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2009 Dodge Journey R/T AWD car reviews

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Land vehicle Vehicle Car Sport utility vehicle Dodge journey

Not long before the Journey was brought out, Dodge dropped its short-wheelbase minivans, leaving many to compare the Journey to the former Dodge Caravan. Owners may be as ambivalent as we were, because despite being fairly small, it has a big thirst for gas, at least with the V6; on the lighter side, it has great sound insulation, nice road manners, and a fully featured interior boasting most of the minivan gadgets people have come to think they need. The interior is quieter than any past or present Chrysler (and probably any) minivan. There is a moderately thrifty four-cylinder, albeit a gruff one, and a good diesel option for fuel-thrifty Europeans; which is handy given that Dodge intends the Journey to be its Eurovolume leader.

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From the firm front seat of our 2008 Dodge Journey R/T with all wheel drive, all seems well. Much seems to have changed since the public introduction in Detroit; the instrument panel is still undersized, and the plastic still shows some of the "chunky style" influence that peaked in the Dodge Caliber, but judicious use of chromed outlines dresses up the cabin to a remarkable degree. Indeed, had we not seen the earlier rendition, we'd have been shocked that anyone would say it was "cheap-looking." We're sorry, fellas - we're not going to jump on the bandwagon and say that the interior looks cheap, because it doesn't, at least not on the R/T. The black plastic dashboard and upper door panels are set off by the cream-colored roof and roof supports, and lower door panels; and the chrome breaks up what would otherwise be large expanses of plastic. Even the seats are two-toned; and it works.

That said, we had an R/T version - and your mileage may vary. The trim does change depending on which version you get (base, SXT, R/T), colors, and possibly whether you get the standard stereo or MyGIG.

Controls are generally sensible, with a ministalk-mounted cruise control that takes a little getting used to for wheel-mount users, and the new EVIC controls which likewise take some time to get used to. Both become second nature after a while. The brake is foot-operated, which makes sense, though we've never been fans of the "push to release" system. The gated transmission shifter doesn't get in the way. Headlights have the normal manual positions plus an automatic position (if so equipped).

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The center stack in our high-end R/T was not typical of every Journey, because it featured the three-zone climate control (each with separate thermostats) and the MyGIG system, sans navigation but still featuring a great big color screen. Both elements, like the oversized center vents, were framed with chromed rectangles boasting rounded edges. The knobs had chrome accents, as well; for the climate control, the two main knobs (for left and right side thermostats) also had two inner buttons, for system on/off, synchronizing all three zones, turning on the air conditioner compressor, and selecting automatic mode. Fan control (front and rear) was set by pushbutton, as was, strangely, vent selection, which is normally done by a row of buttons or by a single knob. Either alternative allows drives familiar with the system to work by touch; the current Chrysler system requires visual monitoring, a dangerous choice, especially when the system is placed all the way at the bottom of the stack (reportedly, ordering the navigation system moves it up to the top, replacing the little bin).

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If you don't like taking your eyes off the road, by the way, avoid MyGIG. The system is wondrous in some ways - the 30 gigabyte hard drive is certainly convenient, allowing most people to carry their entire music collection along, albeit in MP3 format (not my favorite - AAC provides a better compression/sound quality balance). The system is set up fairly nicely, so that it's easy to browse through your collection, and all sorts of information is carried. The problem is that you do have to read the panel to adjust anything, from music selection to balance to bass and treble.

Amusingly, roadability improves a little if you get the iPod option. In the bad old days of using a simple audio cord, the iPod option required drivers to manipulate tiny music players with one hand (hopefully) while steering with the other; the current iPod jack integrated with the entire system, including steering-wheel-mounted controls, allowing for much safer usage. With MyGIG, it works exactly as though it was part of the system, with the same basic interface as the hard drive; you can use alphabetical search to get closer to an artist, album, or song (it takes you just to one letter and is presumably thereby deemed non-distracting), or page down a list. It's still a driver-distraction problem, especially since there doesn't seem to be a shuffle mode that would let people listen for hours without touching anything. As for sound, it was good but not terrific, hurt by the optional subwoofer, which we recommend against (unless you're into rap and hip-hop) as it tends to muddy the sound.

