TOMALES, Calif. -- A particularly warped and winding section of California's Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco runs along the eastern side of Tomales Bay while passing through crossroads communities like Marconi and Hamlet on the way to Tomales.
Coursing over humpback hills and cutting acute-angled corners to chase the ragged shore, this twisty ribbon of asphalt serves us well to show off the sticky four-wheeling agility of one sporty new crossover utility vehicle (CUV) built by Dodge.
A chrome badge on the tail-side hatch door reveals the name: Journey.
Dodge originally rolled out the Journey for the Class of 2009 with front-wheel-drive (FWD) traction or optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) for three different versions -- the price-leader Journey SE, an upscale Journey SXT edition and a sport-tuned Journey R/T (the initials signify "Road and Track" in recognition of Dodge's muscle car heritage).
Scroll your calendar forward for two years and you'll discover that Journey for the Class of 2011 gets tuned and tweaked in a major overhaul with a redesigned and retuned suspension, a new optional V6 powertrain and handsome new fittings for the passenger compartment.
There's still FWD and AWD traction options but a whole new slate of trims -- price-leader Journey Express, trendy Journey Mainstreet, seven-seat Journey Crew, sporty Journey R/T and over-the-top Journey Lux.
The 2011 Journey in any edition looks sharp as dressed in chiseled sheetmetal.
Its body projects a stubby prow and the profile of a sporty coupe despite a pair of doors hanging off each side and a rear-sloping roofline which tapers to the boxy tail of a hatchback-hinged wagon.
Front and rear overhangs have been whittled away and the large wheels on front and back corners convey an impression of strength and speed.
And that face with a horse-collar honeycomb grille marked in shiny cross-hair chrome looks familiar, as it conforms to the front-end styling for many vehicles in Dodge's garage.
Rigged on a car's chassis with car-like independent suspension system tuned to deliver a smooth ride quality, Journey feels sure-footed and stable to drive on a wiggle road like the PCH as it follows the shore of Tomales Bay.
A unit-body structure for Journey forges a tight and solid platform for mounting suspension elements and handling mechanisms which make this CUV behave like an easy-driving sedan.
Dodge revised suspension geometry on the 2011 Journey, added premium tires and reworked the steering system to deliver precise responses.
The independent suspension elements consist of front MacPherson struts with coil springs over gas-charged shocks and stabilizer bar mounted on an isolated suspension cradle, and a rear multi-link arrangement with coil springs, link-type stabilizer bar with gas-charged shocks and an isolated rear suspension cradle.
Journey provides many active safety systems designed to keep an alert driver out of harm's way by avoiding an accidents. The equipment includes a quick-response rack and pinion steering system and four-wheel disc brakes tied to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake assist (EBA) and anti-skid devices via the electronic stability control (ESC) system and all-speed traction control (ASTC), plus electronic roll mitigation (ERM).
Dodge offers two different engines to propel Journey through the five trim levels.
Journey Express the price-leader totes a 2.4-liter four-in-line plant with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and dual variable valve timing (VVT) to generate 173 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 166 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
The four-cylinder plant links to a four-speed automatic transaxle, the 40TES.
This powertrain scores Journey's best fuel economy numbers -- up to 25 miles per gallon (mpg) for highway cruising.
Journey's other four trims -- Mainstreet, Crew, R/T and Lux -- tote the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6 mated to an intelligent six-speed electronic automatic.
The single-cam six-pack V6 delivers big power numbers -- 283 hp at 6350 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4400 rpm.
Yet it still earns acceptable fuel economy numbers -- 17 mpg city and 25 mpg highway for the FWD version, or 16 mpg city and 24 mpg highway with the AWD rigging.
The on-demand AWD device, available solely the 3.6-liter V6, controls front/rear torque split via an electronically controlled coupling (ECC) with variable torque output, but the system always defaults to FWD.
Journey's passenger compartment, padded and insulated, amounts to a comfortable space lined with stylish appointments and clever accessories.
The layout consists of two sport buckets up front and followed by a bench broad enough for three but with indented sections for two.
The back of the front passenger bucket folds forward to form a flat horizontal surface, and backs of the second-row seat, divided 60/40 into separate sections, also fold down flat.
An optional third-row bench, split 50-50, has seatbacks that tip down to expand the flat-floored aft cargo bay. Long cargo items can be stacked on top of these folded seats and stretched from the front dash to rear tailgate.
A new one-piece instrument panel mounts at the front of the cabin and contains large gauges plus a new electronic vehicle information center (EVIC) featuring a full-color display backlit in vivid red lights.
A center console tucked between front bucket seats has a tilt-and-slide padded armrest and new large center storage bin housing a 12-volt power outlet and USB port for charging a MP3/iPod.
Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with load-limited and pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with upper and lower anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage air bags up front and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for outboard seats on three rows.
A price chart for the 2011 Journey starts at $22,245 for the entry-level Journey Express. Journey Mainstreet edition begins at $24,245, the seven-passenger Journey Crew tallies to $29,240, Journey R/T is $28,245 and seven-seat Journey Lux goes for $32,740.