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by Blaine Martinson
When I was 16 years old and just learning to drive, my father had a new 1995 Dodge Caravan. It was then that I first fell in love with the minivan – the ride, the driving position, the utility – no other vehicle matched it. I always wanted one of my own. Finally, in 2006, I purchased a brand new Caravan SE (short wheel base), and we loved it.
While versatile, the interior was fairly Spartan, and five years later when it was time to trade up, alas, the Caravan in its SWB form had ceased to exist, and the Grand Caravan was, well, just too grand for our needs.
Having replaced the Caravan in the Dodge line, and not willing to step into a sedan, Journey was our next logical choice. In April, we purchased our brand new, 2011 Dodge Journey R/T AWD (in Canada, the R/T is the equivalent of the American Lux). Ours came loaded – with every option available except for Voice Command with Bluetooth (apparently it had to do with an availability issue, or the dealers did not understand that Bluetooth phone connectivity was no longer called UConnect).
To the untrained eye, the 2010 and 2011 are nearly the same from the outside; the 2011 has a new crosshair honeycomb grill, LED rear tail lamps, and subtly revised front and rear bumper fascia. While there were no sheet metal changes, the small tweaks add up to alter the Journey’s appearance and stance. Some of the early production 2011 Journeys still had the 2010 front and rear fascias, except with updated grills and LED tail lamps; our Journey R/T is one of those.
Styling is subjective, but I prefer the "holdover" fascias. The front end also sports a lower "chin spoiler" which, to my eye, combined with the new grills provides a bolder, sportier, and more finished look (much less "minivan-esque" than the original 2009-10 models). These minor changes add up for a positive visual impact.
Chrome accents are tasteful – the front crosshair grill, the door handles, and the chrome clad 19" wheels stand out against the Brilliant Black paint. Upon seeing it for the first time, more than one passenger has hopped in and asked, "Is this an Escalade?" (I swear this is true.)
About a month after we took delivery of our Journey, the rear fascia, where the bumper meets the quarter panels underneath the tail lights, began to "pop out" (see photo). Upon bringing this to my dealer’s attention, their body shop explained that this is a common problem with the Journey (something that has been confirmed by several owners on the Dodge Journey forum), and one they don’t really have a fix for. The issue is that the bumper has no clips holding it in the upper area near those corners, so they continue to pop out again and again, meaning this is a design issue. After a couple repeat attempts by the dealer to fix it, they used epoxy (the same that they use to glue windshields in place) to seal the fascia in. Since then, one side has held tight, while the other has moved again, although not as much as before. While this is a purely cosmetic issue, it is rather dismaying to see such a quality flaw still appearing three model years into the Journey’s production (and only a month into ownership).
Inside is where the real story begins. I hesitate to call the changes a refresh as I don’t believe that goes far enough to describe the transformation Journey has undergone. Had I been blindfolded and shown the interior of a 2010 and then a 2011, I would not be able to tell it was the same vehicle.
The black soft touch one-piece dash is pleasing to the eye and the hand. The sea of black is offset by a tasteful aluminum style accent which runs from one end to the other and surrounds the left and right most vents. This silver "stripe" also cleverly cuts across the HVAC control stack and incorporates several buttons into the design. Gauges are large and brightly backlit with white lettering and red accents, and surrounded by brushed aluminum rings around the pods. Everything that can be backlit has been, in blue-white, which makes for a pleasing night drive (this is especially nice after coming from a heavily decontented 2006 Caravan).
The LCD EVIC screen mounted between the two gauge pods is the nicest of the entire Dodge line. Journey’s EVIC is a full-colour display with a high enough pixel count to make fonts appear nicely rounded and allow for detailed graphics to be displayed. Here, we get a fuel economy readout, speed display, trip computer, TPMS readout, vehicle information (oil temp/pressure, coolant temp/pressure, and engine hours), messages (oil change), as well as turn by turn directions from the navigation system.
Black leather is found everywhere – the steering wheel, the shifter, the door inserts, the centre console armrest, the grab handles on the doors... all have a high quality look and feel. The seats are again, covered in all leather, with visible stitching. Visually, Journey is stunning inside.
