The small people-hauler didn’t die with the Mazda5. It got restyled into an SUV, and as a result, lost a substantial amount of its utility in the conversion. This is what’s left of the affordable minivan market, and it’s a dismal place to be.


I had reserved a Mitsubishi Mirage (or similar) for a recent trip. I was actually looking forward to a highway drive in a sad little noisebox, but the only things left on the lot that morning were a Chevy (Anonymous) or this Dodge Journey. I picked it up at my local airport and immediately noticed, to my surprise, a dead pedal. You can see it in the picture above, just behind the parking brake. Excellent!
Except not. It would be the first of a series of disappointments in this perpetually compromised vehicle. The dead pedal is too short for any adult-sized foot: I could curl my toes downward and feel nothing but air under the ball of my foot. I didn’t know it was possible to do a dead pedal incorrectly, but this car manages to provide something actually worse than nothing at all.
Before driving away, I plugged my phone cable into the available USB port. It confused the stereo. It couldn’t understand an Android device as a USB audio input—which is fine—but anytime my phone played navigation directions, the car would switch from radio to USB input (and still play nothing). What’s more, the USB port couldn’t charge my phone. I had a dead phone battery before I got back to my office despite having the thing plugged in for 4 hours of driving that day.
That said, the stereo sounded fine when playing the radio. It had plenty of volume and range.

I didn’t expect much from the driving experience, so its relatively flat cornering and quiet cabin were copacetic; firm responses on road imperfections are an acceptable tradeoff, though in this vehicle it does feel a bit more trucklike than sporting. The chassis shudders over big bumps. It doesn’t feel like a firm, refined machine.
The throttle mapping is aggressive, making the Journey feel eager, yet jumpy. It takes some care to avoid chirping the long-wearing all-season tires on an unintentional jackrabbit start. The engine (probably the 2.4-liter four-pot, but who really cares?) provides smooth power and it’s fairly quick; it feels quicker than my 7-year-old Mazda5, especially when accelerating at surface-street speeds. It returned 25 mpg on my mostly-highway trip.

Though it’s quiet, the Journey provides judder all around. I can feel the drivetrain moving and settling in its mounts between gears, which is something I’ve noticed before in other recent Fiat-Chrysler products. It’s possibly the fault of it being a rental with 10,000 miles, but it does put me off.
Its steering is extremely light and numb. Not a surprise, but a disappointment—this is a perpetual theme with this car. Light steering does make parking easy, though the rear visibility does not. Tall rear-seat headrests conspire with wide C and D-pillars to make it difficult to see around the vehicle while you’re backing up. This is something you need to be watchful with in the day care parking lot. Might be worth springing for the backup camera.

The Dodge Journey does technically seat seven, but only to the same standard that a mid-size sedan seats five. It’s going to be crowded for those sitting three-wide in the middle row.
It wasn’t until I was about to return this car that I realized it even had a third row of seats. The small trunk tipped me off; it’s about the size of my Mazda5’s. Naturally, I wondered if it was harder to get into the back row without the ample space provided by a minivan’s practical sliding doors.

You can see the answer above. That’s as far forward as the middle row will go, and you can’t flip the seat flat if you slide it forward first—another drawback to those huge middle-row headrests. (Update: Commenters pointed out that I pulled the wrong lever. Pulling the top lever will pop up the seat bottom and allow easier entry into the back seat. This is better, but does not solve the problem I posed in the next sentence.)  How are you supposed to get any humans to climb in the back if you’ve got child seats in the middle row? And if you’re going to put your child seats in the back, you’ve got serious gymnastics to do every day just to pull the kids out.
Overall, this Fiat-Freemont-for-the-American-market does everything it has to—but in typical rental-fleet fashion, it does nothing well. Every feature is either adequate or disappointing; every opportunity to excel is missed.
There, however, is one place this car excels: Price. If you need a new 3-row vehicle, this and the Nissan Rogue are the only way I know of to get it this side of $25,000. (If I missed one, post in the comments.) The Journey starts just under $22,000; you’re almost at $24,000 before you can get a Nissan Rogue (Update: or a Mitsubishi Outlander). The Caravan starts at $25,000. You’re mighty close to $30,000 to touch a new Sienna or Odyssey.
Who else offers a small minivan anymore? No one. And with all these compromises to its design, dealer incentives for the Journey are sure to follow. If you can deal with lackluster for the sake of a buck, the Journey delivers. It’s a car made by and for the proverbial bean-counter. The lifelong miser in me can appreciate that.
But as someone who also appreciates the practicality of a proper minivan, the ultimate disappointment of the Journey is not its own fault, but rather the fault of buyers in this market. Apparently nobody wants a minivan that’s not a highway-gobbling luxury liner with built-in vacuum. Shoppers for modestly sized 3-row vehicles are stuck with these compromised cars: Machines that are meant to be practical people-haulers but give up most of their actual utility in favor of SUV style.
In short, the Dodge Journey (or similar) is the perfect place to enjoy a meal from Nihilist Arby’s. It’s an adequate place to be for hurtling through time toward your own inevitable physical degradation and unavoidable death. Enjoy nothing. Eat Arby’s.
[Photos copyright 2017 Alan Cesar | Hooniverse]