Introduced for the 2007 model year, the Chrysler Aspen is based on the Dodge Durango. Aspen shares Durango's size and mechanicals, the main differences being styling, interior and tuning. Both use truck chassis and engineering, giving them the advantages of a cavernous interior and the ability to tow trailers (up to 8,900 pounds).
Aspen's electronic stability control system incorporates a new feature designed to control trailer sway.
Two V8 engines are available, a 4.7-liter flex-fuel V8 that gains 68 hp for 2008 for a total of 303 horsepower, and a 335-hp 5.7-liter V8. The 4.7-liter can run on regular gasoline or E85 (a blend of 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol). The 5.7-liter Hemi uses Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System, which conserves fuel by shutting off half the cylinders when the engine is running under a light load. Buyers can choose between rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive with either engine.
Both powertrains earn decent fuel economy ratings by the federal government, either matching the competition or at worst giving up no more than one or two miles per gallon, even in the revised system the EPA uses for the 2008 model year.
Aspen is a nice-looking SUV with styling that features Chrysler's traditional but subdued egg-crate grille, mildly curvaceous bodylines reminiscent of the Dodge Durango, and an attractively sculpted tailgate. The wheel wells are filled with good-looking 18-inch alloy wheels or optional 20-inch chrome rims.
Aspen accommodates seven or eight passengers, depending on the seating configuration. Three rows of seats are standard, starting with front buckets, a second-row bench and a third-row bench. Buckets are optional for the second row to reduce seating to seven.
The interior blends elegant-looking, satin-finish metallic accents with woodgrain trim on the dash and center console. The standard upholstery is Chrysler's trademarked Yes Essentials fabric that resists stains and odors. Leather trim is optional and all of the usual power and personalization features are available.
In addition to the upgraded 4.7-liter V8, Aspen gets new safety and entertainment features for 2008. Chrysler's MyGIG radio, which includes a 20-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures, and navigation system map information, is available, as is a rear backup camera.
Chrysler Aspen Limited 2WD ($32,005); Limited 4WD ($34,880)
The grille, with bold crossbars and classic Chrysler medallion, attempts to stake a claim for the Aspen at the top of the brand's pyramid. Strangely, low-key headlamp units diminish the claim, which isn't helped by the bland bumper and generic fog lamps.
Embossed strakes in the hood run back to the windshield and carry on the newest Chrysler-brand styling motif. This styling element, which first appeared on the Chrysler Crossfire and then the redesigned Sebring, is seemingly inspired by the jewel-like cap on the famous Chrysler Building in New York City.
The side view offers the proportions and features typical for a traditional SUV. The swept-back windshield looks sleek and shows homage to aerodynamics. The optional running boards do a better job of dirtying trousers and long skirts than serving as truly functional steps. Mildly creased, visually pleasant blisters circle the wheelwell openings. A chrome-topped, overstated molding strip pulls double duty, breaking up the expanse of metal between the front and rear wheel cutouts while insulating the doors against parking lot dings. Side mirrors proudly perch on brackets extending from the base of the A-pillars (the side frames of the windshield). A slight ridge defining the beltline (where the side windows meet the lower body panels) extends beyond the base of the rear pillars, accenting the graceful outline of the rear quarter windows. A short front overhang and tucked-up lower hindquarters invite thoughts of venturing off the highway to explore an unpaved track.
It's the rear aspect of the Aspen that has the most presence, the view most will have of it in traffic. A strong rear bumper with a deep, non-skid clad step cups the one-piece liftgate. Chrome-like trim on the bumper's end caps tie into the side molding strip. The medallion-and-wing treatment from the grille repeats above the stylized license plate recess. Gently bowed sides and a rounded top give the back end a smaller, less massive look than the rest of the vehicle. A conservatively sized notch centered in the bumper's lower edge makes room for the optional hitch receiver and junction box.
The satin-finish metal accents and wood-like trim give the interior an elegant touch, as does the silver-ringed, old-fashioned style clock tucked into a recess in the top-center of the dash. The woodgrain looks better than it feels, however, as do the expanses of textured plastic panels, which are hard to the touch and replete with seams that pose threats of squeaks and buzzes as the miles rack up. Where there's padding, it's noticeably thin. The symmetry of shapes and simplicity of features and controls for the stereo, air conditioning and navigation systems are pluses that partially counter some of the questionable elements.
The front seats are supportive, with adequate bottom and side bolsters for the Aspen's intended use. The fabric upholstery is more comfortable than the somewhat stiff leather. The pivot point for the front seatbacks' recline is positioned above the seat bottom, much like the seats on those regional commuter jets; reclining in the seat requires sliding one's posterior forward on the bottom cushion, effectively shortening the seat bottom and reducing thigh support.