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The good news for MyGIG buyers is that it can be the basis for a rear video camera, to aid in backing up. We'd suggest still buying the separate parking alert that works according to traditional bumper sensors with beep-beep noises, but the rear video camera can prevent one of the biggest auto-related child-killers, namely, the backup accident, which is surprisingly common until you realize that (a) kids of a certain age don't pay enough attention to cars, no matter how often you tell them or punish them, and (b) most modern cars have practically no rear visibility for objects of child size.

Satellite radio, a real convenience and a break from over-programmed, commercial-heavy, and chattery FM radio or AM hate radio, is optional with the MyGIG and with the "lower" stereos as well. After having it on a few cars, we have to recommend it for anyone who spends a lot of time listening to the radio.

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Our test vehicle also had rear seat video, which is the traditional DVD- based system with external audio inputs, in case you destroy the DVD player or want to hook up some other system; it's ceiling-mounted, which is convenient and avoids damage at the expense of rear visibility; and has two sets of headphones with a remote. The rear seat video is good quality and has a nicely sized screen; and the system provides a mounting point for the roof-mounted rear climate controls, which may be too high up for younger passengers. You can decide whether that's a feature or a problem; in any case, the rear temperature can be set from up front, too.

As one would expect from a vehicle designed to replace minivans, there are plenty of storage places, including a center armrest in the back seat that doubles as a cupholder; map pockets with integrated large-drink holders on every door; a dual glove compartment whose upper level is designed to keep a large drink bottle cold; a small but deep covered center bin; a smaller center bin and a large bin under the center stack; an upper storage area above the center stack; a sunglass bin that doubles as a clever mirror to let parents keep an eye on all five rear seats; and underseat storage. The front underseat storage is easy to reach and fairly convenient, but can't be reached while someone is sitting in the seat, unlike the storage in the PT Cruiser's passenger seat.

The rear underfloor storage is very clever for several reasons: it can be accessed (with some difficulty) while in motion, it uses a watertight liner, and, mainly, you can get extra liners at your dealer, so if you want to have some loaded up with fishing equipment, others with toys, etc., you can have extras ready to go. This wasn't my idea, it was suggested by Dodge's demonstration of the Dakota's similar (but larger) crate storage system.

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While we're talking about the PT Cruiser, some comparisons are noteworthy. Both vehicles are built on the same assembly line of almost completely different parts, with completely different styling. The PT is often criticized by its owners for poor gas mileage, but they haven't seen anything yet - the Journey, while admittedly larger inside and out, can get a paltry 13 mpg city with all-wheel-drive and the V6, with EPA ratings of 15/22 (the four-cylinder, front-drive version is rated at 19/25, while the front-drive V6 is 16/23); with a stick-shift, the PT Cruiser stick can get 21 city, 26 highway. Automatic to automatic is more fair to the Journey, which is a bit faster in the sprint and gets about the same in mileage as the PT. Parking the Journey is not as easy because of its greater size, but mainly because of its much greater height, which explains some of the two-ton weight that punishes acceleration and gas mileage alike. Inside, yes, the Journey has more headroom, but how much do most people need? And some of the additional height is just to get it higher of the ground.

With the four cylinder, we're told the Journey is sprightly enough when just one person is inside - which makes sense, since the zero-to-sixty time is a respectable 9.6 seconds. However, under a full load, the engine gets raucous and the vehicle gets harder to accelerate.

In fairness, this heavy weight problem is not unique to the Journey; it seems to be afflicting just about every new vehicle as customers demand that every vehicle have the sound insulation of a Rolls-Royce. Edvan pointed out that the Journey is lighter than the Veracruz and gets the same mileage, though it is longer than the Veracruz. Likewise, Doug D. wrote that his Journey SXT (front wheel drive) is getting about 18 mpg in mixed traffic, better than his old Town & Country which was averaging 15-16 mpg at trade-in time.

The interior of the Journey is not as large as even the first minivans, which were smaller outside; there is plenty of room for four or even five people, but the rear seats are cramped at best, despite the clever use of "foot holes" under the middle row. These are designed by Chrysler as occasional use seats and they are actually a very clever option, allowing people who only rarely need to transport more than five people (or, more commonly, those who think they might need to transport more than five, and would otherwise buy a car much larger than they need to accommodate that thought) to have something that's sensibly sized. However, the gas mileage and price of the Journey compared with that of the standard Grand Caravan makes one wonder why a person would care about downsizing the external footprint, except in terms of fitting into parking spaces - admittedly a key issue for many people.

