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The Chrysler Aspen is based on the Dodge Durango, which raised the traditional-SUV bar at its launch ten years ago.
The Aspen is a Durango under a thick skin; the sheet metal is completely different, and the interior has enough material and graphic changes to look completely different. Shiny chrome and light woodgrain abound, complemented by white LED lighting, the inevitable center clock, and elegant black-on-white gauges. The suspension was also retuned for a more upscale ride.
Some changes were made for 2009, the most obvious of which was the introduction of a hybrid powertrain option, which increases the Aspen's rather poor gas mileage (which, to be fair, is par for this class of vehicle) at the cost of, well, a higher price. Chrysler has sought to make the price easier to bear by throwing every option they could think of at the Aspen hybrids, and by using the electric motors in conjunction with the Hemi to raise the horsepower rating to a respectable 385 horses - over 100 hp more than the Ford Flex. For those who tow 6,000 pounds of boat or trailer on weekends, transport six to eight people, and travel in crowded suburbs or cities during the week, the Aspen Hybrid is a pretty good deal; with some restraint, you can average 20 mpg around town, a far cry from the EPA's estimate of 13 mpg city, 18 mpg highway, for the stock Chrysler Aspen Hemi with four wheel drive.
The idea of pairing the hybrid transmission with the Hemi, rather than a V6 or a smaller V8, may seem odd to many; the Hemi is, after all, Chrysler's most powerful engine aside from the Viper V-10. There is a rationale, though — the Hemi is the only Chrysler engine (at least until 2010) with cylinder deactivation, meaning it can run on just four cylinders. The electric motors can help the engine to stay in four-cylinder mode, saving more than enough gas to make up for the bigger displacement and power of the Hemi. Attach the same system to a V6, and you'd always need to run on six cylinders while the gas engine was running; which means that, under light throttle, you'd actually be using more gas. The downside of the Hemi is that drivers with heavy feet can easily get very poor mileage indeed. It didn't take much to get our truck down to 16 mpg - which is about the same as the Ford Flex with its much smaller V6 and one ton lower towing capacity.
The hybrid powertrain has three major telltales. Chrysler replaced the tachometer with an economy gauge, which tells the driver whether he is charging the battery (coasting or hitting the brakes), running in economy mode (light throttle), or in power mode (heavy throttle). The trip computer, in Chrysler's traditional roof-mounted position, indicates FUEL SAVER when showing gas mileage, indicating whether the engine is in four cylinder mode or is off completely; and a cute display on the navigation system can be called up to show whether the engine is on and where the car is getting its power from (this one is a bit inaccurate, just as Toyota's is, and shouldn't be taken too seriously). When the engine is in four cylinder mode, the words FUEL SAVER appear and half the image of the engine is colored orange (if all eight cylinders are used, the entire engine is orange). Lines turn blue when the battery is charging, yellow when the motors are in use. This display also includes instant gas mileage, ranging from 0 mpg to 99 mpg; a lightning bolt replaces the gas mileage indicator when running on battery. You can see it for yourself in the video.
All this talk of gauges, displays, and coasting are one thing, but we must mention that the Aspen Hybrid does not require any special attention to drive normally. You can just turn the key and go, ignoring all the gadgetry. Yes, there will be times when the engine doesn't go on at first — a green READY light shows up on the dash to replace your auditory and sensory feedback — but other than that (and the odd full-throttle 0-60 runs where it feels as though there is a two-speed automatic installed), it feels just like a regular Aspen. The engine kicks in when needed without any jarring or other indications, and kicks back out again with great subtlety. The Aspen doesn't shove its hybrid-ness at you, any more than necessary. At lights the engine usually shuts off; when you hit the gas it's there without any delay. It's not unlike the MDS system — there when you need it but not intruding into your consciousness. The extra weight of the motors and battery pack also seem to be handled in stride, without any substantial effect on cornering or feel.
The powertrain had an ample reserve of power under just about any conditions, with instant-on acceleration from idle; the Aspen provided easy acceleration from any speed, though, on the highway, the feeling of power on passing maneuvers was less pronounced with the 385 horsepower Hemi Hybrid than with the previous-generation 340-horse Hemi. That is probably the CVT effect — an automatic transmission downshifts and brings about a sudden snap of power; the hybrid transmission in this vehicle smoothes out power application but applying the motors instantly, while switching smoothly to a different gear ratio. The result is more luxury-oriented power - which is to say, smoother and quieter power - without the familiar neck-snapping sensation many horsepower freaks crave. To be fair, despite the hopes of some within Chrysler (who thought that more power would be a selling point), few horsepower freaks seem to want to even think about hybrids, except to dash off some sarcastic slanders of Prius owners.
Ordering the Hemi Hybrid automatically brings four wheel drive, an automatic system with no separate low speed; a tow/haul button is integrated, Chevy-style, into the shifter. Though Chrysler didn't mention it, we'd assume it uses the power generator rather than engine braking to control descent speed on hills. When going downhill, the Aspen generated power for its batteries, causing more drag than an automatic transmission would. This was handy at times when we'd normally have to apply the brakes, but those used to easy coasting may be annoyed by the drag at first; it's somewhere between a typical automatic and a manual transmission.
