“Did You Know Dodge Still Makes The Journey?” we asked in 2015, baffled that Fiat Chrysler still built a mediocre DaimlerChrysler-era SUV loosely based on the sad, dead bones of the Dodge Avenger and Chrysler Sebring. In 2018, we wondered why the car kept selling so well, and recently, over 11 years after the car’s 2007 debut, I drove one, and actually...it was really not that bad.
It had been a while since I’d driven a Journey, but after noticing an absurd number of the crossovers driving around every last corner of suburban Detroit, and after looking at the car’s staggeringly high sales figures (Dodge has sold over 80,000 “units” annually since 2012 according to Good Car Bad Car), I had to give the SUV another shot—that is, after all, the spirit of Jalopnik’s new “Redemption Garage” series, in which we ask readers if a universally-derided car deserves forgiveness.
“What keeps drawing people to the Dodge Journey?”—a car that I’d been very critical of for years—I wondered.
In the past, I said the Journey was “The last of the crappy DaimlerChrysler-era cars in Fiat Chrysler’s lineup,” and I said it fell “squarely in the ‘unfortunate’ category.” I even wrote a buyer’s guide in which I referred to the car as a “steaming pile” that was the worst in the segment—a vehicle that, if purchased, would probably be set on fire with a jerry can of gasoline by its new owner out of sheer hatred.
These sentiments were oversimplifications, but I won’t take them back (except maybe the jerry can bit). In reality, after driving a 2018 model for a few days, I can say with satisfaction that I did not, in fact, light the Journey on fire and watch it melt into an only slightly less functional pool of molten metal and plastic. In fact, I actually didn’t mind it. I’ll go a step further: I totally understand why someone would spend their hard-earned cash on one.
The Journey’s formula is actually a good one: Take a car that’s been built on an old platform, and whose tooling was paid off many years ago, and just continue selling it year after year, drawing in buyers by continuing to increase the number of standard features while keeping the price low. In some segments where customers are a bit more discerning about having the most modern tech, this strategy might not work so hot, but in the three-row crossover segment appealing to families with too many kids and too few dollars, it clearly works just fine.
And that’s really the Journey in a nutshell: It’s just fine. The base 2.4-liter engine makes only 173 horsepower, and has to send those ponies through an antiquated four-speed automatic transmission that “automatically changes gears so you don’t have to shift gears manually.” The driving experience is about as fun as you might image; The car is slow, the transmission doesn’t have nearly enough gears and spins that little four-banger up to the moon to yield any sort of acceleration, and the shifting is downright odd, sometimes sending a jolt of power to the wheels for no apparent reason.
Road noise is also not great; When driving over Michigan’s legendarily poor roads, the ride remained okay, but the sound of that suspension working hard was fairly prominent.
But, an average family with $20,000 in their pocket and a bunch of strollers to lug around will totally put up with some road noise, an occasional harsh shift, and relaxed acceleration if they can get lots of features for cheap, and in that area, the Journey delivers.
The model I was driving was a bare-bones SE with alloy wheels and the Uconnect sound system with bluetooth—about $1,400 worth of options over a true stripper model. Still, all in, after destination charge, the three-row SUV came in at $25,530. And I bet, after some rebates, this car could be had for only about $20 large—a figure that allows a new Journey to actually compete with used cars. And for a family looking to haul kids about, and which for some reason or another doesn’t like minivans, getting a large-ish new vehicle with these standard features for that kind of price is a compelling proposition.
Included as standard was dual-zone climate control (as you can see in the picture above, the color-based temperature control looks dated), keyless ignition with proximity keyless entry, power windows and locks, cruise control, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a bunch of soft—if dated (Chrysler hasn’t updated this interior since 2011)—interior plastics.
The car actually didn’t feel slow around town despite its lack of horsepower and its fairly tall 2.842 first gear ratio (a 4.28 final drive ratio likely helped, here). Pop the pedal down, and the small four-pot and four-speed allowed those front tires to yank the nearly two-ton people hauler to the next red light without any drama.
Merging onto the highway wasn’t too scary at Michigan’s relatively low elevation, and cruising at 70 mph in fourth was fairly comfortable, with the car even managing to hold fourth gear even on small inclines, keeping the engine speed at about 2,500 rpm.