Getting into the back seat is made easier by the fold-n-slide middle row and the convenient seat belt routing; indeed, getting into the back is not all that hard for anyone who can fit back there in the first place. Staying in the back seat is the harder part, if anyone in the two rows up front has long legs or a large body. Seven short and skinny people can easily fit; add one obese person and suddenly the equation changes. Fortunately, the middle seats can be moved to and fro as needed. Like the occasional-use rearmost seats, the middle seats can fold down to make more room for cargo; if all seats are up, there is very little cargo room. With the rearmost seats folded down, cargo room is quite good, at least in terms of length - better than many minivans.

Front seats are firm but moderately comfortable; middle seats bring up the joke about scientists discovering a material harder than diamonds, which is being put to use in Chrysler seats. The rearmost seats are likewise made of park-bench materials. Our test vehicle came with built-in booster seats, which we somehow pinched our fingers in - twice - which are only suitable for older and better-behaved children, say from first grade on. (We miss the old integrated infant seats, which made a big difference in safety for a group where correct fastening of the child seat is critical - and rare.)

All this said, Doug D. said his children found the second row seating to be roomier than in their Town & Country, and his ten-year-old daughter preferred riding in the third row; and we found that kids had no problem with either second or third row, either.

The rear doors open 90 degrees, which makes access much easier unless you're parked in between other cars, in which case you'll be missing those sliding minivan doors. The detents on our test car were fairly weak, so that the doors easily let loose from their 90-degree position, without warning.

Most reviewers have praised the Journey for its road manners, and we will gladly join in that praise. The sound insulation is excellent, protecting occupants from blasting stereos of other vehicles as well as wind noise. The ride with one or two passengers is excellent, though our R/T became somewhat more sensitive to bad roads when traveling with two adults and two kids. The base four-cylinder has a less performance-oriented suspension and can travel like a luxury car; as can the R/T when not fully loaded. Indeed, gliding over normally nasty concrete roads and bumpy, unmaintained asphalt gave us considerable respect for the suspension of the Journey, especially when compared with the cars it was derived from. Cornering was unimpaired by the forgiving springs, letting the Journey handle turns that a vehicle of this height and weight should not have been able to take, much less take without the stability control kicking in. When the tires did make noise, they did so before any hint of loss of traction, which makes it easier for drivers to know when they're getting into trouble. Overall, the suspension was surprisingly good, and it was complemented by good tires. The Journey will not be mistaken for a sports car, but it is more than adequate for most people.

The 3.5 liter engine in our test vehicle was unusually quiet, starting and idling with very little noise, and running more smoothly than we've been used to with this engine in other vehicles. While driving, engine noise generally was not part of the equation. Wind noise was also minimal. The transmission shifted smoothly most of the time, going through all six gears easily and with minimal notice of its actions. It also tended to be in the right gear, pretty much all of the time, and downshifted quickly and decisively, without fuss. That's partly due to the variable line pressure; but this six-speed automatic seems like a real winner. Ours was outfitted with the AutoStick gimmick as well.

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Acceleration from the V6 is good, with 0-60 sprint times of a respectable 8 seconds flat; thanks partly to the six-speed automatic, it's easy to get instant power on the highway just by hitting the gas and getting that downshift. The smooth powertrain evens out the power, making acceleration feel less eventful and less strong than it really is. Those with the four cylinder will get considerably better mileage if they avoid jackrabbit starts, but lose quite a bit of acceleration. The tradeoff might be worth it, but many Americans may wish that there was a manual transmission available with that four-cylinder to even things up a bit (even the first minivans had manual transmissions available).

The bright, techie dashboard starts out with just the green speedometer points lit; those fade slowly to black after a while. Turning the key lights up the instrument panel, as each gauge bounces to peak and back, and all the lights come on to test the bulbs. The R/T includes Chrysler's usual trip computer, which provides compass and temperature by default, and can also show trip odometer, trip time, gas mileage, and fuel range. The same system is used to personalize the vehicle's lights, locks, and other features, letting each person set different variables to fit their needs without going to a dealer. The gauges were attractive day or night, though the speedometer was a little busy (with both km/h and mph showing at all times, and the legal range in one half of the little speedometer's area). The engine temperature gauge tended to be hidden by the steering wheel.

