Details: personal driving impressions of the 2009 Chryslers, Dodges, and Jeeps.

Details on what has changed for 2009

Jeep Patriot and Compass

patriot dashboard

patriot center stackThe big news for 2009 Patriot is the updated interior, which is shared with the Compass. Kim from the Jeep/Small Vehicle Group stated that they put a lot of effort into improving the interior materials and feel, and it shows. The center and front door armrests are now padded and the feel is much improved. The center console itself now has a ‘split' lid with a small storage area and a larger area underneath. The dash now uses the round ‘ratchet' vents from the current PT Cruiser with chrome surrounds. It's a small but very noticeable improvement, both visually and in operation. The vents simply push open, and by sticking a couple of fingers in the open vent, you can turn the vent to the direction you'd like it to face. It's so simple and so “Jeep” you wonder why they used the fussy multi-control vents before.

Chrome trim surrounds the shifter bezel and the gauges, and a bit appears on the doors as well. (In Sport models, only the shifter bezel and vents get chrome.) The test Patriot was a pre-production model, so the final texturing was not yet in place – most of the dash was a smooth un-textured plastic. Interior door handle pulls were also smooth, but I was told that the plan was that they would get a soft ‘dimpled' insert.

In the previous Patriot models, my knee would constantly rub against the center stack. In the new interior, that's no longer an issue. The center stack has changed from a “waterfall” style to what I will describe as a “backpack” – the controls appear to be clustered closer together, which allowed them all to sit higher so they could ‘carve out' the bottom of the stack where my knee used to hit it. The cup holders are now LED illuminated, making them easier to find in the dark.

challenger and compass

On the test drive, the additional insulation in the engine compartment and the interior floor make a big difference in the in-cabin noise. They've added an exhaust resonator on the 4x4 models, which also helped a bit. (FWD models get a larger resonator.) While I wasn't able to test one, the Sport models have a revised suspension tuning.

In the Patriot 4x4 model I drove, there is no mistake that you are in a 4x4 Jeep. That said, it wasn't a bad experience at all. The performance of the powertrain – 2.4L GEMA with the CVT2 – was impressive. I never felt that the Patriot was lacking in power or punch at any point during my test drive.

I spoke a bit more with Kim from the Jeep/Small Vehicle Group, and she spoke of how the feedback they received on the Patriot was that it was “close, but not quite there.” Their mission was to make sure that the Patriot (and Compass) was “all there.” She also mentioned that folks heading from the off-road course after driving the 2008 model were nothing but positive when seeing the interior on the 2009 model.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

I spoke with Mark, a member of the PT Cruiser team, about the changes for the PT. Mark stated that there really aren't many changes for 2009, pretty much due to the fact that the PT is still selling well and offers decent value and features for the money when compared to other small wagons or small cars. He alluded to some “special plans” for the PT in 2009, but could not elaborate. When asked if the PT would continue after 2009, the response was a somewhat subdued “probably not.” That being said, I went for a drive in a 2009 Limited model, equipped with the “low-output” turbo 2.4L engine.

The MSRP on the model I drove was $23,299, but I just didn't get the feeling that I was in a $23,000 car. It felt more like a $17,000 car. Your extra money gets you the 180 horsepower turbo engine, ABS, leather heated seats, leather-trimmed steering wheel, faux-carbon-fiber center stack bezel, HomeLink, chrome trim bits, SIRIUS radio, express-open sun roof, and polished aluminum wheels with performance tires. While they might have been able to get $23,000 five to seven years ago [editor's note: at that time the interior was also more upscale], I don't see it happening today.

This was actually the first PT Cruiser I'd ever driven, so I have no past feel to compare it with. It's a nice ride and handled the course pretty well; it wasn't rough or cheap feeling by any means, but it wasn't overly exciting to drive either. The engine has plenty of grunt to get moving from a standing start as well as for passing, but I get the feeling that I could probably live pretty well with the standard 150HP model.

What the PT does have going for it is interior room and usability. Unlike the cab-forward design of my current car (which my wife hates,) there's an open feeling in the PT's front seats that makes it feel like a larger vehicle. The features like the removable rear seats that fold and tumble and the moveable parcel shelf in the rear give the PT more usability than other newer small cars and wagons.

Chrysler Aspen

aspen hybrid dashboard

When I got into the Aspen Hybrid, the guy getting out gave me a warning: “Be careful. It's QUIET.” He wasn't kidding. Thank goodness there's a light on the dash, because there's no audible noise from the drivetrain at idle. The HVAC fan is the only sound. It took some time for the spotters to move me to the test track, because they couldn't hear the vehicle either. On the upside, while I was waiting, I wasn't wasting gas. The rear wiper was turned on, and it took me a good amount of time to locate the rear wiper control (it's on the right side of the center stack, below the HVAC.)