Front seats are comfortable and supportive. The driver gets a 6-way power seat with adjustable height, base incline, and lumbar support (but oddly, the seat back incline is a manual lever). I found that it took a bit of trial and error to find the "sweet spot" but once I did, the driver’s seat is comfortable. Settling in for a drive is like being in a comfy leather chair. The front passenger seat does not have the same range of adjustments and is all manual, but few passengers will find cause to complain. Heated seats work as they should and are controlled via the touch screen.
Second row rear seats are nice – especially with the ability to recline the seat backs. So far, I’ve heard zero complaints from any of our passengers. A nice touch is the fold down centre armrest/cupholders, similar to what you would find on a full-size sedan. Second row passengers are also treated to their own ceiling mounted climate controls and a standard 115 volt outlet on the rear of the centre console. It’s worth mentioning that there appears to have been no cost-cutting in the second row as one normally might see. The door handles are leather clad with the same panel inserts as the front. The window switches are even back lit.
Our R/T did come equipped with the optional third row. Our verdict on these seats is that they are for temporary use. My wife spent a 2 hour highway trip back there - at 5’6" and petite, by the end she complained that her rear end was getting sore. These are best left for the kids (or passengers you dislike). However, the third row option includes the rear zone climate control, which is nice to have in regions with extreme climate. I’m sure my passengers will thank me in January when it is -35ºC. The third row does not sacrifice much usable cargo space as the seats fold flat to the floor (the 5-steater has some additional storage bins where the seat backs would be).
From the pillars up, nothing appears to have been changed – which is fine because there really wasn’t anything wrong with the ceiling to begin with. The overhead console is the same as the previous model, with the LED map lights for all three rows, sunglasses compartment with the clever integrated convex mirror, and the sunroof controls.
The 8.4n UConnect Touch system is the star of the show here. This system has by far the most "wow factor" of anything on the vehicle. Passengers have been delighted when I demonstrated function after function controlled by the screen. Graphics are crisp and easy to read. The system responds instantly with no hesitation. The Garmin navigation is excellent (although it sometimes picks a few odd routes), and is quick to recalculate when you go off route.
The 8.4n system itself is identical to that found in the Charger and 300C. In fact, it is difficult not to simply copy and paste those sections of the Allpar reviews here since it has already been so well covered. However, there are a few glitches that this system has that I have noted after an extended period with the vehicle:
- HVAC controls sometimes reset themselves after turning the vehicle off and then returning later and restarting. It simply doesn’t remember what your settlings were and reverts to a default state. This happens seldom and is intermittent.
- iPod and iPhone album view only lists songs in alphabetical order, and not by numeric track listings. Minor irritant for those times you want to listen to a live album or a concept album where the songs are preferred in order.
Previously, several Journey owners had reported other playback issues with the iPod/iPhone, but several of those problems were addressed in a software update which was released in late June of this year.
The USB port is found inside the centre console (and it is backlit for night time), along with a 1/8" aux jack. If a portable music player is not your thing, you can dump MP3 or AAC files onto a USB thumb drive and plug that into the USB port, or use the SD card slot found on the dash. Of course, there is a good-old –fashioned CD drive as well.
Sound quality from the premium Alpine system is excellent. However, the front speakers are heavily biased toward higher frequency response, and I discovered that shifting the listening position slightly toward the rear of the vehicle (using the audio settings) made for an improvement in listening quality. Clarity is excellent and bass is heavy enough to please probably 9 out of 10 listeners.
HVAC controls are detailed on the screen and are laid out simply enough. The redundant buttons below are an excellent and appreciated feature since it does not mean having to hunt through the screens if you want to adjust the temperature, fan speed, or radio volume. I have found myself using the physical buttons much more so than the touch screen for those functions.
The rear back up camera performance is superb. As soon as the Journey is in reverse, the entire 8.4" screen changes to camera mode and has helpful coloured guide lines on screen. The view is wide angle, and given the poor rear visibility from the rear view mirror, I have found the camera to be invaluable. When used in concert with the rear park assist sensors (audible beeps and displayed in the EVIC while in reverse), Journey is a breeze to park. To quote my wife, "I love this car. I had two issues while driving – navigating and parking – and this thing solves both."
