The 2013 Dodge Journey reminds us of the story of the Ugly Duckling. When the Journey debuted in 2009, we couldn't find much to praise. It was a middle-of-the-pack midsize crossover that didn't stand out from the competition. But in 2011, the Journey went from Ugly Duckling to a bird of a different feather, not so much an elegant swan but a more appealing and sophisticated family mover.

The exterior styling of the Dodge Journey remains conservative -- basically the same as it has always been -- but the big improvements can be found inside in all five trim levels -- the AVP or American Value Package, SE, SXT, the fancy Crew trim and the sporty R/T, which is very similar to the Crew with a few additional upgrades.

Inside, the fit and finish of materials in the Journey are impressive for a crossover in this price range. The most eye-catching feature is the clear and crisp 8.4-inch touchscreen display. It's mounted within a well-configured dashboard that houses easy-to-read instruments and controls. Unfortunately, the biggest shortfall with the Journey's interior is lack of space, which, for a family hauler, should not be the case. As a 5-passenger vehicle, room is no better than adequate. With the optional third-row seat, there's space for two additional passengers (children or small adults only). Using this third row, however, shrinks cargo space to less than 11 cu ft.

The base AVP and SE models get a 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder and an unrefined 4-speed automatic transmission. There's 173 horsepower heading to the front wheels, accompanied by too much engine noise when accelerating and a herky-jerky transmission. It's better to go with Dodge's smooth, powerful 3.6-liter V6, mated to an efficient 6-speed automatic, with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive. There's 283 hp on tap and 260 lb-ft of torque, which gives the Journey plenty of get-up-and-go, even when fully loaded. Beyond that, the Journey's upgraded suspension offers solid and capable handling, in town or on the highway.

As one would expect, the best fuel economy is dished out in the inline 4-cylinder, which rates 19 miles per gallon city/26 mpg hwy. The more thirsty all-wheel-drive V6 yields 16 mpg city/24 mpg hwy.

But you can't go wrong on the price. The base AVP comes in at only $18,995, and that includes decent standard features. Base price for our front-wheel-drive Crew is $27,995 but rises with the extras. A top-of-the-line R/T with all-wheel drive adds about $3,000. The powertrain warranty is generous, too: five years or 100,000 miles.

The 2013 Dodge Journey competes with such rivals as the Kia Sorento, which also offers a third-row seat with pleasing power and good fuel economy. The Toyota RAV4 is all-new for 2013 and is a quality piece, but it no longer offers a V6. If power and space is a priority, Dodge's own Grand Caravan offers both for a price just a bit more than the AVP Journey.

With this new Journey, Dodge made major interior improvements, added V6 power and provided more competent suspension, all while keeping the price affordable. Our recommendation: Avoid the inline 4-cylinder, pay the extra money for the V6, reserve the third row for kids only and feel satisfied driving one of the best crossover values on the market today.

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Jessica Shea Choksey is an automotive journalist and former writer/reporter for the PBS/Discovery Channel television series "MotorWeek." She began her career in journalism as an editor for numerous magazines and publications mainly outside of the automotive field. Jessica currently resides with her family, in Southern California.

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