Road & Track wrote way back in 2008 that the best feature about the Dodge Journey is its size, and that’s true—this vehicle sells because of its high size-to-price ratio, and that’s pretty much it. The Journey is a seven-passenger machine, and to be honest, I was expecting that to mean “five passengers with two in a pinch,” but actually, all three rows are reasonably comfortable.
The second row slides fore-aft, and getting in isn’t too difficult provided the front passenger’s aren’t particularly tall. When adjusted just right, the setup lets me (at five foot eight inches) sit behind myself in the second row, and then behind myself again in the third row. Here’s the legroom situation in row two:
And here’s row three:
It’s actually not bad. Plus, there are even little 1.6-gallon in-floor coolers/storage bins, which are fun, because on a people-hauler like this, storage is everything:
It’s no surprise that the 192.4-inch vehicle doesn’t have a whole lot of space in the rear cargo area with the seats folded up, but it was enough for some tools and one-gallon jugs of oil:
But even if that hadn’t been sufficient, all I had to do was pull a couple of straps on the top of the rear bench and boom: look at all this space for activities:
The car I was driving was a 2018, so it must have been one of the last without a now-mandated backup camera, but still, overall visibility through the rear wasn’t as terrible as it is in many modern cars with huge D-pillars, and visibility out of the front was fantastic:
As for fuel economy, I didn’t really have enough time to put that to the test, but the EPA’s rating shows the Journey at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway, and 21 mpg combined. That’s downright pathetic, really; The larger-in-every-dimension, heavier, and 107 horsepower more powerful Honda Pilot manages 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined.
Granted, that vehicle costs over $32,000, while the base Journey starts at $25,140, but still, the numbers definitely make it clear that the Journey is old.
And that brings me to my point about old platforms. There are a number of areas where the old Journey’s bones really hold it back. Fuel economy, as I just mentioned is one of them. And that leads to the question: Does it make sense for Dodge to try to stuff a nine-speed trans and a revised motor in this old vehicle, and have it re-certified?
Does it make sense to change up the sheetmetal and fascia to try to improve aerodynamics? And how much of an improvement can they even get given their architectural constraints? Same thing with the car’s NVH issues: How much of a tear-up would be required to quiet the car down given its platform limitations?
And then there’s safety. The Dodge Journey was designed well before IIHS implemented its small overlap crash, headlight, and crash prevention tests, so it’s no surprise that it scores the worst rating, “Poor,” in the first two and gets a “not available” in the last. The aforementioned Honda Pilot, on the other hand, scores the best rating of “Good” in the small overlap crash and headlight test, and gets a “superior” in crash prevention.
All this is to say that there are can definitely be significant downsides to sitting on an old platform, but the reality is that not all buyers care. I’ll acknowledge that a bunch of the Journey’s sales are likely to fleet customers, but just look around your neighborhood and you’ll see it’s clear that it’s not just rental agencies ending up with these things.
While you could argue that the average everyday families buying Journeys should just get slightly used vehicles, it seems apparent that many of them just want a new, spacious, basic SUV that won’t break their bank. And in some ways, we should celebrate that something like that exists, even if, performance-wise, it’s a decade behind.
Ugh, David, why are you doing this to me? Your stupid cogent and well-reasoned arguments for the humble okayness of the Dodge Journey are hurting me, deep inside. They hurt because, yes, I know you’re basically right—the Journey is able to do its basic job of hauling around a bunch of people and their crap just fine. The old platform may be a little inefficient and noisy and clunky, but it gets it done.
Okay, fine. You’re right. But that doesn’t mean we have to completely redeem this lackluster sack of luster-less lack. Everything about this car screams “I don’t really give a shit about cars,” and I just can’t make myself go there.
Sure, it’s cheap, but is it cheap enough? Is this thing really worth $20,000?
I mean, I guess, but, consider this: think how much less boring and shitty this would be if Dodge really got bold and made this a $10,000 car!
That’s something I could get behind: A real, genuine stripper, with rubber mats instead of carpet and flimsy plastic door cards and sealed beam headlights and no color choices and a bare metal floor in the cargo area and plastic blanking panels all over that dash.
That would be exciting—an American Tata Nano, a car that’s capable of the same basic things as the current Journey, but has been edited down to the rawest, barest essentials.
If the Journey became an incredibly cheap vehicle, then I think I could redeem it. As it is, it’s too much of a tepid, half-ass solution that’s even more depressing and glum as a result.
So, sure, I guess I’ll grudgingly agree to redeem this thing, but just know how much better it could be if they really owned the cheap-ass quality.