The Chrysler Aspen is based on the Dodge Durango, which raised the bar for full-sized SUVs when introduced - but which has sold rather poorly, the victim of bad timing, odd looks, and inept marketing. The Aspen is very similar mechanically, but has completely different looks, which were imitated by the Ford Explorer (or vice versa); likewise, the interior has gone through a complete transformation, with extensive use of shiny chrome, the inevitable analog clock, and white LED lighting, the newest addition to the company's stable of gimmicks. The gap between Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango seems larger than the gaps between the Ford/Lincoln or prior-generation Chevy/Cadillac trucks.
The Aspen was, with one noticeable exception, comfortable; major bumps and road surface issues were filtered out effectively, with rough concrete roads failing to disturb the passengers. The ride was not unpleasant for long trips, and seemed softer than the Durango, albeit more prone to bouncing after major bumps. The Aspen felt as though it wants to be treated like a car rather than a truck, but turning too fast quickly revealed the weight on those big tires, though control remained surprisingly good; emergency moves were taken easily and with better than expected results. We were also pleasantly surprised by the wet weather traction, braking, turning radius, and resistance to severe crosswinds; making the Chrysler Aspen unstable calls for unusually nasty stuff. In short, if you don't start doing sports-car stunts, the Aspen will probably please you with its cornering.
Road and wind noise were filtered out well. Rear passengers benefited from the standard (on Limited) rear air conditioning with heater, that can be shut off or controlled from the front or the rear. The engine warmed up quickly and provided strong heat through a system that works well on automatic, even providing notice when it is waiting for the engine to warm up.
The base engine is a 230 horsepower 4.7 that provides good power. Amazingly, the optional 335 horsepower Hemi - which features pushrods rather than an overhead valve and two valves per cylinder instead of the usual four - not only pushes out more power than most competitors, but does so with better mileage. The Hemi had an ample reserve of power under just about any conditions, providing effortless, easy, rapid acceleration from any speed, no matter what gear it found itself in (the rapid downshifting of the five-speed automatic helps.) Ordering the Hemi brings the two-speed transfer case for free, and for no apparent reason; it costs around 1 mpg (but moves the buyer up to midgrade fuel, from the 4.7's regular gas) but adds 115 horsepower, 70 lb-ft of torque, and about 1,500 pounds of towing capacity. Both engines use five-speed automatics.
The engine was coupled to a transmission programmed for soft shifts (a torque management system subtly reduces engine power during shifts for added smoothness). The result is that full throttle shifting was just about as smooth as leisurely shifting. Acceleration remained instant and strong, with quick but padded downshifts. The engine was fairly quiet but always ready to rumble. A Tow/Haul feature provides crisper shifts and holds a lower gear longer; it also downshifts earlier when going down hills to provide engine braking.
Visibility was surprisingly good, with effective demisters, front wipers that operate on a cam system to clear just about the entire windshield, and a rear wiper that is equally effective. While we'd like the rearmost window to extend downwards more, the rear quarters are not too large and present a relatively small blind spot compared with other vehicles. As with any large truck, drivers must be cautious of those they simply can't see. Headlights were bright and well focused, with a clear cut point that may help to avoid blinding oncoming traffic; and sun visors slid along their mounts to cover an impressively wide area.
There are three rows of seats to hold eight people. With the rearmost seat folded, there is more cargo room in the Chrysler Aspen than in the Chevy Tahoe, Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada, or Toyota Sequoia (main competitors are supposedly the Yukon, Expedition, and Sequoia; it's cheaper than any of those three by a big margin, though similarly sized). In addition, there are 48 inches between the wheelhouses, so you can fit those four-foot boards in.
Safety features include repairable crush areas, the largest brakes in its class, standard ABS, an optional side curtain airbag system that protects all three rows, and a system that will not fire the front passenger airbag at grocery bags or small children. The Durango passed a severe 50 mph rear offset impact crash test, and we expect the Aspen to do the same. The bumper matches car bumper height, and is designed to engage the crash protection structure of a car in an accident, rather than missing a car's crash barriers and hitting the occupants directly. Finally, there is now Electronic Roll Mitigation standard; it prevents rollovers in conjunction with the stability control, and can use individual brakes as needed.