From the driver's position, visibility is good going forward, but the rear window is fairly small and does not allow much visibility to the immediate rear of the tall crossover; and the rear quarter panel has a hopeless blind spot when the middle row of seats is up, compounded by the headrest of the rearmost seats, if equipped (and up). Even with the seats down, the rear quarter is fairly thick. Drivers have to rely on the large outside mirrors and plenty of caution. On the lighter side, the headlights are fairly bright and well focused.

The all wheel drive provides instant launching on dry pavement, and helps maintain traction on snow and wet pavement. It's almost mandatory now for crossovers.

The most attractive part of the Journey is the price, if you get the base or SXT model; the SXT, which has the V6, was listing at $23,300 when this was written, and that's before a thousand-dollar rebate that Dodge inexplicably slapped on the hood after telling us that sales far exceeded expectations. That price included the six-speed automatic, satellite radio, in-dash CD changer, side curtain airbags, 5+2 seating, and multizone heat and air conditioning, with all the refinement and speed of the R/T (and slightly better mileage than the AWD model we had), as well as the limited lifetime powertrain warranty.

The R/T with all wheel drive slams on enough features to raise the price to a startling $28,295, which includes those side curtain airbags for all rows and front seat-mounted side airbags, four-wheel antilock disk brakes, electronic stability control and roll mitigation, brake assist, alarm, interior observation mirror, and tire pressure monitor with warning signal. The suspension and steering are tuned for higher performance and a tighter feel. Luxury features include cruise, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, 8-way power seat, heated front seats, 40/60 middle-row seats with fore/aft adjustment, reclining middle seats, power windows and locks, satellite radio with CD changer, tilt/telescoping steering column, auto-dimming rear mirror, trip computer, wheel-mounted audio controls, and Chill Zone™. Standard storage on all models includes second-row underfloor storage bins and under-front-passenger-seat storage.

Our test car managed to come out at $34,240, thanks to reckless option-checking, starting with $225 for the red paint, $130 for the trailer towing prep package, $40 for the engine block heater, and $30 for the smoker's group. That's the easy stuff. Counting down from the other side, we had $1,220 for the rearmost seats, including a bigger alternator and rear air conditioner and heater with their own controls; $1,200 for the rear seat video with huge amp, subwoofer, and headphones; and $800 for the sunroof. Other options included $625 for the shiny 19-inch wheels, $700 for the Convenience Group II (air filter, roofrack, cargo compartment cover, LED lighting package, instrument cluster with display screen, UConnect, and electronic vehicle information center), $700 for the MyGIG system and backup camera, and $300 for the integrated booster seats with daytime running lights (no, we don't know why they're part of a single package).

The Journey is made in Mexico, as are 54% of its parts, though the engine and transmission are both made in the United States. The factory that builds it was known for its quality while making the PT Cruiser.

In short, the Dodge Journey can look and feel like a luxury car when appropriately outfitted; has lots of natty features and great sound insulation; and provides room for seven when you really need it, in a parkable package, just like the original minivan. With the four cylinder you can get decent mileage, with the V6 you can get decent power (sorry, you can't have both unless you live outside North America and get the diesel with automated manual transmission). On the down side, this thing is the size of the old short-wheelbase minivans, but can't get the same gas mileage (at least not with the V6), costs as much or more, and has less interior space in a less convenient package. Somehow we don't see the Journey providing Chrysler's salvation or leading the charge in Europe, but we know we've been wrong before. We just hope they revert the PT Cruiser to its original seats and air vents, and keep on making it on the same line as the Journey, for those who want something just a little smaller and fuel efficient. As for you, reading this column today, a lot of people have been surprised at the Journey; it looks good inside and out, has great road manners, and gives you either acceptable gas mileage (I4) or more than adequate power (V6), with a fairly flexible interior and room for those seven people you may need to move around someday.

To paraphrase one of our readers, the lower models are a good value, and if you don't care about speed or carry more than five passengers, the base four-cylinder is the ideal choice; it takes regular gas (the V6 takes midgrade) and has a lower thirst. The SXT and R/T are alternatives for those who really don't want a minivan, but neither was really designed to drive seven people around day-to-day. The SXT may really hit the price/performance sweet spot, providing the six-speed automatic, quick V6, and "enough" standard features for the price of a mid-sized sedan.

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