Pros: Affordable three-row seating, stellar optional 8.4-inch touchscreen, quality interior, strong V6, available all-wheel drive.

Cons: Base four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic are behind the times, so-so fuel economy.

Introduction

If we handed out a "Most Improved Player" award like the professional sports leagues do, the 2012 Dodge Journey would be at the top of our list. A true bottom-feeder just a couple years ago, plagued by terrible interior quality and outdated features, the Journey has been reborn thanks to a complete interior overhaul. We tried to find obvious signs of cost-cutting in the Journey's new cabin, but to no avail. The materials are nice, the design pleases the eye and the available 8.4-inch touchscreen is arguably the best in the business. Oh, and the Journey now offers Chrysler's powerful new 3.6-liter V6, too.

Demerits? Just two, really, though we admit they're pretty significant. First, the base 2.4-liter inline-4 generates unpleasant noises and lackluster acceleration. And then there's the four-speed automatic transmission that comes with it-an unrefined, efficiency-sapping unit that's long overdue for replacement.

But we've got a lot of love for the V6-powered Journey, which has matured into a wonderfully well-rounded vehicle. More than just "most improved," it's one of our favorite reasonably priced family haulers.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Dodge Journey is offered in five trim levels: four-cylinder American Value Package ("AVP") and SE and six-cylinder SXT, Crew and R/T. Checking in under $20,000, the AVP model offers 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers, keyless entry with push-button ignition, power accessories, dual-zone manual climate control, cruise control, a 4.3-inch touchscreen and a six-speaker audio system with USB connectivity. The SE adds roof rails, LED taillights, and some extra-cost options that aren't available on the AVP, including 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control and the excellent 8.4-inch touchscreen.

The SXT gets the V6 and tacks on a touring suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity (optional on AVP and SE). The fancy Crew model comes standard with 19-inch alloy wheels, the 8.4-inch touchscreen (optional on SXT), six Infinity speakers, dual-zone automatic climate control and optional leather upholstery with heated front seats. The R/T is basically a Crew with standard heated leather seats and a sport-themed styling package.

Note that seven-passenger seating is optional on all Journeys.

The Journey's front seats are nothing to write home about in terms of support, but they do sit you up nice and high, affording an expansive view of the road ahead. The steering column telescopes on all models, though those with long legs might still find the wheel too far away. Glancing around the Journey's cabin, it's amazing how much Dodge transformed this car with last year's rejuvenation. The materials are downright nice, and the new dashboard manages to look sleek and upscale without compromising the Journey's gauge legibility or ergonomics.

There's still plenty of adult-friendly space in the Journey's second row, but the available third-row seat is better suited to kids-though that's true of any three-row vehicle at this price other than a minivan. Cargo capacity behind the third row is just 10.7 cubic feet, i.e. a few grocery bags' worth, but there are 39.6 cubic feet behind the second row and 67.6 cubic feet behind the first row. Those are competitive numbers for this type of vehicle.

Technology

The standard 4.3-inch touchscreen is unusual in a sub-$20,000 car, reminding us of Volkswagen's standard touchscreen stereos-a premium touch. But the big technology news in the Journey is the 8.4-inch touchscreen, which brings iPad-like crispness and ease-of-use into your driving experience. It's one of the best infotainment interfaces on the market, and it even includes an SD-card interface to give you more options in portable media. We highly recommend it.  

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Journey AVP and SE are powered by a 2.4-liter inline-4 rated at 173 horsepower and 166 lb-ft of torque. The transmission for this engine is a four-speed automatic. The 4-cylinder/four-speed combo used to make sense when the Journey was a subpar vehicle all-around, but now it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Acceleration produces more noise than progress, and the transmission shifts clumsily at times.

Happily, relief can be found-and then some-in the 3.6-liter V6, which livens up the SXT, Crew and R/T models with 283 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. The transmission here is a superior six-speed automatic. There's plenty of power on tap in a Journey V6, even with a full load aboard. The V6 sounds better, too.

Front-wheel drive is mandatory with the 4-cylinder engine, but the V6 can be paired with either front- or all-wheel drive. The EPA rates the 4-cylinder Journey at 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway, while the FWD V6 is nearly as good at 17/25 mpg. The AWD V6 drops a tick to 16/24 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Dodge Journey comes with standard stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes and seven airbags (front, front-side, driver knee, and full-length side-curtain).

In government crash-testing, the Journey received an overall rating of four stars out of five, including four stars for frontal impacts, five stars for side impacts, and four stars in the rollover test. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Journey its highest rating of "Good" in every category.

Driving Impressions

The Journey's high driving position and angled steering column may bring school buses to mind. Fortunately, the Journey's dynamics are much better than Big Yellow's, as this car-based crossover has no trouble navigating rutted roads and tight streets. Underneath, the Journey is related to the Dodge Avenger sedan, and it shares that car's soft, quiet ride on the highway. Big enough to be useful, yet not too big to be manageable, the Journey should strike many families as just right.

Other Cars to Consider

Kia Sorento - The Sorento also offers a third seating row, and its midlevel engine offering-a direct-injected inline-4-serves up an appealing mix of fuel economy and power.

Toyota RAV4 - The RAV4's third row is one of the tightest in this class, but if you want six cylinders in your crossover, you can't do better than the RAV4's 3.5-liter V6.

Dodge Grand Caravan - Want way more interior space than the Journey offers? The Grand Caravan's available in the same price range, and it has a huge cabin and a standard V6.

AutoTrader Recommends

The sweet spot for the 2012 Journey, in our opinion, is the SXT model with the optional 8.4-inch touchscreen and third-row seat. You get cutting-edge technology, strong V6 power and room for seven-all at a killer price.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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