The instrument panel was attractive and effective, with indiglo backlighting at night and a thick pointer to make readings clear. The speedometer had an easy, intuitive scale (0 to 120, with 60 right at the top) and large numbers, making it easy to read. The tachometer, gas gauge and fuel gauge were all large, easy to read, and attractive. The digital odometer and PRNDL were neatly tucked away underneath the gauges, which were outlined in a bright silver. Chrome door handles and bezels added nice touches to the plastic that made up most of the interior.
Most of the controls were sensible and easy to figure out and use, including the GM-style tow/haul button tucked into the end of the gearshift (it appears to be the exact same piece used in GM trucks, which wouldn't be a huge surprise, since Chrysler does buy from Delphi, the former GM parts division). The cruise control, complete with prominent cancel button, is built into the steering wheel, while the all wheel drive control is a knob on the dash. The normal black cruise buttons are chrome on the Limited.
Our test vehicle included a navigation system; for some reason, none of these systems seem to have gone through ergonomics testing, but this one is relatively decent. Picking out a name or address was a bit hard, because the system reacts moderately slowly and requires you to spin the cursor through the alphabet and then press not the knob, but a button beneath it. On the other hand, it provides all the usual navigation system benefits, and the setup doesn't interfere with normal radio tuning (as so many do).
The automatic climate control (optional and not on our test car) works well and for large part intuitively, but the cluster of eight buttons with an identical feel can distract the driver from the road, and it takes time to get used to control of the rear vents. Apart from that, the system works well, with large temperature and fan control buttons, an automatic mode, and the odd choice of integrating the rear wiper/washer as a knob in the bottom right of the climate control panel. Even at the highest fan setting, the system is not overly noisy, thanks to a large number of vents - all of which are easy to close, though the center vents cannot be moved from side to side. Our test car had the manual climate control, which was easy to use, with a big slider for cold-to-hot and traditional truck rotary knobs for vent and fan (with a pushbutton to engage the air conditioner).
Underneath the center stack is a bins with a removable rubber base to avoid rattles, and a nice woodgrain and dull silver lid, holding a well-designed three-coin dispenser which looks forward to the day when the penny is finally eradicated. The dual front cupholders are fairly primitive but deep enough to work; a woodgrain lid flips over to cover such un-mainly accessories. The center console has two levels via a removable rubber bin.
The middle row of seats is rather clever, not just because they easily fold and tumble, but also because (in eight passenger versions) when the center seat is not in use, it can be folded down to expose two cupholders and a handy armrest. The left and right seats fold and tumble independently for easy access to the rearmost seats. In an unusually sensible move, Chrysler made the middle row seat belts height-adjustable, just like the front row. The middle row also has its own stereo speakers for high fidelity - both woofer and tweeters, so stereo is separated well. What's more, getting into the middle and rear seats is easy, thanks to doors that open 90 degrees - and aren't so big as to make that a liability.
While our test Durango was an eight passenger, our test Aspen was a seven passenger (it's also available with eight seats). We found the middle row quite comfortable in the Aspen, but the rear seat was a little low - not as bad as the Sienna or numerous other three row vehicles - and on the left side, we could bump our head against the extra seat belt. Getting back there was easy with the middle row flipped and folded. None of the seats in our test car were particularly well padded; firm seems to be the order of the day, seats that look good but may not feel good.
While they look as though they are for children, the rearmost seats are surprisingly comfortable, with decent padding and legroom for average people. Taller passengers should stick to the middle and front row, though. We'd estimate six feet to be the comfortable maximum size, with five foot nine being better for long trips (depending on the passenger's leg-to-trunk ratio). Shoulder room is good in all three rows (though the middle row, when three people are in it, may be a bit tight). The rearmost row flips forward very easily, with the handle built into the seat itself.
The optional DVD system is mounted in the roof, where you can hit your head against it, but it can't be kicked by your kids. It includes two sets of wireless headphones and jacks for remote input (e.g. a portable VCR or video camera.) The headphones can be stored in the big bin between the middle seats. We also liked the built in AC converter, which provided 110 volts of alternating current to a standard electrical plug by the middle row of seats, above cupholders - so you could, as we did, charge your phone using a standard charger (or, more likely, plug in some portable entertainment system). The outlet has to be switched on, for safety reasons, but remembers its setting; it also has a spring loaded cover. We wish they were half as careful with with the 12-volt outlets, but then, we also wish they placed the amber "AC on" light somewhere we could see it. That brings up backlighting of controls - most are lit, but the rear window lock is a big exception, as are the EVIC buttons.
