Driving Impressions: 2011-19 Dodge Journey FWD V6 – The NeverEnding Sale

There’s a rug store here in Brisbane called Rugs-a-Million. It seems like every year, they’d air a new commercial where a man would shout they were closing down and to get in quick to get a great deal on a rug. Well, they’re still in business after umpteen “closing down” sales. The Dodge Journey, like its stablemate the Grand Caravan, is also still on sale despite its advanced age and planned cancellation. Both keep getting reprieves so I can’t really say, “Hurry, get in quick – this is your LAST chance to get a great deal on a three-row Dodge!” But while rugs don’t have to comply with safety and emissions standards, cars do and so the Journey’s days are numbered.

Demonstrating the sheer popularity of crossovers – and perhaps the tantalising profits of an old platform surely amortized by now – the 2009-vintage Journey is back for the 2019 model year (and possibly more) even as newer products from other domestic automakers, like the 2017-vintage Buick LaCrosse and 2015-vintage Chevrolet Impala, are being axed.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to drive my brother-in-law’s 2012 Dodge Journey and I wrote up a review as part of an online competition (I didn’t win). The funny thing is, I could almost publish that review as-is as the Journey has had no changes since 2015. Seriously. Oh there has been a shuffling of trim levels and options but that’s it. While that’s not really a good thing, the Journey has some core competencies that still make it a decent buy at an inevitably discounted price. That recommendation comes with two seemingly contradictory caveats: don’t spend too much but, conversely, don’t settle for the base four-cylinder.

Striding in like a group of brash outlaws in an old Western, the Dodge range arrived in Australia in 2006 ready to cause a ruckus. The outlaws – named Nitro, Caliber and Avenger – were a bit rough around the edges but they were boldly styled and aggressively priced. But the Aussie townsfolk found these miscreants too uncouth and drummed them out of town and, indeed, out of Dodge. That is, except for the sharpest gunslinger of the bunch, the latecomer crossover they called Journey. After the Nitro, Caliber and Avenger left, this mid-size crossover was left to fly the Dodge flag solo and with little in the way of marketing support. Combined Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealers were the only reason the Journey sold as decently as it did in Australia – its likely many buyers were looking at the much more popular Jeep brand when they stumbled upon the little-advertised Journey at the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep showroom.

The Dodge posse looked a little different in North America. The Journey always travelled with the brash, rear-wheel-drive Charger and Challenger over there. Although those full-size Dodges soak up all the glory and marketing money, the Journey and Grand Caravan account for a significant chunk of Dodge’s sales – 10% of Dodges sold in 2017 were Grand Caravans and another 20% were Journeys.

Undoubtedly, a large percentage of those 89k Journeys were to fleets. And if you’ve reserved an SUV at a car rental agency only to get a Journey and thoroughly hate it, it was probably the four-cylinder variant. While I haven’t driven a four-cylinder Journey, I experienced its engine in two 2014 Chrysler 200 rental cars. It was raucous and lacking in grunt in them and it can only be much, much worse in the Journey which, at 3800 pounds, weighs 400 pounds more.

Producing only 173 hp at 6000 rpm and 166 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm, the Journey 2.4 is anemic. To make matters worse, it’s mated to one of the market’s few remaining four-speed automatic transmissions. Fuel economy is a paltry 19/25 mpg (21 combined), numbers achieved by much heavier and much more powerful crossovers. For example, Dodge’s own Durango – weighing almost 4700 pounds – gets the same with a 3.6 V6 and eight-speed automatic.

You can get that V6 in the Journey with a six-speed automatic and it’s still thirstier than the Durango but a little quicker – 0-60 takes around 7.5 seconds, while fuel economy is 17/25 mpg (19 combined). The cheapest V6 Journey also costs around $7k less than the base Durango.

The Pentastar 3.6 V6 is a grunty unit, with 283 hp at 6350 rpm and 260 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm. It’s powerful enough to squeal the tires with ease in front-wheel-drive examples like my brother-in-law’s; unlike the four, the V6 is available with all-wheel-drive and the commensurate 1 mpg drop in city and highway fuel economy. The Pentastar V6 is a competitive engine but, in the Journey at least, it has a surprisingly gruff engine note.

In markets like Australia and Europe, the Journey was also available with a diesel engine. First, there was a Volkswagen-sourced 2.0 turbo diesel with a dual-clutch transmission, producing 138 hp and 229 ft-lbs. In 2011, this was replaced with two Fiat 2.0 MultiJet diesel options, one with 138 hp and one with 168 hp. Both had 258 ft-lbs of torque and came standard with a six-speed manual but only the more powerful of the two had the option of a six-speed automatic. The Fiat diesels were only used in the badge-engineered Fiat Freemont which was sold predominantly in European markets but which was eventually introduced to Australia and sold concurrently (and in the same showrooms!) with the Journey.

