Sales of SUVs are falling through the floor. Social disapproval from some quarters was already biting and now the rocketing cost of fuel has delivered a further flurry of punches. Why, then, has Dodge launched the car you see here?
Is it because Dodge is American and clinging on to what it knows best? Is it because Dodge hopes there will still be buyers craving a slice of that country's fading dream? No. It's because the Dodge Journey isn't an SUV at all, despite appearances. It's a practical, rather square-cut MPV, effectively a replacement for the smaller-size Chrysler Voyager as far as the Chrysler/ Dodge sales operation is concerned, now that the Voyager comes only in Grand guise.
The Journey looks like an SUV/4x4 because anything with a Dodge badge is meant to look tough. Many people like the connotations of a mode of life in which the physical vies with the cerebral for supremacy; look at the success of the smaller Nissan Qashqai, which looks like a mild SUV but is really just a hatchback with a tall stance. True, you can buy a four-wheel drive Qashqai, but that's hardly the point. And the Journey comes, for Europe at least, with front-wheel drive only.
Model: Dodge Journey 2.0 CRD RT
Price: £21,000, approximately, with automatic (range starts at £16,995). On sale in August
Engine: 1,968cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 140bhp at 4,000rpm, 229lb ft at 1,750-2,500rpm
Transmission: six-speed automatic gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 113mph, 0-62 in 11.8 seconds, 40.4mpg official average, CO2 186g/km
This is a hefty, chunky car which flaunts its visual brawn. The wheels are huge, the arches are ample, the body sides are tall, the windows are shallow. This last fact adds an air of visual mystery and menace to the outside and, on the inside, helps create the air of unwieldiness and rearward claustrophobia that makes you think you're driving something large, important and awkward to park.
You'd buy the Journey, then, if you had some kind of personality point to prove. Small boys would probably love its tough looks; it would be king of the kerb outside the kindergarten. They would also approve of the extra pair of foldaway seats in the boot, which makes the Journey a cross-generational seven-seater. And they would get a good view forward from their aft position, because each successive row of seats is set higher than the one before.
Why else might you buy a Journey? It has an unusually large number of useful storage spaces. For example, you can store 12 drinks cans in two under-floor bins behind the front-row seats; its bins have removable, washable liners; there's a "Chill Zone" air-conditioned storage bin in the glovebox for two more drinks cans; and the front passenger seat can "Flip 'n Stow", revealing a storage area under the cushion and forming a table-top when folded. Or, if you fold down the backs of the "Tilt 'n Slide" centre-row seats, a pair of cup-holders and a storage recess are revealed for third-row inhabitants.
What else? Bottle-holders in all four side doors, another under-floor bin behind the third-row seats, and four 12-volt power sockets distributed front to rear. The main front cup-holders glow at night so you can quickly locate your Red Bull. There's a rechargeable torch stored in the boot, and options include a ParkView reversing camera whose image is displayed on the MyGIG sat-nav display. You would expect there to be a warning that objects on this screen are larger than they appear, paraphrasing that of US domestic market car-door mirrors, but there is none.
All these toys, and prices planned to be around 10 per cent cheaper than the opposition (although our comparisons suggest otherwise), do add up to a seemingly good-value package. And, unlike too many American cars, including those of the Chrysler Corporation, the Journey has an interior trimmed in materials soft enough and with enough quality not to make every version feel like a base model. There's padding here, and signs of care expended at the Journey's Mexican assembly plant.
Fine. Does it drive like a truck? It seems to have the dimensions of one at first, although the Journey is actually slightly narrower than a Ford S-Max, a fine car marred only by its excess girth. Also the Volkswagen-made 2.0-litre, 140bhp turbodiesel engine that will be the most popular choice (the alternative is a petrol 2.4 with 170bhp) is not a unit known for its refinement thanks to its percusssive pump-jet fuelling system. The engines fitted to VW's own cars now have the quieter common-rail system but this advantage has yet to reach VW's commercial customers.
Our test car, in top RT trim, came with the optional six-speed, double-clutch automatic transmission, a version of the DSG system pioneered by the Volkswagen Group in production cars (and Porsche in racing cars, 25 years ago). Here the emphasis is on the automatic mode rather than the ability to execute perfectly smooth manual gearshifts with no clutch pedal, and there are no shift buttons on the steering wheel. It works well enough, giving a more alert feel than a conventional automatic, but it does worsen the carbon-dioxide rating, from 171g/km to 186, so you pay rather more vehicle excise tax.
The diesel copes adequately with the Journey's 1685kg mass, delivering its efforts with a crisp edge and, once you have got used to the bulk, the Journey proves more precise in its steering responses than you might expect. Its height does make the driving experience very 4x4-like, though, both for the good view forward and the way your body moves more than in a lower-slung car as you enter a corner. The ride over bumps can feel unyielding, too, the result of firm springing designed to limit the amount the Journey leans in a corner.
To drive, then, the Journey is nothing special. A Ford S-Max has about 200 per cent more appeal here. But it is useful, and much thought has gone into how the Journey will be used by families. For many buyers that's the important part.
Ford S-Max 2.0 TDCI Titanium: £22,500
Lower in line than its Galaxy cousin, the S-Max looks good and is delightful to drive. Rearmost seats are fine for children; the optional firm suspension might make them ill.
Mazda 5 2.0D Sport: £18,905
A six-seater, including the rearmost row, convertible to seven with a folding midships jump-seat. It's smooth, quiet, fun to drive and excellent value in this company.
Mitsubishi Grandis 2.0 Di-D Warrior: £22,214
Often overlooked, the Grandis is long and sleek and uses thesame VW engine as the Dodge. Rearmost seat row is reversible for watching outdoor events.