Under acceleration, the hybrid gauge reads dead center in the “economy” area. Lift off the gas and the needle moves to “charging.” Stomp on the gas and the needle swings over to “power”. It moves very well under acceleration, and I could detect a faint noise from the Two-Mode system – like a light wind noise.

Handling felt the same as the non-hybrid model, and aside from the hybrid gauge the interior is the same as well – not a bad thing. Unlike GM's gaudy hybrid badging on the Tahoe/Yukon/Escalade, the Aspen has three badges – one on each front fender and one on the rear liftgate. Another item of note: when I started the test drive the EVIC read 15 mpg (average); by the end 20 minutes later it read 15.9 mpg.

2009 Dodge Journey SE

After experiencing the simplicity of the PT (and now Compass and Patriot) HVAC vents, the vents in the Journey are just lame. There is no need for 2 different controls to adjust a vent. The seats are manual adjust, and after sliding the seat forward and ‘jacking' up the height, I was ready to go. The first thing I noticed was that the lower left corner of the center console immediately found my right knee, and not in a good way. Even with the seat in its highest position, the door sill, where one rests an elbow, still seems pretty high. The tilt adjustment for the steering wheel is not off to the side as in the Patriot; it's directly centered under the wheel. Took a while for me to locate it, and the action isn't all that smooth.

Taking off or passing in the (four cylinder) Journey requires a good application of your right foot deep into the pedal, but once you are up at cruising speed of 50-60MPH things seem fine. The SE model lacks some the details they featured in the ads – like the pinpoint LED lights. It's a little thing to be sure, most people don't NEED it but it adds to the overall experience. Out of the handling track, the SE seems to be a bit less planted and a maybe a bit bouncier than the SXT and R/T models, but overall not bad. After 10 minutes, the fight between the console corner and my knee hasn't let up, and it's the one thing that actually annoys me about the Journey. All the features in the world doesn't mean anything if you aren't comfortable driving the vehicle. That being said, I'm convinced that there are still a lot of folks for whom the Journey would be a great vehicle for, even if I'm not one of them.

2009 Dodge Ram

I spoke to Bob Lee, one of the powertrain engineers, about the updated powertrains for the Ram, and asked “why isn't the Hemi offered as an E85-capable engine?” He said that while they could make it happen, their research shows that there is little demand for an E85 Hemi. In interviews with buyers of 4.7L E85-capable trucks, few cited E85 compatibility as a reason for buying the truck and few have actually run E85 fuel. Those who did noted that once they realized they had to fill up more often with E85 versus gas, they stuck with gas as there was no cost benefit with E85. A Hemi (or a 4.7L for that matter) tuned to work better with E85 over gasoline might offer more benefit, but the lack of E85 infrastructure in many markets hampers that potential.

dodge ram R/T

The Two-Mode Hybrid system from the Aspen/Durango is expected to show up on the Ram after the 2009 model year and will be tuned differently from the SUVs. The Cummins Light Duty Diesel engine is also slated to appear after the 2009 model year, but Bob Lee stated that the price disparity with diesel – currently 50 cents per gallon over gas here in Chicagoland – along with the premium cost a diesel will carry over a Hemi or 4.7 Magnum will likely be a challenge.

2009 dodge ram interior

Later in the day, several of us watched in amusement and some disbelief as a reporter put himself into the new Rambox, the storage box built into the sides of the pickup bed on the new Ram. He wasn't far off from being able to get entirely inside one, and Dodge must have also though that was a potential issue as the Rambox is equipped with the glow-in-the-dark trunk release handles inside.

Small car powertrains and XFE

I spoke with Laurie and Kim of the Small Car group about fuel economy in the Caliber, Compass, and Patriot. Specifically, I asked them if there was a plan to emulate GM's “XFE” initiative – they took a Cobalt with a manual, made a few tuning changes, added low-rolling resistance tires, put an XFE badge on it, and proclaimed that the “Cobalt XFE gets 36MPG highway.” Both agreed that while that was a great marketing tool for Chevy and GM, it wasn't realistic as only a small portion of buyers choose a manual-equipped vehicle. They felt that they have an advantage in that the CVT2 can potentially mimic the MPG values that a manual-equipped car can get, and that they are investigating and testing ways to meet that goal. Of course, you cannot get improved MPG without something else having to change as well, and one of their challenges is to be able to provide a good MPG number while keeping the vehicle enjoyable to drive. In summary, they said that they are looking at “everything” when it comes to improving fuel economy, and if they were to do an “XFE-like” package they would have to be able to do it across the board, not only on a single specifically-equipped model.

