Test Drive: 2015 Dodge Journey

No one really knows how the dinosaurs died. The most interesting theory I've heard is that a massive asteroid, the size of Mt. Everest, came screaming through the atmosphere to impact with such fury that a cloud of molten stone was ejected out beyond the stratosphere. Forming cinders in the void, it fell again to earth all around the globe, and the resultant energy transfer superheated the atmosphere to a temperature that instantly annihilated anything above the ground.

You see the Journey everywhere and for good reason.

Terrifying and fascinating. Although there's something to be said for that Far Side cartoon that suggested it was because they all took up smoking cigarettes. Anyway, point is, the mighty fell and something new came to take their place. So too in the automotive world, where  minivan, family sedan, and full-size SUV sales all continue to shrink, as crossovers repopulate the earth. Currently the Dodge Caravan is still incredibly dominant among the minivans sold in this country. Here's the new life-form that Chrysler hopes will take its place.

You see the Journey everywhere and for good reason. Like the Caravan, it offers a low entry price and seemingly good value. Perhaps not this particular tester though, which knocks on the door of $40K before freight. You oughta be able to park two very basic Caravans in your driveway for that price – but then again this is a fully loaded version with all-wheel-drive and all kinds of other goodies.

My kid took quite the shining to the lil' red express trucklet. It's a chunky-looking thing, reminiscent of a shrunk-down Durango, with big flares and 19-inch blacked-out wheels. The huge cross-hair grille makes an entrance, and the dual-exhaust-equipped rear makes an exit. It has presence.

On the inside, things are mostly good, but there's still an element of cheapness here that's going to make survival of the fittest tricky for the Dodge. Perhaps in bargain-basement models some of the lower-quality plastics would be more acceptable, but here I really can't help comparing things like the shifter and some of the plastics to the interior of something like the Nissan Rogue – and finding the Dodge falling short.

However, it is pretty comfortable (the front chairs more-so than the rears), and there are a number of very clever touches. The Caravan was pretty good at this stuff, with its stow-and-go seating, and the Journey has a couple tricks up its sleeve: the pop-up booster seats in the rear are great, and so is the emergency storage bin underneath the passenger seat. Actually, there's plenty of storage up front for mom and dad – somebody in the design department at Dodge has kids. The back has a pop-out flashlight like the Honda Odyssey, and the rear-seat HVAC controls are also usefully mounted high enough to prevent little hands from fiddling with them. As ever, I'd skip the rear entertainment option: not only would buying a couple of iPads (or similar) be cheaper than optioning the drop-down screen, if your kids aren't old enough to read Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling, then they shouldn't be looking at screens anyway.

Technically a three-row car, the Journey has pretty tight seats out back, and it's easier to get in and out of the rearmost seats of something like a Pathfinder. For a family of four who occasionally has to ferry a birthday party to the movie theatre for whatever new way Pixar has created of parting parents with their money, then the rear jump seat is great. If you're regularly using the third row, buy a Hadrosaur. I mean minivan.

However, for front seat passengers, there's plenty of good news. Dodge's Uconnect system is consistently good: here it comes with an 8.4-inch touchscreen that is easy to use and appears attractive in high resolution. Honda could take lessons. The Alpine audio system will dole out all the “Let it go” you can handle and then some, and the heated steering wheel is a nice touch.

Two power options exist for the Journey, a 173 hp 2.4L four-cylinder and a 3.6L Pentastar V6 making 283 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. I've been impressed by this engine in the Charger and here too it's pretty good. Power is routed through a six-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel-drive. Acceleration is brisk, making merging easy. Get it up to speed and the engine seems to have a little less punch in the 80-100km/h passing range. This is probably down to the transmission, which is relatively smooth but occasionally requires a prod to kick down.

You know who doesn't really care about acceleration in their family car? Most Canadians. While Dodge's ZF eight-speed seems capable of reforming even the bonkers Hellcat on highway mileage, the Journey is a little bit thirsty in V6 trim. Official fuel economy is rated at 14.5 L/100km for city consumption and 9.9 L/100 km on the highway. That's not terrible, but even in a time when fuel prices are at a (temporary) low, real-world results above 13 L/100 km in mild weather aren't a cause for celebration.

In the sort of drive that thousands of Canadian families will take every weekend, I loaded up the Journey with everything we needed for a weekend away and travelled up the valley to my parents’ house. This involved a longer highway portion where the Dodge proved itself competent, with ride quality tending towards firm.

My folks live up in the foothills, so a certain amount of winding along old familiar country roads was required, and here the Journey again managed some composed behaviour. Despite the Durango-ish looks, it's not ungainly on the twisty sections, and behaved well. It didn't exactly inspire, but neither did it offend.

The all-wheel-drive system proved competent, although I didn't throw anything more difficult at it than a gravelly, damp corner. If AWD is a must-have on your checklist, it may be an annoyance that Dodge doesn't offer it in the lower trim levels. The step from entry-level front-driver to the most basic AWD-equipped car is a full $12,200. Oof.

Arriving at the ancestral manse, the joy was in the destination, not the Journey. “What's it like?” my dad asked. You know, I didn't really have an answer for him – the little red Dodge hadn't left much of an impression.

That's mostly a good thing. For most families, the car isn't expected to do anything but show up and not break down. If the Journey's driving habits are unremarkable and the interior practical, sounds good, right?

There is, however, a bit of a problem. Yes, the Journey's got enough flexibility to be a practical family choice as well as an image that's better than that of an actual minivan, but it's not just competing against the dinosaurs. Crossovers as the new dominant breed isn't a new phenomenon, and the competition has had years to get things polished. The battle for customers in this market segment is as fierce as any.

If fuel-economy is an overall concern more than V6 pulling power, then the Journey finds itself at a disadvantage next to some other four-cylinder crossovers, and if it is, then the aggressive pricing on the new Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder is tough to beat. Possibly it's the three-row Rogue that's the biggest threat, with a combination of good feature loadout for the money, a similar emergency-only rear jumpseat, and more readily-available all-wheel-drive.

Currently, the Journey's main strength is its value for utility and capability at the lower price point of its range – something like the Canada Value Package that costs $19,495 and has a faint whiff of parsimony and maple syrup. The Dodge's space is most attractive at this end of the range.

But with an update last performed in 2011, Dodge needs to build more compelling reasons to buy into this crossover lest it, too, become one of the dinosaurs. And we all know what happened to them, right? (Sort of.)

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 3 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Traverse
Ford Explorer
Ford Flex
GMC Acadia
Hyundai Santa Fe XL
Kia Sorento
Mazda CX-9
Nissan Pathfinder

2015 Dodge Journey (Crossroad AWD)
2015 Dodge Journey (Crossroad AWD)
Base Price $35,395
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,695
Price as Tested $39,685
Optional Equipment $2,495 (Navigation and rear camera – $825; sunroof - $1,295; trailer tow prep - $375)
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.8
8 Comfort
7 Interior
7 Exterior Styling
6 Performance
6 Fuel Economy