Being a family crossover, the Journey isn’t built for the Nürburgring but it comports itself well enough. It stays flat in corners and body roll is relatively well-controlled. The ride is nicely damped, but the steering is overly light and lacks feel. Its six-speed automatic is a smooth-shifting unit and can be manually shifted, should you desire. Unusually, manual shifting is accomplished by moving the shifter left and right rather than the more traditional up and down.

Against newer crossovers, the Journey looks dated. Its fuel economy is mediocre, it lacks modern safety features like autonomous emergency braking or blind-spot monitoring even on its top trim level, and its (admittedly inoffensive) exterior styling is little changed from the 2009 Journey. It’s inside where the Journey shows its worth.

One reason for the Journey’s success, undoubtedly, is its practicality. Both the second and third row seats easily fold flat, creating a spacious load bay. The cabin also has various little nooks and crannies, such as a storage compartment in the front passenger seat cushion and a natty storage bin in the second row, equipped with a drain, which is an ideal spot for a bag of party ice. The third row can seat two adults in a pinch but is best occupied by children. With the seats up, cargo space is modest but there is under-floor storage and a removable flashlight. For 2018, all US-market Journeys received the third row standard.

Interior quality is a huge improvement over the 2009 model, the Journey receiving a huge interior overhaul in 2011 along with the rest of the Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep lineup. Cabin presentation and material quality is generally good and the black leather interior in my brother-in-law’s Journey has held up particularly well against three young children. The uConnect interface is one of the better infotainment systems, easily navigable and well-presented; it’s nice and easy to connect your phone and stream audio via Bluetooth. Lower trim levels have a cheap-looking 4.3-inch screen, while the Crossroad and GT (formerly R/T) have a much nicer 8.4-inch screen. The only chink in the uConnect system’s armour is the low resolution of the reversing camera.

There are two reasons the Journey has clung on this long. One, it’s a well-packaged and good value crossover. Two, Chrysler doesn’t have anything else like it to sell. Rumored Chrysler-badged crossovers have yet to eventuate while Jeep has introduced seemingly every type of crossover except one with three rows of seats. That unique (for its corporate parent) selling point allowed the Journey to continue the Dodge brand’s presence in Australia for five years after every other Dodge had been dropped. And even when FCA introduced the almost identical (and cheaper) Fiat Freemont, the Journey still posted some decent sales numbers for an orphan product from a (here) little-known brand. Both the Journey and the Freemont were axed from FCA’s Aussie lineup in 2016, leaving the corporation with zero three-row crossovers here. That’s unfortunate for happy owners like my brother-in-law, whose Journey has had no problems in six years of ownership except for a minor Bluetooth issue that was fixed under warranty.

What also helps the Journey is the inconsistent availability of a third row of seating in rival crossovers. No, you can’t fit Grandma and Grandpa in that farthest row, but it does come in handy when you’re carrying an extra passenger or shuttling your kids’ friends. Toyota dropped the third row from its RAV4 for the fourth-generation redesign, while Nissan discontinued the third-row option from its Rogue for 2018. Honda’s new CR-V offers a third row in other countries but it isn’t available in North America yet. Those automakers are trying to push you into a larger, more expensive three-row Highlander, Pilot or Pathfinder. That leaves the Journey in a class of three with the Mitsubishi Outlander and Volkswagen Tiguan, the only other crossovers at this price point with an available third row.

Comparing the Journey with the Outlander shows a surprising amount of tit-for-tat. The Outlander is less powerful but it’s also a few hundred pounds lighter. It’s a couple of grand more expensive but it has more features, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and a raft of optional safety features like cross-traffic alert which are completely unavailable in the Journey. There’s an optional V6, too, but it’s only available in the highest trim. Its four-cylinder engine is about as underwhelming as the Journey’s but its fuel economy numbers are vastly better – 27 mpg combined in the 2WD, four-cylinder Outlander, a whopping 6 mpg higher than the equivalent Journey. But it’s also slightly shorter and narrower than the Journey.

Any misgivings you may have about the Mitsubishi brand aside, the Outlander on the whole seems to be a better buy than the Journey and it certainly looks a lot fresher. Buyers have flocked to the Journey by more than 2-to-1 but Mitsubishi’s much smaller dealer network probably had a large hand in that.

The Tiguan commands a similar price premium but also bests the Journey in power and fuel economy. It is, however, shorter than the Dodge and doesn’t have an optional larger engine.

If you want a cheap, three-row crossover with a new car warranty, the Journey is still an acceptable option if you remember those two caveats: haggle hard and don’t touch the four-cylinder. Soon enough this rug store is going to have to shut its doors and there’ll be big savings they’ll pass onto YOU.

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