The Aspen was generally comfortable; major bumps and road surface issues were cushioned, though the ride is a little busy (as you'd expect from a truck with a three ton towing capacity). Rough concrete roads were not too jiggly and overall the suspension did a good job of cushioning, if not isolating. 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, but the vent fan was noisy on anything but the lowest settings. Rear passengers benefited from the standard 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.
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, Chrysler claimed to have 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). A 48 inch span between the wheelhouses allows for easy transport of big boards.
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 bumper matches car bumpers' 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 even indiglo backlighting at night. 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 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. The cruise control, with a 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; this model seems faster than the one we tested in 2007 and was less frustrating, offering more options for choosing a destination and accepting our input without infuriating delays. It also seemed faster and better-programmed than even recent MyGIG™ systems (it's also been renamed to UConnect). As with the former MyGIG system, it provided numerous features, including a 20-GB hard drive to store gobs of music; numerous ways to access that music (playlists, random, by artist, by album, by song); and satellite radio along with CD and DVD compatibility and USB and input minijack. It sounded very good, too — clear, high-definition sound with good strong bass, not muddied as in some subwoofer-equipped cars, and not excessively bassy.
The navigation system was augmented by a 3D view and satellite-based traffic input, which displays in either list or map formats. Bluetooth phone integration was built in; you can carry on a conversation as you get in and out, and it will seamlessly transfer over to and from the car speakers and microphone as you do it.
The automatic climate control (optional and not on our test car) worked well and for large part intuitively. The system has 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.
Underneath the center stack was a bin with a removable rubber base to avoid rattles, and a nice woodgrain and 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 (though the side pressure applicators were fairly weak); a woodgrain lid flips over to cover such un-mainly accessories. The center console had two levels via a removable rubber bin.
The middle row of seats easily folded and tumbled; 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 folded and tumbled 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. 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.
We found the middle row quite comfortable in the Aspen, but the rear seat was a little low - not as bad as numerous other three-row vehicles. Getting back there was easy with the middle row flipped and folded. None of the seats in our test car were well padded — to say they were overly firm is an understatement.
The DVD system is mounted in the roof, and 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 liked the built in AC converter, which provided 110 volts of alternating current to a standard electrical plug by the middle row of seats. 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.
The EVIC, or trip computer, showed the temperature and compass heading, provided a large array of options related to lights, locking and the like, and also showed air pressure in the tires, average gas mileage, distance to empty, and such; FUEL SAVER now lights up when the Hemi is on four cylinders (or off entirely). You can see all the options in our Chrysler Aspen Hybrid video (above).
The standard rear park assist worked the conventional way, with little sensors in the rear bumper, and an array of bright amber LEDs that light up progressively as you get closer to an object. The power liftgate was also fun, again requiring two presses of the remote or a single press of an interior button.
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 standard Chrysler Aspen starts at $31,490, before hefty 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. The Limited 4WD at just $3,000 more added an upgraded interior and a variety of other features. Our 2007 model with the Hemi engine cost a whopping $43,150, including numerous options; our hybrid test car tipped the scales at $46,420. That includes just one option, the power sunroof, at $850. But the base price of this model, the Aspen Limited Hybrid, was $45,570, including destination — far cheaper than the Chevrolet Suburban hybrid but far above a typical Durango or for that matter a typical Toyota Highlander. (Our test Toyota Highlander Hybrid cost $42,054 by comparison - with far fewer options).
Chrysler seems to have looked at GM's high surcharge for the hybrid powertrain and chose to bury the cost of the hybrid system under the weight of numerous options which normally cost the customer quite a bit, but probably don't add much to the production cost. There are no options mentioned in this article. Everything was standard.
The Limited Hybrid comes with a huge supply of standard features, including side curtain airbags in all rows, four-wheel ABS, on-demand all wheel drive, rear wiper/washer, cruise, power adjustable pedals, rear backup alert and camera, rear seat entertainment system with satellite TV, nav system with satellite traffic reports, hard-drive stereo with DVD player, heated front seats, rear air conditioning and heater, dual-zone automatic front climate control, cellphone system, eight Alpine speakers with a subwoofer, LED lighting, rear defroster, wheel-mounted audio controls, auto-dimming rearview mirror, full-sized spare, fog lights, heated mirrors, and 18-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels. What's more, the normal driver memory system controls not just the seats, but also the radio, pedals, mirrors, and climate control. Throw a Cadillac label on this truck and it would sell for $10,000 more — without any need for a Hemi or a hybrid powertrain — and probably in higher numbers. Buy it as a Chrysler, and you get a bargain price for this type of vehicle. Hopefully some people who normally wouldn't buy a hybrid will be attracted by the SXT-style “load on all the features” gimmicks.
But what if you don't need to tow 6,000 pounds, or take advantage of the body-on-frame architecture of the Aspen Hybrid? Well, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is around the same price — pricier if equipped with all the same goodies, a bit less overall — and with just a little less interior space, but the ability to get 33 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. That's a pretty big difference.
Within its class, the Aspen is a strong achievement. We 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 Town & Country is probably a better choice, since it was 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 could be a more satisfying drive, and the hybrid powertrain adds that little bit of fun gadgetry — and just enough extra gas mileage to make it practical.
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