That brings up the EVIC, or trip computer. It provides the temperature and compass heading, lets you set a large array of options related to lights, locking and the like, and also shows air pressure in the tires, average gas mileage, distance to empty, and such. It's very useful but the controls were recently redesigned, making it a bit more confusing to use.
The standard (on Limited) rear park assist works the conventional way, with little sensors in the rear bumper; our test car provided visual alarms only (we suspect that's customizable), with an array of bright amber LEDs that light up progressively as you get closer to an object. Two LEDs, one on each side of the display, light up immediately when you go into reverse to show that the system is working and get your eye focused in the right place.
Another cool feature, built-in remote starting, is a little more convenient than GM's system because it requires one less step; just press twice on the remote starter, and the doors lock and the engine starts (GM requires you to lock the doors first). The power liftgate is also fun, again requiring two presses of the remote or a single press of an interior button. The liftgate doesn't have a close button nearby - just up in front and on the fob.
Inside, the LED lights make the interior lighting cool at night, in two ways: they generate very little heat (reducing wear on the components and wiring over the course of the decades), but mainly, the pure white light is fashionable. The lights keep Chrysler's friendly push-to-activate built in switches, while adding swivels to the mix; every light can be swiveled except the main dome lights. There are extra lights under the dashboard on both driver and passenger sides.
Once again, it was easy to get stored computer fault codes; the Chrysler/Jeep system only has you move from Run to Off three times, slowly but not too slowly, then it blinks codes (if any) on the odometer followed by "Done." It now gives standard industry codes which are easy to look up on the Internet. When the Aspen is old, that can be very helpful in diagnosis - or keeping mechanics honest.
The Aspen starts at $31,490, a price that is likely to be mitigated with various discounts and rebates. At that price, you get the V8 engine, four-speaker CD, power driver's seat, a huge array of safety features, and many conveniences. On the other hand, you can splurge for the Limited 4WD, which is just about $3,000 more at $34,265, but comes with an upgraded interior and a variety of other features. The Limited comes with three rows of seats, all split, to accommodate 8 people; the electronic stability system, side curtain airbags for all rows, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, alarm and remote, secure keys, rear park assist - definitely a feature to order if you get a base model! - and rear window defroster, wiper, and washer. That's a good batch of safety equipment.
SUV type features standard on Limited 4WD include full-time four wheel drive with a single-speed electronic transfer case (no low gear), a 27 gallon gas tank, tire pressure monitor with warning signal, AC outlet, the vehicle information center, big power heated fold-away mirrors, and fog lamps. Luxury type features include a power liftgate taken directly from the minivans, tilt wheel, all sorts of interior lighting, universal garage door opener, power windows with express up and down modes in front, power locks and front seats, variable wipers, and 18-inch aluminum wheels.
You may wonder why many journalists are reporting prices over $40,000. Well, our sticker came to $43,150, and that's due to a large number of options, some of which are more frivolous than others. In the cosmetics category, we have the uncomfortable leather seats at $875, metallic paint at $150, sunroof at $850, accent-color (in our case, black) and running boards, $445. In the audio-video category, we have the six Alpine speakers with 276 watt amp ($400), satellite radio ($200), UConnect ($360), and rear-seat video ($1,200). Then we have the navigation system at an astonishing $1,600. The second-row bucket seats cost $700; the Hemi, which reportedly costs less to build than the 4.7, comes in at a cool $1,190. Finally, we have the utility stuff - skid plates and tow hooks at $170, trailer towing at $455, power adjustable pedals at $120, and the remote starter at $185. With all this stuff - the Aspen is still a bargain compared with the Escalade or a Lincoln SUV.
All told, the Aspen is a surprisingly strong achievement which, unfortunately, seems to have fallen prey to many auto writers’ inability to look past the nameplate (by the way, you may have noticed we didn't say all sorts of bad things about the Dodge Aspen, which, after a terrible first year, turned out to be very reliable for most owners). We really, really liked the upscale look of the interior, especially from the driver's seat (passengers get the usual acres of plastic). If you need to tow a trailer or carry very heavy loads on a regular basis, it might be the best answer. On the other hand, if all you need is room for five to seven people, the Chrysler Pacifica or Town & Country are probably better choices, since they were designed to haul people, and the Aspen was designed to haul cargo, albeit in style. Regardless, if you were looking at the Expedition, Tahoe, Explorer, or even the Escalade, the Chrysler Aspen is a more satisfying drive.
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