- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

When it comes to family-friendly innovations and gadgets, nobody does it better than Chrysler.

The company that invented the modern minivan in the 1980s has a knack for inventing ways to make its vehicles more appealing. Several of the better-know recent innovations are the Stow ‘n’ Go and Swivel ‘n’ Go seating on Dodge and Chrysler minivans, along with satellite TV.

So it should come as no surprise that when the company designed its new mid-sized crossover utility vehicle, the Dodge Journey, it came loaded with “wow” features.

Start with places for stuff. One that will find favor with women is the storage area under the right-front seat. Simply flip the hinged seat cushion up to expose a bin underneath. Toss the handbag inside and flip the cushion down to hide it.

Behind the front seats are two under-floor storage bins. Each can handle a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans of beer or soft drinks. The liners are watertight and removable, so the drinks can be kept cold with ice cubes.

The Journey comes with two rows of seats for five passengers, or with a third row that increases the accommodations to seven. The second row slides back and forth for increased flexibility—a good thing because you need to divvy up the knee room if you have passengers in both the second and third rows.

If you order the seven-passenger model, there’s another storage bin under the floor behind the third row. On the five-passenger version, you get a larger bin with a reversible cover—carpeted on one side and plastic on the other.

Another nifty option—not original because it already had appeared on Volvo station wagons—consists of child booster seats built into the outboard positions in the second row. They easily flip up to bring a child up to adult height.

To ease loading and installing infant seats, the Journey’s rear doors open to 90 degrees. They are not as useful as the sliding side doors on minivans, but are way more convenient than the stingy openings on many other vehicles.

The 2009 Journey arrives at a time when crossover utility vehicle (CUV) sales are increasing, even as sales of traditional sport utility vehicles are slipping.

SUVs are truck-based, with body-on-frame construction, better capabilities for towing, hauling and off-road duty. But they are thirsty.

CUVs, on the other hand, are car-based, with unit-body construction. Like SUVs, they are available with two-wheel or all-wheel drive, but are not as good at towing or off-road adventures. But they are lighter, usually handle more capably and deliver better fuel economy. There now are about 40 crossovers available from domestic and foreign manufacturers.

The Journey is Dodge’s first crossover. It is a mid-size—actually longer, though slightly smaller inside, than the more expensive Toyota Highlander. Dodge touts the Journey as “the right-sized vehicle for people who want the prestige of an SUV and the functionality of a minivan.”

The idea of an SUV as a prestige vehicle is questionable, unless it’s a Land Rover or Cadillac Escalade. And you won’t confuse the Journey with a minivan, despite its many features. It simply isn’t big enough.

Instead, the Journey is a tall station wagon. It’s based on the mid-sized Avenger sedan, but the driver sits a full six inches higher for that “command of the road” feeling favored by the SUV crowd.

Given its size and features, the base front-drive Journey SE has a surprisingly low starting price of $19,985. That gets you a five-passenger model with 37 cubic feet of cargo space, with a 173-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transmission.

Standard equipment includes a full complement of safety equipment: stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, brake assist, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, and tire-pressure monitoring.

It also comes with air conditioning, a stereo with CD and MP3, and power windows, locks and mirrors. The only customary features it lacks are remote locking and cruise control, but they only are available as part of a $1,395 option package that also includes a roof rack, cargo compartment cover, floor mats and a convex mirror to check on the kids in back.

The test Journey was a mid-level five-passenger SXT with all-wheel drive.

With a $25,530 sticker price, it came with a 235-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine, sport suspension system, 19-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, fog lights, a power driver’s seat, Sirius satellite radio, and Chrysler’s stain-shedding YES Essentials cloth upholstery.

With a vehicle weight of nearly two tons, the four-banger SE Journey is challenged on hills, where the transmission hunts for the correct gear.

Even the V-6 engine doesn’t feel all that strong, but it runs more easily with its six-speed automatic.

Handling is acceptable on the SE, more capable on the SXT with the tauter suspension system and big wheels.

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