The laid-back windshield pushes the dash, and with it the steering wheel, close enough to the driver that the adjustable pedals are strongly recommended. The adjustable pedals will permit short-stature drivers to sit far enough from the steering wheel to maintain the recommended safe distance from the steering wheel airbag. And the dead pedal against which drivers might want to brace their left foot while navigating sharp turns is somewhere up near the front bumper and useless for anybody not as tall as, say, Lebron James.
The low roofline limits visibility from the inside. The tinted rear glass enhances the image on the rear-seat entertainment system's drop-down video screen, but limits the driver's view somewhat. When deployed, the rear-seat video screen reduces visibility through the rearview mirror.
Second-row legroom trails the competition (Ford Expedition, Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Nissan Armada, Toyota Sequoia) by one to four inches. Knee room for back-seat riders is cramped when the front seat is comfortably positioned for a 6-foot driver. Getting in and out of the second row is easy. The back doors swing open a welcoming 84 degrees and leave space enough in their lower reaches for all but NBA-size shoes.
The third-row seats compare well with the competition. The flop-and-flip second-row seats make access to the third row easy. In headroom, the Aspen's back row tops all but the Sequoia. Its legroom handily bests all but the Expedition. Hip room and foot room in the third row is relatively tight, however, especially in the center position, the automotive equivalent to the center seat in the back of a plane.
Cargo space is plentiful. With the third row folded, the Aspen's 68.4 cu. ft. of cargo tops the competition. Fold and flip everything behind the front seat and the Aspen's 102.4 cu. ft. is average when compared with the other full-size SUVs.
Cubby storage is about par for the class. Each row of seats gets at least two cupholders. The front doors have fixed, hard plastic map pockets. The backside of the driver's seat has a pouch for magazines. The glove box is adequate, but the undamped door can crack the shins of an unwary front passenger. The front center console lid is hinged on the right-hand side, making access difficult for the front seat passenger.
Aspen has imported some features from the German side of the DaimlerChrysler family. One is tip start, which requires only a twist and release of the key to start the engine. Another is a one-touch lane-change function on the turn signals, where touching and releasing the lever pro
Ride and handling are average. The Aspen is tall, heavy and narrow. The ride tends to the springy end of the scale, and the Aspen loses composure around curves. The available 20-inch wheels with fatter tires stick better than the base model's taller tires and 18-inch wheels at the price of a slightly harsher, but no less bouncy, ride.
Chrysler has upgraded the 4.7-liter V8 for 2008, boosting it from 235 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque to 303 hp and 330 pound-feet of torque. The 4.7-liter does a better job of moving the Aspen than the old version, but it still struggles to provide passing punch in this heavy SUV. With the 4.7-liter V8, the Aspen can pull up to 5900 pounds.
The 5.7-liter Hemi moves the Aspen well from a stop and provides decent passing power, but it runs out of breath on the far side of 80 miles per hour. However, the torque rating promises it can pull 8900 pounds.
Neither engine is frugal. Thanks to Chrysler's Multi-Displacement System, which shuts down four cylinders when they're not needed, the Hemi gets slightly better fuel economy than the 4.7, at 13 mpg City and 19 Highway for 2WD models vs 13/18. Those numbers may be unappealing given today's high fuel prices, but they match those of truck-based large SUV competitors.
Towing trailers long distances should be eased by a feature Chrysler calls Trailer Sway Control. This system senses trailer sway and employs the electronic stability control to apply tiny amounts of brake pressure selectively to individual wheels and to reduce engine torque to counter trailer-induced yaw. We haven't hooked a trailer to an Aspen, but the concept is logical and impressive and we'd assume it works as intended.
If you don't intend to tow with your Aspen, you may wish to consider one of the new generation of seven-passenger crossover SUVs. These vehicles offer better ride and handling characteristics, as well as improved fuel economy, with the same type of cargo capacity.
The 2008 Chrysler Aspen is a competent full-size SUV that offers the hauling and towing capability of a truck. In snapshot comparisons with the competition, the Expedition feels roomier, the Tahoe/Yukon rides and handles better, the Armada feels, and is, heavier, and the Sequoia feels better put together. Aspen also faces competition from more carlike crossover SUVs with comparable cargo utility. If you need a large SUV for towing, the Aspen is a fine choice. If not, a crossover SUV will provide a more carlike driving experience and deliver better fuel economy.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Palm Springs, California, and correspondent Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.