After more than 4 months with this car I can say with certainty that being behind the wheel of Journey is an entirely pleasurable experience. However I, like many people, assumed the Journey would drive like a minivan – it’s doesn’t.
My impression is that ride and handling of the Journey sit somewhere between that of car and minivan. The ride is refined – much more so than any past Dodge I’ve ever driven. Large bumps are felt, but the majority of the road imperfections are cushioned out. Steering is weighted right – about the same feel I’ve come to expect from any Chrysler made vehicle. However, the power steering is a bit strong and it does not provide much in the way of feedback (a sport sedan it is not). Cornering is tight – so much so that I curbed the vehicle more than once on some right hand turns in the first few months we had it. Braking performance has been excellent as well.
Journey is well insulated against noise (much more so than our former Caravan). Highway driving is quiet and wind noise not an issue. I can keep the stereo at low volume and hear it just fine, and still have a conversation with someone in the third row without raising my voice. Engine noise is almost non-existent until you get the Pentastar excited.
The Pentastar 3.6L V6 performance has been nothing short of excellent. Acceleration is quick and smooth, and highway passing is effortless. Around town, the engine is smooth and quiet, but when opened up, you get a satisfying throaty growl. Hard acceleration is felt by a push back in the seat (and disabling the ESP will let you chirp the tires on takeoff).
During a road trip to the Lake of the Woods (Canadian Shield – rocky, hilly terrain) with a full load of 5 adults, the Journey took steep hills and inclines with ease. At no point did it feel like the engine had to be pushed. In fact, quick hard acceleration up hill was more than ample, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear the car was enjoying itself. On the ride home, the trip computer gave a highway mileage readout of 8.9 L/100Km. The mileage numbers are nothing to freak out about; it has about the same thirst as my Caravan with the old 3.3, but with roughly 100 more horses under the hood [editor’s note: EPA gas mileage ratings are identical to the full sized minivan with the same engine and transmission].
Gearing is fairly conservative and it likes to get to 6th gear as quickly as possible to keep the engine in the low band. I have not had any reason to complain – shifting is overall smooth and not noticeable enough to be intrusive. Switching into manumatic mode is quick and easy, and useful when you want to immediately take control of the transmission and not wait for it to respond.
The Dodge Journey is a versatile vehicle and can be a good value. Most buyers will probably find the best value to options mix in the mid-level Crew (SXT in 2012?). Was our [Canadian] R/T overkill? Perhaps, but consider that the price point of a base trim Jeep Grand Cherokee starts around where our R/T ends. The R/T looks and feels much more expensive than it is, and is the only model to come with all-wheel drive and leather seating.
The only drawback that may turn off some buyers is fuel economy. Our R/T is AWD equipped, which is a bit thirstier, and has given us some mixed mileage results. With careful driving while using the EVIC’s fuel mileage monitor, I was able to shave a readout of 16.0L/100 km down to 15.0L/100 km. I’ve been tracking our mileage over the past few months using my iPhone for a combined city/highway 12.66L/100 km. On a recent highway trip, I was able to record as low as 8.9L/100 km.
The cosmetic exterior, and significant interior improvements for 2011 are nothing short of incredible in that they take Journey from a "why did they even bother" effort up to a serious contender in the mid-size CUV segment. The Dodge interior design team put some serious time, effort, and money into this vehicle. Journey is the only other vehicle aside from the 300/Charger to come equipped with the 8.4 UConnect Touch system.
On the outside, Journey looks good, although some fit and finish issues remain. Fuel economy is a disappointment – the much bulkier Grand Caravan has nearly identical mileage figures.
Buyers who would like a Grand Cherokee, but have no intention of taking it off road, would do well to take a serious look at a Journey. The two have similar interior space (based on my once over of a Grand Cherokee in the showroom), and in my opinion, Journey actually has the preferable interior. As time goes on, I believe more buyers will discover as we did, that the Journey is one of the best kept secrets in the Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep line.
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