit underneath the middle seat, which was in a position to allow the middle passenger decent legroom, so you can fit seven adults in there.
Gas mileage, while not what I would call exceptional, is at the top of the class for seven-passenger compact crossovers/SUVs; it is, in fact, identical to the PT Cruiser automatic, at 19 city, 25 highway, for a larger vehicle. The V6 drops down to a less respectable 16/24 mpg (16/23 with AWD). It does make one wonder what would happen if the PT was fitted with the new 2.4 liter engine - the PT might seem heavy, but it’s a lightweight compared with the Journey.
One area where the Journey really excels is finding places for stuff. There’s the front seat storage - the cushion pulls up to reveal a storage space with, incidentally, enough room for a personal pizza box. Underneath the floor of the back seats, on either side, are bins that can hold 15 cans of soda - as illustrated - or, as two reps told us separately, a casserole that one engineer carried to avoid having an oily residue on the floor. Spare trays will be available at your local dealer, we’re told, so you can also do what they suggested doing with the Dakota: having various trays filled with your gear for various trips. We tried out these features and found them fairly easy to deal with.
What we could not discover for ourselves was what it’s like to drive the Journey, though every review so far has been positive. Mike said, “The ride is much better than anything else in the market,” so they’re setting up a large number of small ride-and-drives to get people inside. The ads will focus on the interior space and flexibility.
When the Journey was first penned, executives saw a need for a vehicle between the little PT and the big Pacifica; they found that the Pacifica was “a great vehicle but the wrong solution,” because of its size and thirst for fuel. While people loved the styling and the feel, few people actually knew it existed; and the price eliminated many of them. The Journey, with its many storage space, doors that open to nearly 90 degrees, reportedly wonderful ride, and acceptable four-cylinder gas mileage, is expected to pull 30% of its customers from imports, and 70% from the domestic market.
We’d like to thank the guys and gals at Dodge for inviting us and providing us with the personal tour, and to say hello to the friendly journalists from Money, Consumer Reports, Fortune, and one other publication whose name we dropped, who made for an enjoyable lunch as well.
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