Reasons to believe in a Chrysler comeback

Warren Brown
Columnist May 27, 2011

I’ve been going through the Chrysler Group’s products looking for improvements, trying to determine whether the company, reformed after its 2008 financial failure and federal bailout, has a chance to make it in an unmercifully competitive enterprise.

I’m not yet humming the theme to “Rocky.” But I’ve found reason for hope so far.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Consider the 2011 Journey, a midsize crossover-utility vehicle produced by the Dodge division. It is a substantially revised and improved version of its former self.

The Journey was a mediocre affair when reviewed in this space in 2008 as a 2009 model. It was the equivalent of a term paper with an A-plus theme executed with C-minus effort.

The size was right — big enough to comfortably transport a family of five on a long road trip. Anticipation of user needs was on target. Families driving long distances need convenient storage bins for stuff. The Journey was loaded with those, including under-seat storage compartments. There was connection access for all those electronic things we now deem necessary.

But the first Journey was miserable in too many of its particulars. Interior and exterior styling, the lowlights of which were cheap-feel plastics and other interior materials, were lackluster. The performance of the 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine (173 horsepower, 166 foot-pounds of torque) in the predecessor base Journey SE ranged from underwhelming to mildly competent. A 3.5-liter V-6 engine offered in that period’s upper-level Journeys (SXT and R/T) was slightly better.

Now there’s a new Dodge Journey — in this case, the all-wheel-drive Journey Crew driven for this column — from a new Chrysler.

Fit, assembly quality, exterior paint finish and interior material quality are all measurably better. Close your eyes. Feel the control knobs on the instrument panel. The hard plastic knobs have been replaced by soft vinyl pieces. Leather seating surfaces smell and feel rich. Class has mated vigorously with convenience in revised interior styling. The multiple storage bins remain. But the entire interior of the 2011 Dodge Journey Crew feels less like a school bus and more like a limousine.

The 2.4-liter in-line, four-cylinder engine has been carried over from the old base Journey SE to its 2011 counterpart, now called the Journey Express. An aside: That four-cylinder engine is for motorists interested primarily in economical transportation — in terms of both purchase price and daily operation (think fuel costs). It will disappoint motorists desiring the thrill of acceleration with every touch of the gas pedal. The four-cylinder Journey just doesn’t move that fast.

But the new 3.6-liter, 24-valve V-6 (283 horsepower, 260 foot-pounds of torque) sold as standard equipment in the 2011 Journey Mainstreet, Crew, R/T and Lux is a pleasing machine. It will get you where you are going with something approaching fun-to-drive.

Like its predecessor, the 2011 Journey has an option for third-row seating, thereby creating space for seven people, up from five. But again, this column advises against exercising that option in the midsize Journey crossover and similar vehicles. Reasons: Only small children can sit back there, and the rear seats are frightfully close to the rear hatch — not a good thing in a rear-end collision.

In summary, the 2011 Journey Crew and its four crossover siblings (Express, Mainstreet, R/T and Lux) are all worthy of consideration by shoppers seeking a high-quality, versatile crossover-utility vehicle . . . with the following caveat: People who are seeking outstanding fuel economy, road performance (particularly acceleration), maximum utility and low pricing in a midsize crossover-utility vehicle are fantasy shoppers.

Putting a six-cylinder or larger engine in a crossover means sacrificing some element of fuel economy in favor of performance and, perhaps, increased utility. Going with a small-displacement (referring to the amount of air and fuel that can be held in combustion chambers) four-cylinder engine means sacrificing performance and certain elements of utility — hauling and payloads are examples — in favor of more miles per gallon.

No one vehicle in any category is likely to meet all needs and desires, certainly not at the same price, which is why car manufacturers usually offer multiple equipment and trim levels in the same vehicle line.

What is encouraging here is that, reflective of a new can-do, will-do spirit at Chrysler, the new Dodge Journey has top-notch quality and design up and down the line. I am impressed by the Chrysler Group’s recent action in paying off the $6 billion-plus in federal bailout money years before the due date. But I am much more impressed by what I see in the company’s new products — a drive to get things right, an elegant swagger, and a determination win on its own terms without apology or excuse. That change in attitude could prevent Chrysler from ever again coming to the government, hubcap in hand, begging for a bailout.

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