When you really gotta go

2009, Dodge, Journey RT

You can't just hold it forever. It's gonna be a long trip; and trying to ignore what's going on is next to useless. So when you really gotta go-when there's no alternative, when nothing else works-well, you just gotta go.

And anyway, who knew three years ago that things would be this bad for the Sport/Utility Vehicles that have reigned like mastodons throughout the land. It takes from two-and-a-half to three years to get new vehicles on the road; and when Dodge and Honda schemed up the 2009 versions of their Journey and Pilot, respectively, "I Want My SUV" was playing at the top of the charts.

But today, with gasoline steaming full speed ahead towards four bucks a gallon, the very SUVs that used to signal their owners' success and prosperity now submerge them in sacrifice and penury.

But, hey, a new model's a new model; and when it's ready to go, it's gotta go.

If you can ignore current events, you'll have no trouble conceding that the new Dodge Journey is a pretty clever vehicle. From a business standpoint, it's shrewd of Chrysler to exploit the design of their Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger passenger sedans and come up with a "crossover" SUV that combines elements of sedan agility, minivan capacity and SUV utility.

As a base model, the Journey sports seating for five and a front-wheel-drive powertrain with a 173-horsepower four-banger capable of 19 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway. For a price under $20-grand. Wow!

But when's the last time you ever tried to buy a base-model anything? In a Dodge Journey through real life, it only takes a moment to realize that seating for seven ($1,220 option); 235 horses' worth of V6 power; and a raft of entertainment goodies, including the myGig on-board digital jukebox (for $2,200), are highly desireable. The resulting Journey R/T model tested here now sports a base price of $25,920, ramped-up after options to $32,405. And that doesn't even reflect the availability of all-wheel drive for an additional cost yet ($2,500).

Then, since you're basking in all that V6 power anyway, you might as well know that you're only achieving 16 mpg/city, 23 highway. There you have it: A potentially revolutionary "new era" SUV rendered typical-and pricey to boot.

But Chrysler will have none of such whining. With its "Let's Refuel America" program, Chrysler acknowledges that everything has its price; and in this instance, the price of a gallon of gas is $2.99. That's right: three-dollar fuel for three years, guaranteed by Chrysler-as long as you take the bait by July 7, 2008.

So now we're back to current events, are we not? Fuel prices have collided with this new Journey SUV, and Chrysler is resorting to finger-in-the-dike tactics in hopes of holding back the flood of people running away from a rather charming SUV like the Journey.

What makes it charming is its comfy interior, solid ride and V6 pep. It's as practical as a minivan, but it won't embarrass the mom or dad who's driving it. True, the Avenger-derived interior is a bit plasticky and cheap (about which even Chrysler CEO Bob Nardeli has loudly vented in a very public hissy-fit). And the maximum cargo capacity of 68 cubic feet is hardly best-in-class. But as SUVs go, Journey deserves a share of praise.

As mastodons go, on the other hand...well, let's just say that they've never really gotten a handle on that global warming thing.

Honda just seems to go for it, no matter what. And the "freshened" version of Honda's Pilot SUV for 2009 is one of those damn-the-torpedoes gestures that so infuriate Honda's feckless rivals.

Here's a 4,500 pound, 8-passenger SUV that punches out 250 horsepower from a 3.5-liter V6. In the all-wheel-drive configuration tested here, fuel economy is just 16 mpg/city, 22 mpg/highway-and you're on your own buying fuel at whatever price you can scrounge. But it could be worse, since Honda's "eco" cylinder system automatically deploys six, three or four cylinders as driving conditions require.

The fact is, most buyers of the 2009 Pilot will simply chalk up its $27,500 base price and even the $35,000 sticker for the all-wheel-drive EX model (tested here) as the cost of doing business with Honda.

That's because the design is superb-the interior design in particular. The exterior, it must be said, is rather like a block of cheese; but the interior is not only spacious, it's full of excellent cubbies and well-placed instruments and controls. Flip-fold seats in rows two and three, and you'll discover cargo space variations ranging from 18 to 87 cubic feet. Plug your iPhone or iPod in the auxiliary and power jacks, and enjoy a smorgasbord of traditional radio, XM satellite radio, CD selections or MP3 tunes at your fingertips.

There is no question that Pilot sales will be hammered in the short term, along with the entire SUV population. But Honda's strengths give it staying power. For one thing, the Pilot is a workhorse whose V6 delivers V8-like power for towing up to 4,500 pounds and hauling up to eight occupants.

Robotic-style controls under the hood not only manipulate the aforementioned variable cylinder system but also actively defeat engine and road noise using an electro-mechanical process that regulates harmonic frequencies through the sound system. Hill Start Assist adds welcome sure-footedness to the Pilot's moderately capable off-road ability.

In short, Honda's Pilot will likely escape the mastodon's fate because it is a highly evolved species of SUV that is learning to adapt, albeit by baby steps, to a changing climate. And that climate isn't just meteorological, or petrochemical; it's also psychological. Honda technology reassures Honda buyers that a Honda Pilot can do more with less-which promises to be the only way to fly from here on out.

Sport/Utility Vehicle; 4-door, 7-pass.; 3.5-liter SOHC V6; FWD, 6-sp. auto; 235 hp/232 ft.-lbs.; 16 mpg/city, 23 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 11/37/68 cu. ft.; tow: 3,500 lbs.; base price, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, traction/stability control, AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius, dual-zone HVAC, 19-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $25,920; as-tested: $32,405

Sport/Utility Vehicle; 4-door, 8-pass.; 3.5-liter SOHC V6; AWD, 5-sp. auto; 250 hp/253 ft.-lbs; 16 mpg/city, 22 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 18/87 cu. ft.; tow: 4,500 lbs.; as-tested price, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, stability control, hill start assist, AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM, climate control, 17-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $35,195

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2009, Dodge Journey RT

2009 Dodge Journey
2009 Dodge Journey
2009 Honda Pilot
2009 Honda Pilot
towing comes standard
towing comes standard