Cars: The magnificent seven-seaters

Cooler than minivans, smaller than SUVs, a new generation of crossover vehicles is taking to the streets.



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We all know the pain of rising gas prices, but nobody feels it more than the owners of gas-guzzling SUVs and minivans. Chris Foster of Bradford, Ont., was one of those people — so he did something about it. This past July, he decided to trade in the family minivan for a 2009 Dodge Journey.

“We’ve always been van people, but my wife was tired of driving something so big and cumbersome,” says Foster, a 48-year-old parks planner for the City of Toronto. His family of five chose the four-cylinder SE version of the 2009 Dodge Journey, a seven-seater with a price just under $22,000. Foster says they have no regrets. “We love it. It seems to be good on fuel, the value for money is excellent and it’s a real head turner.”

The Journey isn’t the only crossover vehicle aimed at people who are looking for smaller, more fuel-efficient alternatives to minivans and SUVs. The other new kid in town is the Ford Flex. Bigger and pricier than the Journey, it too carries up to seven people in three rows of flexible seating. Which one is the better choice? To find out, we spent a week in each of them.

2009 Ford Flex ($33,354 to $40,474)

What’s best: cargo space, looks

What’s worst: fuel economy, price

As its name implies, the Flex is a Transformer- like vehicle capable of hauling six or seven adults in comfort or, alternatively, carrying a whole lot of gear. Lookswise, this is a very big box on wheels — think of a stretched Honda Element on steroids. The two-tone roof in either white or silver is optional, but if you’re buying something so dramatic you might as well go all out and splurge on the spectacle.

Once you open the massive doors (not so great in tight parking spots) the drama continues. Carpeted footrests speak to the generous amount of legroom in the second row and even the third row offers plenty of space for full-sized feet. Unlike the Journey, Flex buyers have the choice of either a second row bench seat that seats three, or two bucket seats. But just like the Journey, all passenger seats fold flat to max out the cargo capacity. To allow you entry into the last row, the Flex performs the neat trick of folding and sliding the second row forwards at the touch of a button.

To justify its hefty price tag, the Flex comes equipped with such luxuries as a power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats and a Sirius satellite radio. And if that’s not enough, you can also pick amenities like a refrigerator between the rear seats, a panorama sunroof with three skylights, Ford’s Sync media entertainment system and a rear back-up camera.

Powering all this is a single engine choice, the same 3.5-L V6 engine found in the Ford Edge. Problem is, it sucks back 12.6 L/100 km in the city and 8.4 L/100 km on the highway. If you choose the all-wheel drive model, the fuel consumption jumps to 13.5 L/100 km city and 9.2 L/100 km highway. Anyone concerned with those numbers might want to wait until Ford adds its new Ecoboost engine to the Flex lineup for 2010. It promises to deliver more power with less fuel.

2009 Dodge Journey ($19,495 to $27,495)

What’s best: price, fuel economy

What’s worst: less space than a minivan

The Journey aims to deliver bang for your buck and largely it succeeds. Though not as cavernous as a minivan, the Journey is definitely more stylish. Inside, it can carry up to seven people with the optional Flexible Seating Package (a $1,175 upgrade). The package not only adds a third row of seats, but also upgrades the second row with seats that fold down and slide forward. Larger adults should avoid the third row, but kids and smaller grown-ups can climb into the back with little trouble. The back seats split and fold flat to allow bulky items to be carried easily.

You have two engine choices. The 2.4-L four-cylinder promises to be as economical with fuel as a full-sized sedan, sipping 11 L/100 km in the city and 7.9 L/100 km on the highway. The brawnier 3.5-L V6 is rated at 13.5 L/100 km in urban settings and 8.6 L/100 km at highway speeds. If you spend most of your driving time stopped at red lights, the bigger engine offers no real savings over most SUVs or minivans. However, the highway rating for the V6 is almost on par with the smaller four-cylinder engine thanks to its easy cruising six-speed transmission. All-wheel drive is also offered, but only on the more expensive, V6-powered SXT and R/T models (starting at $23,495 and $27,495, respectively).

The Journey comes loaded with smart storage ideas, such as a hidden compartment under the cushion in the front passenger seat. There are also removable bins in the floor that can hold up to 12 pop cans. If your kids tend to spill their drinks, you can upgrade to stain- and odor-resistant seat fabric. You can also choose from among a host of entertainment upgrades, including Chrysler’s elaborate MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment System. It features a 30-GB hard drive, a Sirius satellite radio and an MP3 player.

Safety features abound. Every Journey comes with a full array of front and side air bags, as well as a standard electronic stability control system. The Journey also offers you the option of integrated child booster seats in the second row, a first in the mid-size crossover segment.

The verdict: The Flex is definitely dramatic. But because it’s bigger than the Journey in almost every way, it struck us as too fuel hungry and expensive to appeal to most downsizers. The four-cylinder Journey, however, could be a winner with its combination of ample space, thrifty fuel bills and low sticker price. Before choosing either, you should also test drive the Kia Rondo and Mazda5 that we covered in our October 2007 issue — they, too, provide good alternatives for people who want a smaller alternative to a minivan or SUV.

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