It happens to me every day: Invariably, someone asks what I am driving.
I am sure they would love to hear that I am piloting a stylish SUV, like a Land Rover Evoque or a chic sedan, such as the Lexus LS 460. Without fail, I watch their faces fall when I say, "A 2012 Dodge Journey."
It's a feeling I had about the crossover SUV when I first saw its name on my test drive schedule last year. But the Journey turned out to be better than expected.
So when it came time to decide which vehicle would be the subject of my first long-term test drive, the Journey was a natural, given that it receives little respect and that Chrysler Corporation's quality control seemed to be improving.
Did the Journey deserve its nondescript rep? Was Chrysler's quality control still a concern?
I wanted to know, even if I harbored an urge to rename the Journey after Rodney Dangerfield.
The test drive lasted three months, the same amount of time as J.D. Power's widely quoted Initial Quality Survey. While magazines typically do such tests, to my knowledge, newspapers had never attempted one. It would be a first.
Chrysler agreed to the test, asking how I wanted the Journey equipped. I requested the trim level and options most often ordered by dealers. I didn't want one unrealistically piled with options.
The Journey model lineup starts with the American Value Package, or AVP model. Next comes the SE, then the SXT, Crew and R/T models. Front-wheel drive is standard on all models, all-wheel drive is optional on the SXT, Crew and R/T models.
As with any vehicle, the difference in models comes down to the amount of standard equipment, although even the base Journey offers an impressive amount of gear for less than 19 grand.
The AVP and SE models come with Dodge's 173-hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission; choose these models if you need a crossover with three rows at a rock bottom price. Otherwise, opt for an SXT, Crew or R/T and their 283-hp 3.6-liter V6 and six-speed automatic transmission.
Dodge sent an all-wheel-drive Crew model. I was surprised: Despite a price above $32,000, a rear back-up camera, navigation system and sunroof were noticeable in their absence, but proved nonessential over the long run.
At first glance, the instrument cluster is impressive, with a speedometer and tachometer that resemble a sports watch. Still, I appreciated the secondary, high-definition screen between the gauges, which showed, among other things, the Journey's exact speed.
The instrument panel's simple design is anchored by a large, easy-to-operate 8.3-inch touch screen that controls the climate and audio systems. On chilly mornings, the first item shown on the car's screen: controls for the heated seat. Nice.
Speaking of seats, the front seats are very comfortable - even after 10 hours in the saddle - despite being rather flat and lacking aggressive side bolsters.
Front seat legroom is good, but second-row passengers complained that their seat bottom cushion was too short and that leg room was tight, despite the ability to slide the seat rearward for additional leg room. Third-row leg room is minimal. Putting three rows into a vehicle 192 inches long calls for compromises, and this is where the Journey's shows.
There's lots of storage throughout the cabin. The center console has a secondary tray inside to hold smaller items. There's also a generously-sized open bin. In addition, there's a compartment under the front passenger's seat and second row in-floor storage bins.
The Journey easily swallowed the items I donated to the Salvation Army. It ferried friends to dinner. And it did so in an unassuming manner.
Did I say unassuming? How about invisible?
There's something about the Journey that invites other motorists to cut you off, tailgate you mercilessly and move into your lane. Rarely have I driven a vehicle that attracted so many selfish drivers.
Thankfully, the potent V-6 proves a ready antidote. There's always enough juice on tap to make quick work of such self-centered drivers.
Like many new cars and trucks, the Journey's six-speed automatic transmission is aggressively tuned for fuel economy. You constantly have to request more power. The transmission pauses, as if to ask, "Are you sure?" Then it responds quickly.
Shifting manually reveals how powerful Chrysler's new V-6 truly is. It's a wonderful engine that's hamstrung by a transmission tuned for fuel economy.
The EPA rates this driveline at 16 mpg city, 24 mpg highway. It's easy to surpass the highway number with careful driving. Over 3,495 miles of driving, the Journey averaged 19.5 mpg.
Given that the Journey is derived from Chrysler's midsize car platform, it's no surprise that the car handles adequately, but it lacks the sporty feel of some its competitors. There was some body lean in corners, but it was well controlled. While not engaging to drive, the Journey is suitably refined for family duty, although it feels larger than it really is. Foul weather grip is excellent, as is emergency stopping power.
The Journey's all-wheel-drive system works on demand. Most of the time, power is funneled to the front wheels. Power is sent to the rear wheels above 25 mph in corners to enhance handling. It's also used to add grip in foul weather conditions.
The Journey's suspension did a decent job of absorbing the worst parts of I-264's crumbling surface, with little additional body movement, even over the worst stretches. The cabin is very quiet, without wind or road noise. Tire noise is negligible.
At the end of the test, with the odometer reading 4,150 miles, the car hadn't exhibited a single mechanical malady. It was still tightly assembled, without a single rattle. Nothing fell off. There was no need to head to the dealer to have anything fixed.
Over three months, I grew to respect the Journey for its eminently practical nature and its trouble-free manner.
The Journey stood out for the way it didn't stand out. Everything worked. It was comfortable, capable and always ready to handle any task or climb any road.
And it helped prove that when it comes to initial quality, Chrysler is definitely improving.
Should it be named Rodney? Not in my book. Maybe Jeeves would be a better fit.
JUST THE FACTS
2012 DODGE JOURNEY
Wheelbase: 113.8 inches
Length: 192.4 inches
Cargo space: 10.7-67.6 cubic feet
EPA rating (city/highway): 16/24 mpg
Fuel economy: 19.5 mpg
Miles driven: 3,495
Fuel type: Regular
Base price: $18,995 (excluding destination charge)
Base price, test model: $29,995 (excluding destination charge)
Price as tested: $32,915 (including destination charge)