LAS VEGAS -- Minivans are not cool.
They are the second ball and chain of family life -- a necessary evil and visual manifestation of throwing in the Wet Nap and admitting you've grown up.
And before every minivan owner sends me a note, go look in your driveway. It's fine to love that comfortable, purpose-driven slab-sided cruiser, but don't fool yourself, there is nothing rad about sliding doors.
The 2009 Journey, a new midsize crossover rolling into dealerships now, is Dodge's antidote to the minivan. That's something of a twist from the company that invented those bedeviling boxed vehicles that have blessed our lives and ruined our reputations. The Journey may never make hauling kids to school exciting, but it provides more style than anything else with a juice box holder and offers nearly as many features. And starting at $19,985, it's cheaper than the likes of the top-selling Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
Many minivan features built into Journey
Built on the same platform as the Dodge Avenger sedan, the Journey focuses on growing families not ready to succumb to minivan life.
But the Journey comes with many minivan features -- including an optional third row, a comfortable space for kids, which folds flat when not in use.
Anyone who has had to lift up a child and strap them into safety seat will appreciate the second-row doors that open out 90 degrees. This gives you that little bit of extra space needed to properly hog tie down even the most wiggly child.
Older kids will have no problem pulling one handle and moving the second-row seats out of the way to hop into the third row. Known as Tilt 'n Slide, the feature slides the seat cushion up and the entire seat forward, providing enough pass-through space for even me. Because the Journey is built on a car platform, it rides lower than an SUV so even little legs can step into it.
There's also an optional rear-seat entertainment system with an 8-inch fold-down screen that can plug in a video game system. There's even a 110-volt outlet back there -- so that X Box 360 has power. A driver can turn off the outlet with the touch of a dash-mounted button, a convenience that will prevent a curious child from learning about electricity by poking things into to the outlet.
In fact, the Journey has scads of options available: remote start; navigation system; a back-up camera; heated front seats; a Bluetooth connection for your phone; and even child booster seats integrated right into the second row. Just pop a button and give that kid a boost.
The standard features are impressive as well: Four 12-volt power sources, as well as the 110-volt outlet, a tilt and telescoping steering wheel, illuminated cup holders and lots of safety features. Also standard are front, side airbags for the driver and front passenger, as well as side curtain airbags for all rows, electronic stability control with roll-over mitigation, traction control, trailer-sway dampening and tire pressure monitoring. That's refreshing.
Then there's the Journey's storage. Half of their ideas must have come from smugglers.
There are the typical map pockets on the seats and slots on the door that can hold bottles of waters and maps no one buys anymore.
But from there, the Journey goes crazy. In vehicles without the third row, there's hidden storage in the back and behind the second-row seats -- and the lid bends up and lets you place grocery bags there so they won't slide around the back.
There are two floor bins that can each hold a good-sized cat -- not recommended -- or a 12-pack of soda with ice. Each comes with a removable tub for easy cleaning.
In the front, the passenger seat has a pop-up storage slot right in the cushion that's completely hidden except for a little strap. Dodge says this cool, dry storage space is for those little electronic items.
The dash is well laid out and includes a Cool Zone spot that can keep two soda cans chilled. The touch points are soft and it has a much less plastic feel than the Avenger or Caliber. The instrument cluster is impressive, losing Dodge's white faceplates for a modern green and black one under blue lighting.
There is still room for improvement: The dash has four different textures which is a little confusing. And a few finishing flaws take away from an overall nice appearance. The lock pegs have no grommets and some of the edges on the trim still look rough, such as the ones along the door. Those make everything look cheap.
V-6 has plenty of power
But when you're sitting behind the wheel of the Journey, you'll like the view -- the lines of sight are good, you sit higher than a car and controls are all easily and intuitively within reach. The gear shifter on the center console is angled slightly downward, which takes only a little getting used to.
The 3.5-liter V-6 provides plenty of power. Acceleration is quick and I never felt a need for more juice. The six-speed transmission glided through the gears and I liked using the Dodge Auto Stick, clicking through the gears manually.
The 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, however, underperformed, becoming the Little Journey that Could: "I think I can, I think I can make it up this hill."
It always made it up the hill, but between the four-speed automatic and the 3,800-pounds on the Journey, I was never positive it would. Obviously, the mileage varies by engine choice. The 235-horsepower V-6 gets 16 miles per gallon in the city and 23 mpg on the highway. The 173-horsepower four-cylinder engine reaches 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway. Both are not eyebrow-raising numbers.
With either engine, the Journey offers a surprisingly quiet smooth ride. The rack-and-pinion steering gives you good road feel and when flying through back desert roads, the Journey buckled down and bit through the curves. It's fun to drive. And when was the last time you said that about a minivan?
In the crossover world, the Journey looks more like a big wagon than a SUV, as it stretches horizontally more than vertically.
From the front, it keeps its Dodge growl, with a big cross hair grille, quad halogen head lamps and a big intake below the body-colored bumper. Its profile is less polarizing than other Dodge vehicles. Nondescript isn't a bad thing either.
There's very little "look at me" in the Journey, which suits it well. Getting noticed is not the most important thing for a family hauler. Instead, with this Journey, the trip can be as enjoyable as the destination.
And the best part is: It's still not a minivan.
2009 Dodge Journey
Type: Five- or seven-passenger, front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive crossover.
2.4-liter four-cylinder, 173-horsepower, 166-pound-feet torque four-speed automatic transmission
3.5-liter V-6, 235-horsepower, 232-pound-feet torque six-speed automatic transmission
EPA 2.4-liter: 19 mpg / 25 mpg
3.5-liter: FWD: 16 mpg / 23 mpg
AWD: 15 mpg / 22 mpg
Length, 192.4; width (with mirrors), 83.7; height, 66.6; wheelbase, 113.8
Notes: The best combination the SXT, front-wheel drive model.
Exterior: Good. Nice profile and front end give the Journey a well-planted, athletic stance.
Interior: Good. Offers as much utility as a minivan and some nice storage spaces. Needs to polish up the final details to make it excellent.
Performance: Good. The 2.4-liter engine does not have enough power, but 3.5-liter gives you more than enough get up and go.
Safety: Excellent. Everything is standard: Traction control, stability control, six airbags.
Pros: Priced lower than most and offers lots of family-friendly options, including a useable third row.
Cons: Low gas mileage on the V-6 and lack of power with the four-cylinder engine.
Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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