When asked about E85 capability for the World Engine family, Laurie stated that while the current World Engines are not set up for E85 use, they are looking at it from a “world” perspective. For example, if they want to sell vehicles like the Caliber or Compass in Brazil, they would need to provide an ethanol-compatible powertrain.

2009 Dodge Nitro SLT

dodge nitro

The first thing I noticed is that the windshield in the Nitro is right up in your face. For those used to your average car where there is a good bit of distance between your head and the glass, the Nitro is a big change. The visor is right in front of my head; I have to move my head to pull the visor down. Taking the Nitro with its 20” wheels over the ‘pothole' segment of the test track at 45MPH was a bit unnerving; one pothole launched the Nitro over into the next lane. Interior-wise, I felt that the Nitro has about as much interior room as the smaller Patriot (and checking the numbers, I'm right – the Patriot actually appears to have just a bit more interior room despite the larger exterior size of the Nitro.) Overall, I was still left wondering why the Nitro exists in the Dodge lineup, other than to provide an SUV to fill the space left by the Durango when it moved up in size.

2009 Chrysler Sebring Convertible

The ‘wing' design of the dashboard looks much better with the tortoise-shell trim in the Limited models, but the expanse of plastic in the rear seat area still reminds me of one of those bath/shower overlays. There are still multiple patterns of texture on the various plastic pieces and the armrests are hard. The gearing of the 6-speed automatic in the Sebring seems better than in the Grand Caravan and Journey that I drove – in those vehicles the transmission wanted to get you into the upper gears as quickly as possible, and in the Sebring the action isn't as frantic. Past that, much of the Sebring is carryover from 2008. It's a decent car, but the interior keeps it from playing at the level that it should be.

2009 Dodge Challenger SRT-8

dodge challenger se

Before I took the Challenger out, I was approached by another journalist looking to get some shots and video of the car. Figuring that by helping out a fellow man would result in me getting more seat time in the Challenger, I agreed. He loaded his gear into the trunk and we headed out to the “photo road”, a looping driveway away from the test tracks and into a wooded area that provided a nice backdrop. We stopped to unload his gear and I asked what he wanted me to do. He was looking for some video shots of the Challenger taking off and then coming back towards the camera. When asked how he wanted me to take off, the reply was “as spirited as you like.” Say no more. Mr. Foot, meet Mr. Floor. While I expected a great cacophony of noise and spinning tires, I was somewhat surprised at how composed the Challenger was on acceleration – I was certainly moving quickly, but without any overt display of “hoonage.” I made my way around the photo road to the end, where I did a 3-point turn and came back to provide his ‘oncoming footage.” With that task completed, I turned around to retrieve the journalist and his gear, and we headed back down photo road – to a dead end. Another 3-point turn, but all was well, because my friend used this opportunity to get some video of the front right tire in a ‘rolling turn' – one of those action-type shots used in car chases and such. Back to the staging area where I dropped him and his gear off and proceeded to the test track.

challengers on the road

Once on the test track, Mr. Foot and Mr. Floor got reacquainted with each other and I found myself cruising at 60MPH and 2000RPM on the tach. The word that popped into my mind here was “effortless” – when you move your foot, the car instantly responded. I scrolled through the “Performance Pages” looking at the 0-60 meter, the G-force meter, and such.

Some have criticized the Challenger for having an interior similar to the Charger. The concept dash was a nice concept, but the design I felt was perhaps a little TOO retro. While the interior is not unique, it is very functional, easy to live with, and offers little to distract the driver from his mission of driving the car.

dodge charger tail

Motoring between the test track and the handling track, I was very pleased with how the SRT-8 moved at “normal” speeds. I've driven some powerful cars where they were fun as long as you were at speed, once you dropped below 40 or so, they ran poorly and weren't fun. Not so in this car. Once on the handling track, I was able to take turns at speeds that I would not have dared do in any of the other vehicles I drove. The electronic nannies did their jobs well, keeping me from getting too stupid or in trouble as I whipped around the track.

As I pulled in to the staging area, my journalist friend was waiting. He explained that he had just driven the new Camaro the day before, and was eager to see how the Challenger stacked up. When I encountered him later between test track and handling track, I could see the smile on his face from a good distance away. He pulled up, giddy as a schoolgirl, and I asked him how he thought it compared to the Camaro. “This is much better”, he said. “The Camaro is a very nice car, but I like this one a lot better.” I told him that he'll like it even more once he got on the handling track, and then stepped back as he pulled away, still smiling.

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